Becky Hammon just became the first head coach in WNBA history to win a championship in her debut season as a head coach. Technically, Van Chancellor also did so in 1997, but that was the WNBA’s first year, and Chancellor had been working as a head coach for many years before that, just not at the professional level.
Hammon also became the second person in league history to win a title as a head coach after playing in the WNBA, joining Sandy Brondello, though Hammon is the first to do so with the franchise she played for. The player-coach pipeline is something the league deliberately worked to expand in recent years, and in 2022, that pipeline has had its crowning moment.
Half of the WNBA’s 12 teams employed a former player as head coach this season. The six total coaches (Brondello, Hammon, Vickie Johnson, Vanessa Nygaard, Noelle Quinn, and Tanisha Wright) were by far the most in league history; the WNBA had as many as 16 teams, but the number of former players occupying the head coaching ranks has never exceeded three before this season.
Two years ago, the league implemented a rule that allowed teams to carry three assistant coaches instead of two, provided one of the coaches was a former player, and the dominos have been falling quickly ever since. Of the player head coaches in 2022, five of them were WNBA assistants first, and four held that role within the last two seasons.
“I know for me, it’s something and others in this league, that we have asked for, as women, as women of color that we didn’t understand the lack of representation for years,” Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve said. “And we sort of had to kind of kick and scream about it and pull it to where it is. And it happened fast.”
At her pre-Finals press conference, commissioner Cathy Engelbert noted that it was a priority to increase the diversity of front offices, and part of that effort involves getting players in leadership positions.
“One of the things we do at every Board of Governors meeting that we have with our WNBA ownership groups is talk about the diversity of our front office and our back office because we are extremely diverse in the player ranks, and again, I am really proud that now we have six our of 12 of our head coaches are coaches of color and seven out of 12 of our coaches are women,” Engelbert said. “I think there are only a few when I came into the league. So just that constant focus, and this is the owners. The owners are stepping up and making sure that their focus is on diversity.”
Another individual who Reeve believes deserves credit is Bill Laimbeer for being one of the pioneers of having former players on his coaching bench. Three 2022 head coaches were assistants for Laimbeer on the Aces: Johnson in Dallas, Wright in Atlanta, and Nygaard in Phoenix; that doesn’t even include Katie Smith, who earned her first head coaching job for the Liberty after learning as an assistant under Laimbeer in New York.
Getting players in those seats on the bench puts them first in line when head coaching positions open, something Reeve noticed when her male assistants quickly got poached for the big job.
“With the Lynx. I had hired a couple of men, one was a black man, one was a white man,” Reeve said. “James (Wade) was incredibly qualified when he got his opportunity. It was a no-brainer. It was a great situation for him, and look how well he’s done. But my other assistant coach was nowhere near as qualified as many people, many women. And if the qualifications were as low as they were for that hire, then there was a lot of people that were qualified for that position, and so I think it was a real eye-opener for me. I understood, that what I do, you know, but that was really eye-opening, I gotta tell you. I had two men, and I’m going bang bang, they were able to get opportunities. And so we committed to hiring women. And so Katie and Plenette (Pierson), Plenette moved on to the college game, but Katie, Plenette, and Rebekkah (Brunson). If it stood to reason that James and Walt could get a job so quickly, well then they’re the next people up, so let’s see what happens.”
As Reeve waits for her staff to reach their next steps, she and coaches around the league are excited by the women who have already made the jump. Brondello told Swish Appeal it gives her joy as a former player to see her fellow sistren getting these opportunities. Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said it was healthy for the league to have younger coaches who are “open to a lot of ideas”.
Chicago head coach James Wade — who wanted to emphasize that he belongs with this new wave of younger coaches because he was a practice player and is married to a former WNBA player, Edwige Lawson-Wade — thinks that having coaches who have even played with the players they are coaching makes the relationship more of a partnership, which helps them motivate their players and bring out the best in them.
It makes sense, then, that players are similarly on board with this hiring trend because it helps them connect with their coaches. As 2022 MVP A’ja Wilson told Bleacher Report, “[Hammon] can relate to us because she sat in that locker room before, and she knows how it feels in a timeout during a clutch game.” Sabrina Ionescu, who is in her first year playing under Brondello after two years with Walt Hopkins, shared a similar sentiment with Swish Appeal.
“I think that’s really helped just having a coach that has played at the highest level and knows kind of the ins and outs of what it feels like, practice, when you lose, when you win,” the Liberty All-Star said. “People from the outside don’t know really what it feels like, going through wins, losses, facing adversity, even on an individual level, like a player level, with pressure and dealing with injuries and all that stuff if you haven’t really gone through it. So I think it does definitely help and just adds to why [Brondello]’s such a great coach in this league.”
Kayla Thornton, who played the last two seasons under Johnson in Dallas, added that in addition to feeling comfortable being coached by VJ, it’s a bright spot for the league as a whole to create space for its former players. Considering the financial reality of being a female professional athlete, having a place to return to post-retirement is beneficial on several fronts.
“I think it’s good, especially for women, that we’re able to know that once we’re done playing we can also come back, we have another platform to come back and to give back to what our teachers taught us, our coaches, and come back to the WNBA and be able to work and still be in the WNBA family,” Thornton said.
That feeling of being part of the WNBA family is part of what drew Hammon back to the league, even after she was working towards earning a head coaching job in the NBA.
“Obviously, the WNBA is home for all of us, and so when we come back to it, it feels like home, it feels natural,” Hammon said after winning 2022 coach of the year. “For me, having been gone for eight years, and being able to learn under arguably the greatest coach ever, just really helped give me a really good foundation to come back and give back and invest not only in the WNBA, but invest in my players individually, collectively. So it’s been a really fun journey for me. I’ve said this before, but this is one of the best decisions I ever made was to come here and coach these women.”
But while Hammon was set up for success in Las Vegas with a former MVP in Wilson; three Olympians in Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young; a two-time former sixth player of the year, Dearica Hamby; and an owner that invested as much as possible into the coach and the rest of the franchise, other coaches don’t land in the same safety net.
Johnson is out after two years in Dallas where the president of basketball operations goes through coaches like water. Nygaard faced more obstacles than any first-year coach in any sport in recent memory even excluding the wrongful detention of Brittney Griner, as she had to navigate a power struggle between her two best players, and deal with a former superstar who asked out, all while the team’s owner was being investigated for inappropriate conduct. Wright and Quinn seem safe for now, but even Seattle is in a precarious position with only two players under contract for next season.
“I think it’s wonderful for the league. There is tremendous x’s and o’s knowledge by these elite players, and to have a path to stay involved in this league is a great thing in the long run for our league,” Connecticut head coach Curt Miller said. “I just hope that franchises, our league does the right thing and prepare them for opportunities and not propel them before they’re ready because then they could all of sudden lose out if they don’t have instant success. There’s not great security in this league. And so it’s really exciting, but, you know, I’m included. We need to prepare this next wave of players transitioning from the court playing side to the coaching sidelines.”
There are currently three head coaching positions open for the 2023 season (Dallas, Indiana, and Los Angeles) and potentially another two on the horizon in 2024 if two expansion teams do indeed come to the WNBA. That means more and more opportunities for former players to get a shot in a new role.
Hammon has proven that former players can excel at this job when given the chance with a championship in her first season, not to mention a Commissioner’s Cup title, All-Star game victory, and no. 1 overall seed. Quinn had the Storm playing as well as anyone at the end of the season, and no one would have been surprised had her squad managed to knock off the Aces in the WNBA semifinals. Wright was second in coach of the year voting and players have been lavishing her with praise in her rookie campaign.
Their success suggests that the league should have been embracing its base of former players for a long time. No time like the present for franchises currently seeking new leadership.
“It’s great to see and you know, frankly, it’s about time,” Reeve said. “We should celebrate it, yes. At the same time, it kind of goes with what should have been happening. So we got to make sure that we’re continuing to move in that direction. And it’s great for everyone. It’s great for players to be led by women and women of color. Everyone’s talked about that. You know, I don’t think it’s about excluding anyone. It’s just more about there’s been so few opportunities, and now we’re finally getting to a place where we’re a little more represented, which is great.”