By DOUG FEINBERG
AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — When Becky Hammon knew it was time to leave the NBA last winter after being an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs for eight seasons, she was faced with a tough choice.
She had to choose between the two WNBA franchises she once played for, and both lobbied hard to make her their head coach.
“It was either going to be Vegas or New York,” the Aces coach said recently after a practice in New York. “I felt it was time for me to leave and to grow and have a different challenge. It was one or the other. By mid-December, I was like for sure I’m getting off this NBA path right now.”
She had been a candidate for a few NBA head coaching jobs over the last few years, but never got them. She also had received some college offers in the past, as well as other assistant jobs in the NBA, but turned them down.
“This is way more advantageous and more beneficial for me than go be an assistant coach in Sacramento or Oklahoma City or some other (NBA) team,” Hammon said.
The former Liberty guard acknowledged it was tough to say no to New York owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, saying she was really close to taking the job in the Big Apple.
Still, the 45-year-old Hammon has no regrets with her choice and becoming the first WNBA coach to command a million dollar annual salary.
“It’s been one of the best decisions of my life. I absolutely love it,” said Hammon, who was one of the All-Star coaches in Chicago last weekend.
Las Vegas got off to a great start, winning 13 of its first 15 games before hitting a skid ahead of the All-Star break, with five losses in seven games. The Aces swept New York in the two games after the break.
“No one said it was going to be easy. If being great was easy, everyone would be doing it,” Hammon said. “You have to hit some adversity. There should be some hiccups. We came out like a rocket and then hit some rough patches.
“The adversity will be beneficial to us more than the win-loss record down the road.”
Whether things were going well or when the team was struggling, Hammon said she talked with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich a few times a week, either via text or on the phone.
“The other day, I talked to him for an hour. He watches all our games,” she said. “He tells me what he sees and what he thinks. That line of communication is very open.”
So is the communication with her team.
Point guard Chelsea Gray said one of the biggest aspects Hammon has brought to the team is accountability — which is certainly a Popovich trait.
“She is holding everyone accountable top to bottom,” Gray said. “It didn’t take her any time to do that and be completely honest with us.”
Hammon’s coaching style has helped guard Kelsey Plum, who is having the best season of her WNBA career while averaging 20 points and 5.5 assists. The two connected last year when Hammon was in Las Vegas for a few days. They worked out and the 5-foot-6 Hammon gave the 5-8 Plum some tips on finishing in the lane.
“I had no idea that she’d be coaching me this year,” Plum said. “She’s been where we are, which helps.”
Plum also noticed some teams are already starting to incorporate some of Hammon’s coaching ideas. Las Vegas was one of the first teams to start playing a zone defense, and New York tried it Tuesday night against the Aces.
“I think people are starting to steal some of her stuff,” Plum said. “People are taking some of our sets on offense, too. It’s great to see her making such an impact already.”
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