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Becky Hammon rises above doubters to win WNBA championship

Becky Hammon is the first coach in WNBA history to win a title in her debut season. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — It’s hard to imagine not betting on Becky Hammon.

She’s been successful at every level of basketball: As a high schooler in South Dakota, in college at Colorado State, in the WNBA, and as an NBA assistant for the Spurs.

But at every step, she was overlooked.

When it came time for college recruiting, Hammon was referred to as “small and slow.” Then, after a record-setting career at Colorado State, she went undrafted in the WNBA in 1999. She was even passed over for a spot on Team USA in 2008 after earning a multitude of WNBA accolades.

“I’m used to people not picking me,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re aware.”

Hammon has proved doubters wrong every time, and yet when she was ready to move on from being a Spurs assistant and become a head coach, the NBA made the same mistake.

For Hammon, it didn’t matter that the league she’d been successful in for eight years didn’t want her to make the next step.

She was ready and in search of the correct team. NBA or WNBA, it didn’t matter.

That team was the Aces.

“I felt they had the talent to do it, and I felt that I could build the relationships and build the culture in the right way for us to put ourselves in a position to be able to win a championship,” she said.

In her first year at the helm, Hammon did just that, leading the Las Vegas Aces to the franchise’s first WNBA championship in Connecticut on Sunday.

As A’ja Wilson grabbed the last rebound of Game 4 — a 78-71 victory over the Sun to clinch the title — Chelsea Gray turned and ran toward the Las Vegas bench.

They jumped, they screamed, they hugged.

And in the middle of the mayhem was Hammon.

After being handed a 2022 WNBA championship hat, Hammon tried numerous times to put it on, but every time there was another hug, another congratulation, another excited exchange that took precedence. She walked behind Riquna Williams, who gave her team a major lift with 17 points off the bench and five 3-pointers, including a couple of daggers to close out the win. Hammon gave Williams a playful shove and a wide smile before taking a second to put on her championship shirt.

Finally, as Gray, the Finals MVP, approached her coach, Hammon threw the hat on backwards and wrapped Gray in a bear hug.

As the team slowly settled down and commissioner Cathy Engelbert readied herself to present the trophy, Hammon pushed her hair back, detangling it from her hoop earrings, and put the hat on for good.

Officially crowning herself a champion.

Hammon embraces 2022 WNBA MVP A'ja Wilson on the court Sunday. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“When I took the job in December, I thought when I started kind of breaking down their rosters that I could do something with it,” Hammon said after the game, hair soaked with champagne. “I had a vision of what I wanted to do with this team. Even when it got a little rocky, we stuck to it. We hit a kind of stay-down-in-the-dirt-or-get-up moment right after All-Star. As usual, they chose to stand up. We have tremendous leadership in that locker room. We have tremendous professionals, but I’ll say it again: They are tremendous people.”

With players like Wilson, Gray and Kelsey Plum, the Aces were primed to win a title. They just needed the right coach to push them over the top.

“It’s about putting these ladies in a position to win a championship,” Hammon said. “That’s been my focus. That’s why I took the job.”

There are two things the Aces have become known for over the last few years: their exceptional play and their eccentric personalities.

Take Sunday for example. Wilson was twerking in the locker room before she and Gray took their champagne bottles to the podium. Wilson took sips between questions and joked that Aces fans needed to do shots before coming to the celebration parade — kids, she added, should do shots of ginger ale. Midway through the press conference, Plum made an appearance, dancing with a boombox on her shoulder.

The weight of the moment heightened the celebratory atmosphere, but the Aces’ reactions were not far off from their everyday personalities.

They walk the line between fun and professional at every moment, and they needed a coach who could do the same.

“There is a light-heartedness,” Sydney Colson said of Hammon. “When we are approaching games, in a series we are obviously locked in, but she allows people to be themselves. And it’s a lot of fun. She meshes well with this team. Some coaches try and make a team fit into a box, but she allows a lot of freedom.”

(Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

From the very beginning, Hammon took great care to learn about her players. She wanted to win a championship with the Aces, and to do that, Hammon knew she needed to start by establishing connections.

The first-year head coach didn’t waste any time with that task.

Jackie Young was in Australia playing during the WNBA offseason when she got a call from Hammon.

“Before we even met in person, we had a phone call and she’s talking about being a relationship person,” Young said. “I think she’s done a great job of developing those relationships with all of her players. I really liked that about her.”

And when the Aces reported to practice for the first time, Hammon’s first impression remained true.

“She has her players’ best interest at heart,” Colson said. “She is the picture of a player’s coach.”

All the while, she was preparing the Aces for their ultimate goal. Sometimes that meant bringing a sense of humor to the locker room. Other times, it meant lighting a fire beneath her team.

Hammon did that at halftime of Game 1, after the Sun had gone on a 21-9 run to take a four-point lead at the break. And her team responded, winning 67-64.

Then, after a Game 3 defeat in Connecticut, in which Hammon said her team got out-played in every facet, the Aces coach chose to say nothing at all.

Instead, she let her team sit with the loss.

“I’ve got a ticked off crew in there,” she said, motioning to the locker room after the game. “I’m not going to have to say much.”

Once again, her team responded. This time by winning a decisive Game 4 to secure a WNBA title — another bullet point on the list of Becky Hammon’s great accomplishments.

After being overlooked and underappreciated once again, Hammon doesn’t have a message for her doubters.

She doesn’t waste time thinking about them.

“My journey is not by mistake,” she said. “Every hard thing that I’ve gone through has built something in me that I’ve needed down the road, and even though it sucks in the moment to not to be picked or to get hurt or whatever it might be, the hard stuff builds stuff in you that’s necessary for life and you’ll use it down the road.”

On Sunday, she used the hard stuff to bring Las Vegas a championship.

And for all the doubters she met along the way, there was one person who always believed in Becky Hammon.

“For me, it’s not really about proving other people wrong,” she said. “It’s about proving myself right.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.