As Becky Hammon‘s prolific collegiate basketball career was nearing its end, a headline in the Denver Post proclaimed that “No one will underestimate Colorado State’s Becky Hammon ever again.”
A nice thought, but alas. Two months after that headline, Hammon would go undrafted in the 1999 WNBA Draft. And that certainly wasn’t the first time — nor the last — that Hammon wouldn’t be picked.
“I’m disappointed, but the battle’s not over,” Hammon told the Fort Collins Coloradoan after the WNBA Draft. “It’s not going to end up a sad story.”
Hammon, who grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, wasn’t highly recruited out of high school.
Tom Collen, then an assistant coach at Arkansas, recounted that after seeing Hammon compete at a camp in Terre Haute, Indiana, he wrote three words next to her name: average white girl.
“I made the same mistake a lot of other top-20 programs made,” Collen, who later became the head coach at Colorado State, told the Denver Post in 1999. “I underestimated what type of potential she had, and didn’t recruit her. I saw her, but I didn’t think she was good enough to put on my list. There were a lot of coaches who felt that way.”
Hammon eventually found a home at Colorado State. But even after arriving at a college that wanted her, Hammon wasn’t initially picked. She spent the first seven games coming off the bench before earning a starting spot. She went on to finish the season as the highest scoring freshman in the nation (19.2 points per game) and, more importantly, helped Colorado State qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the CSU Rams tipped off against Nebraska, a program Hammon had attended for summer programs.
“We recruited her, but we did not scholarship her, so I’m sure she’ll have extra motivation because of that,” Nebraska head coach Angela Beck told the Omaha World Herald ahead of the game, which CSU won 66-62.
Hammon led Colorado State to two more NCAA tournament appearances, with the Rams making it as far as the Sweet 16 in her senior year. But even as the three-time All-American concluded her college career as the most decorated player in program history, she knew some people still counted her out.
“There are a lot of people who still don’t believe I deserve to have my name where it is,” Hammon said in 1999. “They don’t think I deserve to be an All–American. I know that. That’s fine. It’s the same thing with our team. People don’t believe we should be ranked fourth. That’s how it’s going to have to be, coming from the (Western Athletic Conference).
“When you come from a small conference, you have to climb hills. It’s a constant battle to get up, get up, get up. You’ve got to like it. You’ve got to like people saying you can’t do something. That’s always been my philosophy.”
While WNBA prospects always face long odds, the 1999 WNBA Draft was particularly brutal. College players were in competition with players from the American Basketball League (ABL), which folded in December 1998. Of the 50 draft picks that year, 35 came from the ABL.
“The same thing happened to me in college,” Hammon told the Fort Collins Coloradoan after she wasn’t drafted. “I wasn’t highly recruited, but I proved them wrong. I can do the same thing in the WNBA.”
One week after going undrafted, Hammon got a call from the New York Liberty inviting her to take part in training camp. She moved up her kinesiology final by a day to accommodate the invite.
Then New York Liberty coach Richie Adubato later admitted that he never expected to keep Hammon on the roster, as the team already had two point guards in Teresa Witherspoon and Coquese Washington.
“We figured two point guards are enough, but she impressed us so much with her shooting and her toughness that we had to keep her,” Adubato told the Associated Press in August 1999. “All through training camp, she just kept getting better and better.”
Hammon said going undrafted served as a spark. “If anything, it kind of put a little fire under my butt, and I just decided I was going to buckle down and I was going to make it in this league whether it was this year or a couple of years down the road.”
Hammon went on to play 16 seasons in the WNBA, finishing her career as one of the best players in league history. And though she made four trips to the WNBA Finals, she never won a title.
Along the way, she also overcame an Olympic snub. After learning that she hadn’t been invited to attend U.S. Olympic team tryouts, she agreed to represent Russia, where she played during the WNBA offseason.
“I’ve always been on the outside looking in,” she said. “The kid not picked.”
She led Russia to bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, scoring a team-high 22 points in that medal game.
As a longtime assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, many believed Hammon would become the first female NBA head coach. But the offers didn’t arrive.
Instead, the Aces called. And this time, they didn’t just pick Hammon. They courted her.
“I feel like I’m ready to have my own team. And this is the organization that made it very, very obvious they wanted me really, really bad. And so it’s always good to be wanted,” Hammon said after she was hired.
Less than a year later, she led the Aces to the franchise’s first WNBA title, becoming the first rookie head coach to win a league championship.
“My journey is not by mistake,” Hammon said after Sunday’s win. “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. It may not feel like it in that moment.
“For me, it’s not really about proving other people wrong, it’s about proving myself right.”
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC