— It was almost as if the basketball gods were unsure and skeptical about this whole idea of a woman coaching an NBA game. Why else would the gods give Becky Hammon the ball in the final 25 seconds against the Knicks with her team down three points in her NBA head coaching debut in the Summer League?

That meant Hammon had to prove herself pronto. She had to draw up an important play for the Spurs while everyone surely watched intently, no different than needing to perform an emergency root canal on your first day out of dental school.

After the timeout, the Spurs ran the play … poorly. The ball couldn’t find an open man, and meanwhile, the shot clock ticked away. Hammon reacted quickly with 16 seconds left, raced to a referee with clipboard in hand and called another timeout so the Spurs could, as she later said, “get it right.”

She didn’t blame the players, which means she aced the first lesson of Coaching 101.

“I didn’t draw it up clear enough,” she said.

The revised play went smoothly. It looked familiar. It was Spurs-like, something straight out of the Pop Playbook. There was no isolation clear-out, a desperate play you see so many times on the last possession in the NBA. Rather, the ball touched four different hands and then found its way to Jarrell Eddie, wide open in the right corner.

He missed, but Hammon didn’t.

Knicks vs. Spurs

Kristaps Porzingis scores 12 points in his Summer League debut for the Knicks as they hold off the Spurs, 78-73.

The NBA Summer League is commonly used as a laboratory for players, referees, rules … and now, female coaches. Here in Las Vegas, three females are on benches. Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman is assisting with the Kings and auditioning for a permanent role with the team this season and former WNBA player Lindsey Harding is a guest of the Raptors. But the privilege of being a female “first” belongs to Hammon, fresh off her first year on Gregg Popovich’s staff and now, head coach of an NBA summer league team.

She fit like any male coach in Vegas, the only difference being her voice was softer. Last season, as the junior coach on staff, Hammon sat behind the Spurs’ bench, not next to Popovich. But Pop put her in charge of the Vegas operation, partly because he felt comfortable enough with her, and also because Pop wants to advance the notion of a woman coaching in a men’s league.

Nobody’s quite sure where this is headed or how quickly. Will the NBA have its first female head coach in the foreseeable future? And if so, will she be Hammon? Coaching on the highest level can get very political. There are only 30 jobs and they don’t come easily even to experienced coaches; Hammon has never been a coach on any level until now. It’s about timing and networking and persistence and sometimes they’re not always in your favor. But Hammon’s ace card is Pop, the winningest active coach in basketball; and by extension, the Spurs organization, regarded as the finest in all professional sports.

If Pop one day gives another team a glowing recommendation of Hammon, how could that team resist?

Before that happens, Hammon will need to work her way up the Spurs’ bench and sit next to Popovich for at least a year. The Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer, the reigning Coach of the Year, didn’t get his break until he served as Pop’s assistant for 16 years. Given the uniqueness of her situation, and the track record of the NBA as a progressive league, Hammon won’t need to wait that long once she gets the Popovich Blessing.

But first things first, as Lieberman said. Just getting to the point of coaching in the summer league qualifies as a breakthrough.

“She has such a great opportunity in front of her,” said Lieberman. “And it’s fantastic. They couldn’t have chosen anyone better than Becky. We’ve been friends for years and I’m so proud of her.”

Strangely enough, Lieberman had tried for years to join an NBA staff and thought that after coaching in the WNBA and the Mavericks’ D-League team, her calling was imminent. Hammon was sensitive about this after being chosen by the Spurs.

Lieberman: “She text me and said, `I’m sorry.’ I got on the phone and said `I’m going to kick your behind. Don’t ever say you’re sorry. You’re opening up a door.’ It doesn’t matter who opens that door, as long as somebody does it. I’m just happy to be a good friend and a mentor.”

Lieberman was invited by George Karl to help with the Kings’ summer league team and blushed when one of the players approached and said his mother raved about Lieberman, one of the early pioneers of women’s professional basketball. The Kings will decide on her fate and role soon.

“When George said she was working for us in the summer I got so excited,” said Kings GM Vlade Divac. “I’ve got so much respect for her. We are willing to make her a part of the new wave.”

Hammon embraces not only the challenge of being a head coach, but the impact it could have on the game and women in sports. Those in the Spurs’ organization give her strong marks for work ethic and speaking up in coaches meetings. Meanwhile, Hammon believes she couldn’t be groomed in a better place, being in the company of Pop and the Spurs.

“If Henry Ford came back and said `Hey, let me show you how to make cars,’ anybody who doesn’t jump on that opportunity is crazy,” Hammon said. “I’m learning all sorts of things not only about Xs and Os but also how to handle a team, how to talk to the guys. I feel like I’m just a flower getting great roots, but far from blooming. Far from blooming.”

She’s also aware that everyone’s watching and forming their opinions and, in some cases, changing their opinion.

“I think it’s important that women be rewarded for their brains as much as any guy,” she said. “This is really about the bigger picture. You want to make sure that when your wife or daughter goes in for a job interview, she gets the same opportunity that a guy gets, whether it’s in basketball or the Army or the operating room. We want women there. Statistics will tell you that it’s important that a woman is in the mix.”

When it comes to basketball in general and specifically the NBA, Hammon sense that change is coming. If a woman with a solid basketball background and a smooth track record in working with men is up for a head coaching job, how many interviews will it take before she lands it? In the perfect world, she’ll get a job and then get fired if she doesn’t win, like any male.

“There are so any capable female minds who are in the basketball world,” said Hammon. “Why not have them in the mix as coaches? We bring another perspective. In our film room and coaches room with the Spurs, different perspectives are welcome. In fact, they’re encouraged. That way, we can sharpen each other and come to the best conclusion.”

Hammon nearly came to a winning conclusion Saturday against the Knicks when she called timeout and everyone huddled around. This was a watershed moment for her and by extension, those she represents. After the final buzzer and a five-point loss, the head coach in training did have one request, though.

“Do I want it to go down to the wire for every game? No,” she laughed. “That’s freaking stressful.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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