WNBA trendsetters: Why Hammon, Brondello are just the start of former players as Finals coaches

When the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty tip off the WNBA Finals on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App), the coaching matchup between Becky Hammon and Sandy Brondello will be 26 years in the making.

Although former WNBA players have coached teams to the Finals before, this is the first time in league history two of them will square off against each other in the championship series.

Along with Coach of the Year Stephanie White, whose Connecticut Sun lost to Brondello’s Liberty in the semifinals, the success Brondello and Hammon are enjoying coaching the WNBA’s highest-profile teams is reflective of the league embracing former players as coaches. After never having more than three head-coaching spots held by former players, they’ve made up half of the league’s 12 jobs in each of the past two seasons.

With the WNBA’s diversity coaching initiative dramatically increasing the number of assistant coaches with playing experience in the league, Brondello and Hammon might be the first former players to square off in the Finals. They won’t be the last.

“Since 2019,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, “we have tripled the number of former players who are head coaches and significantly increased those in the assistant coaching ranks.”

BRONDELLO AND HAMMON — who have both already won WNBA titles as coaches, Brondello with the Phoenix Mercury in 2014 and Hammon last season with Las Vegas — previously saw their careers overlap in San Antonio. Brondello was an assistant during Hammon’s first three years with the Silver Stars, and then her head coach in 2010. The same person brought both of them to San Antonio: longtime WNBA head coach Dan Hughes, an advocate for former players on the sidelines.

Starting with his first full-time coaching job in 2000 with the Cleveland Rockers, Hughes had a former WNBA player on every one of his staffs.

“I knew I wanted to be a basketball coach, but I also knew that I wanted my staffs to be diverse,” Hughes told ESPN. “I wanted them to be different than me. That was always important to me. So I needed somebody who came in as a player and then became a coach. I always needed that. I needed that kind of mentality as part of the brain trust that I was trying to create to make good decisions.”

When Hughes joined the Silver Stars in 2005 after the Rockers folded, he received a cold call from Brondello while driving to scout a UConn-Notre Dame matchup. She informed Hughes she was retiring after a lengthy playing career in both her native Australia and the WNBA, and wanted to become a coach. Although Hughes had no prior relationship with Brondello besides coaching against her, he immediately saw her as the right fit.

“I did everything but hire her that moment,” Hughes recalled. “It was just perfect. That’s exactly what I wanted …

“Just the way she played the game and thought the game, I thought she would make a great coach.”

With Hammon, a consummate leader during her 16-season WNBA career, the question for Hughes was never whether she could coach but whether she would choose to do so rather than pursue a career in media or outside basketball.

In 2013, Hammon suffered an ACL tear in her first game and spent the remainder of the season watching from the sidelines. She told Hughes at season’s end she wanted to coach and asked whether he could help connect her with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and the coach who would go on to be the winningest in league history.

“I went over the next day to Gregg Popovich,” Hughes said. “They were in the gym, him and [Spurs CEO] R.C. Buford. I said, ‘How do you feel about Becky coming over?’ ‘Oh, we’d love to have her.’ Pop said, ‘Give her my phone number and give me a call.’ That’s kind of how that went down.”

After spending the 2013-14 season shadowing the Spurs coaching staff while rehabilitating her injury, Hammon was hired by the Spurs in 2014 as the first full-time, paid female assistant coach in the NBA upon her retirement from playing.

Hammon’s journey led back to the WNBA before last season. After interviewing for NBA head-coaching jobs, Hammon chose to leave the San Antonio bench to become head coach of the Aces, who won the 2022 title and are now looking to become the first repeat WNBA champion since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002.

Sitting on the bench alongside Brondello, Hughes remembers feeling what he calls an “unspoken understanding of the game” shared with Hammon on the court.

“Becky and Sandy both have incredible offensive minds,” Hughes said. “I like putting people like that around me, to be honest with you, because I come at it defensively. That’s my starting point. Players, a lot of times, are like that. There were times — and Becky wouldn’t necessarily have been privy to some of these, because she was on the floor — Sandy would interpret what Becky was going to do to me on the bench before Becky did it.”

Hughes, who retired from the WNBA in 2021 ranked fifth all time in coaching wins, texted with both coaches after they advanced to the Finals. He’s hoping to attend Game 3 in New York, but will be torn, knowing how both coaches might feel at series’ end.

“Mostly I’m excited for both these coaches,” Hughes said, “but I know the reality that one of them is going to attain an incredible moment and another one is going to have a pretty incredible loss.”

INEVITABLY, THE WNBA needed time to build up enough longevity for former players to go into the coaching ranks. Though a pair of superstar players retired and were immediately made head coaches in the league’s early days — with Nancy Lieberman taking over the expansion Detroit Shock in the WNBA’s second season (1998) and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke coaching the Phoenix Mercury in 2001 after winning Finals MVP in each of the league’s first four years — they were outliers.

It wasn’t until 2009, the WNBA’s 13th year of existence, that former players coached against each other in a regular-season game when Jenny Boucek’s Sacramento Monarchs faced Jennifer Gillom’s Minnesota Lynx.

When WNBA teams sought professional playing experience in the league’s first decade, they often turned instead to former NBA players. Five of the league’s 13 coaches to start the 2004 campaign were NBA veterans after Bill Laimbeer’s Detroit Shock beat Michael Cooper’s Los Angeles Sparks in the 2003 Finals.

As the WNBA has matured, more players, like Brondello and Hammon, have had opportunities to play full careers before moving to the sidelines, first as assistants (Hammon getting that experience in the NBA) and later as head coaches. In 2015, Brondello and White were joined by Boucek to give the WNBA a record three former players on the sidelines.

By 2020, however, that trend seemed to be heading the wrong direction. After Katie Smith was fired by New York, Brondello was left as the league’s only former player serving as head coach. At that point, as the NBA was also seeing decreasing numbers of head coaches with playing experience, the WNBA made a subtle but important rules change.

As reported in March 2020 by Erica Ayala at The Athletic, the league increased the limit on assistant coaches from two to three for teams that have at least one former WNBA player as either an assistant or head coach.

Because teams would prefer to have larger coaching staffs, they quickly responded by hiring more former WNBA players. In 2019, seven of the league’s 12 teams had a former player on staff. By 2021, that was 11 of 12, and this year, for the first time, every team has one. The total number of assistant coaches with playing experience has skyrocketed from nine in 2019 to 22 this season.

“This is about a pipeline of your future leaders so that the next time we have a coaching role or a general manager role or a team president role, that you have a very diverse pool to pick from,” Engelbert said in 2021. “So that’s what our diversity initiatives are working on — building experience, building capability so the next person up will get a job when there’s an opening. You have to do that sometimes three years before the opening comes for that person to be ready now.”

When Hughes retired, former player Noelle Quinn was elevated to replace him with the Seattle Storm. Starting with her promotion, hiring former players as head coaches became a trend. All four coaching vacancies after the 2021 season went to players with WNBA experience. Three — Brondello, Hammon and Vanessa Nygaard with the Phoenix Mercury — either played or coached for Hughes.

“I wanted the landscape, like it is now, to be reflective of former players,” he said. “Women who are sitting in that head-coaching position. That was important to me.”

It’s also notable that, after Derek Fisher was fired by the Sparks in June 2022, this was the first season since 1998 in which no former NBA player served as a WNBA head coach.

As compared to the NBA, the WNBA is a little behind schedule for having two former players meet as coaches in the Finals. That first happened in what the NBA considers its 20th season of existence, 1967, when Alex Hannum’s Philadelphia 76ers beat Bill Sharman’s San Francisco Warriors. We’re also still nowhere near the peak of former players as head coaches in the NBA, which came when 22 of 27 (81.5%) to start the 1993-94 season had playing experience.

Having Brondello and Hammon lead their talented teams to the Finals is sure to create more opportunities for the increasing number of assistant coaches like them who have followed a typical path from playing to coaching.

“I think what we’re starting to see,” recently retired WNBA star Sue Bird said when Quinn was introduced as head coach in 2021, “is the WNBA was almost too young 15 years ago to have these players with these long, successful careers where they’ve played in the WNBA, they’ve played for multiple coaches, they’ve played overseas, maybe they’ve had national team experiences, whatever the case may be. With that is just a ball of knowledge and a wealth of experience.

“And now we’re finally starting to see those coaches become assistant coaches, become head coaches. That’s the path that we’ve all kind of been waiting for someone to start to forge that path and now we’re starting to see it. [Quinn’s] just another example of that. I think it’s amazing. I think we’re going to see more of it. I have zero doubt about that.”

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