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Florida’s pursuit of Becky Hammon is a justified, exciting swing for the fences

Can the Gators make a huge splash?

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The news broke like a thunderbolt, and because I missed it initially — Tuesday was my birthday; mea culpa — I had to all but rub my eyes and pinch myself to make certain it was real when I saw it.

But it is: San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon is set to interview to become the next Florida Gators women’s basketball coach, reported Mike Robinson of SB Nation’s Swish Appeal.

Robinson wrote that Florida was “zeroing in” on Hammon, and provided detail beyond that, too.

Hammon is a finalist for the vacancy with the Gators, multiple sources tell Swish Appeal. She will be visiting the Gainesville campus in the next couple of days, as Florida is down to their final three candidates — with Hammon being at the top of the list.

Florida parted ways with Amanda Butler on March 6, after 10 years of the former Gators point guard getting mixed results in Gainesville. Hammon bears a superficial resemblance to Butler — she, like Butler, is a tough-nosed point guard who got into coaching shortly following her playing days — but has a sheaf of qualifications and a chorus of supporters that make her an extraordinary candidate for the vacant position.

Hammon, of course, is the first woman to be a full-time NBA assistant, having joined the Spurs in that role in 2014 after spending a year apprenticing with the team while rehabbing a torn ACL that ended her 2013 WNBA season.

But she’s also a 16-year WNBA veteran, having made the playoffs in 13 of those seasons, and was named one of the WNBA’s 20 greatest players of all time in 2016, and played in Italy, Spain, and Russia over her pro career, and led the Spurs’ Summer League team to a championship in 2015 in her first head coaching experience, and made the All-WNBA first team and EuroLeague All-Star Team in 2009, and ... yeah. It’s a lot.

Hammon is a name brand, and could very well eventually be an NBA head coach, if she so chose. Being tapped by and learning under Gregg Popovich (and long-time Spurs general manager R.C. Buford) tends to do that for assistant coaches, and the Spurs’ staff has been both eclectic and excellent under Popovich, with legendary Italian coach Ettore Messina and renowned shot doctor Chip Engelland among the team’s assistants alongside Hammon this year, and a slew of NBA coaches and personnel people have crossed paths with the Spurs before going on to have success elsewhere. Certainly, Hammon’s extensive experience on the court and remarkable proximity to Popovich are both rare and alluring bullet points on a résumé that could well be bulletproof.

But Hammon being willing to at least listen to Florida would imply that she’s not angling directly for an NBA head coaching job, arguably the only level of basketball coaching in the United States more prestigious than NBA assistant or big-time men’s college basketball coach. That’s not necessarily implied by Robinson’s report, I think: It’s an indication that sources are comfortable saying that Florida is talking to Hammon, not the other way around, and Robinson’s sources have helped him break news closer to Florida than to Hammon in the past, suggesting to me that this might be talk from Florida’s end rather than Hammon’s.

There is a countervailing indication, though: Florida reportedly considering Hammon a finalist, having her at the top of its list, and bringing her in for an interview while two other finalists are mentioned but left unidentified sure makes it seem as though the Gators are homing in on Hammon — and that, if she turns athletic director Scott Stricklin down, it will be Florida missing on its top choice.

That perception of missing on a top choice is something that athletic directors strive to avoid, and is part of why something like a report that Florida had offered Hugh Freeze a head coaching job gets swiftly rebutted. But Florida is now, by virtue of Robinson’s report, inextricably linked to Hammon, and any outcome other than hiring her may well be seen as a disappointment.

And that’s probably fair, in some measure, because Hammon is such a brilliant, off-the-list candidate for the position that Stricklin might deserve praise merely for targeting her. Florida’s women’s basketball history is uneven at best, and the most successful programs in the sport have all gotten to where they are by hiring great coaches and supporting them wholeheartedly, from Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma at Tennessee and Connecticut down to Dawn Staley and Jeff Walz at South Carolina and Louisville.

None of those coaches were originally known as great coaches, though — Summitt went from college player to coach with only an offseason to transition, Auriemma had only six years of experience as a collegiate assistant prior to being hired at UConn, Staley had no coaching experience before Temple shocked her by offering her its head coaching job in the midst of her WNBA career, and Walz spend over a decade as an assistant before landing at Louisville. Hammon arguably has more experience with winning basketball as a coach than any of those four coaches did prior to their hirings, and she bears the mark of Popovich, and she has a playing career that compares well, or maybe even favorably, to Staley’s.

There’s very little good reason to doubt that Hammon could be successful as a head coach at any level — coaching women instead of men would not be an issue, and coaching at the collegiate level wouldn’t be that different from doing so at the NBA level — and plenty of reason to see Florida’s potential hiring of her as a coup in the making for a program that could use an infusion of star power as much as it could use a coach with NBA chops and the skills to relate to players of all backgrounds derived from a long and peripatetic playing career.

Pursuing Hammon, in other words, is a swing for the fences. If Stricklin can land her, in his first hire of a head coach as Florida’s athletic director, it will be a sign that he has more than warning-track power.