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There won’t be tokenism, because there’s never been any

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Pop’s next ejection will likely come with a familiar fury, historical precedent, and its share of cynics. Don’t let them take away from the moment.

Sacramento Kings v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

The Express-News’ Tom Orsborn wrote a great piece last weekend on the approaching likelihood and historical significance of assistant coach Becky Hammon, now the longest tenured member of Gregg Popovich’s staff, taking over for Pop mid-game on the back of his imminent next ejection. The article includes quotes from Hammon’s peers, current players, and former coaches, who all touch on the prospect of her becoming, as Orsborn puts it, “the first woman to serve as head coach of a major professional North American sports team — even if it is just for the remainder of that contest.” It also reminds readers of Hammon’s exceptional credentials — which include excelling at and understanding the game as a pro, coaching multiple Summer League squads, and earning the esteem of her peers along the way — and frames what Hammon’s next potential milestone would mean:

“Women athletes at all levels and ages are often coached by men, while male athletes training under female coaches is less common,” Toni Van Pelt wrote in an email. “This dynamic feeds into the sexist notion that women can’t be leaders and that men won’t respect female authority figures. Women getting high-profile coaching positions, like the one Becky Hammon is in position to take, is an important step toward normalizing female leadership, especially in the traditionally male world of sports.”

This would be another step in the right direction in Hammon’s trailblazing coaching arc. Along with tours in Vegas, she’s also gotten reps holding the clipboard in preseason in previous years, meaning that watching her call plays and lead huddles next season won’t be new for all Spurs fans. That said, the moment in question — one that would be within an NBA game of consequence — should get more exposure than anything preceding it.

That it may need to happen through a Gregg Popovich in-game ejection of all things — an event that’s historically ranged from thunderously visceral and candid to theatrical and comical — is a little ironic. And because there is Pop as a subject — the coach that’s covered to borderline parody as a wine-loving, socially conscientious, occasional sniper of reporters — and Pop as a self-aware person who will still engage in the aforementioned activities non-ironically, things can get a little meta. When held up against stereotype and expectation, it can be hard for some actions to be reconciled appropriately and easy for detractors to dismiss them as they like. If he does happen to do as Bryn Forbes jokes (suggests?) in the article and “get it over with on the first game,” there may be those that criticize it as performative, or putting social commentary over in-game results, rather than focusing on the temporary ascension as a synthesis of Hammon’s hard work and coaching acumen.

Spurs players and coaches, including Hammon herself, have consistently looked to revert to her ability rather than her being a pioneer. Collectively, it’s served to preempt any thought of tokenism, keeping the focus on the game itself and on the substance of Hammon as a valued member of the team rather than a symbol.

“The guys in the NBA don’t care if I am a woman. They don’t care if Becky is a woman,” says fellow WNBA-er turned coach in Nancy Lieberman in the article. “They just care, ‘Can you get me to my next contract? Can you help me do better?’”

“You are talking about Gregg Popovich,” Lieberman also says. “There is nothing in his life that spells token next to his name.”

It’s an unfortunate product of our discourse that we can still see reactionary takes like the one Lieberman alludes to coming, steadily bloating in the throats of folks who either profit off taking such stances or can’t get outside their own personal experience enough to appreciate, as Van Pelt puts it, the normalizing influence of representation on the NBA sidelines. They’ll only get louder when Hammon gets her shot as a full-time NBA head coach, wherever that may be. As said in the article, cultural change is a “generational” thing, and part of being on ground zero for these moments is having to deal with a lot of noise from pushers of the status quo.

Eventually, the sight of a woman leading men on this stage will feel as normal as the Spurs have treated it the past 5 years. More than that, the cult of personality we attribute to figures like Pop may be shared by Hammon, or one of the women who follows in her footsteps, with all the reverence and irreverence that the Spurs coach has earned over time. It’s fitting that one of those very same iconic tendencies he’s become known for, getting hilariously tossed from a game, may help usher it in.