‘Proving myself right’: With Vegas, Becky Hammon finally won her title

Headline from 1999 Denver Post story that reads: Everybody's All-American; No one will underestimate Colorado State's Becky Hammon ever again
Denver Post from March 9, 1999, via Denver Public Library

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.”

It didn’t.

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 AllAmerican. 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

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Getty Images

It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
Getty Images

The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.