The NBA is finally back in the Black. In coaching, that is.
It was hard to ignore Sunday night. After the Atlanta Hawks beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7, the dust had cleared on the second round of the NBA playoffs and the conference finals were set. And Black coaches were everywhere.
In fact, three of the final four coaches are Black. Nate McMillan, coach of the Atlanta Hawks, joined the L.A. Clippers’ Tyronn Lue and the Phoenix Suns’ Monty Williams.
The only coach non-Black in the group of four is the Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer.
Hopefully, this glaring accomplishment will wake up white NBA owners and general managers. Given the opportunity, brothers can coach in this league.
All the new trends in sports invalidate the Black players’ experience. The hiring force has turned to numbers over people. And oftentimes, the people with the analytics don’t have Black skin.
It’s sad. It’s wrong.
For sure, The Association has had a long-standing reputation of giving its Black players an opportunity for post-playing careers in the coaching ranks.
In 1966, Bill Russell became a player-coach with the Boston Celtics. He was the first Black coach in NBA history. And his appointment was years ahead of the other major sports. Frank Robinson was the first Black player-manager in MLB when he was hired by the Cleveland Indians in 1975.
Shamefully, the first Black head coach in the NFL, in the modern era, came in 1989 when Art Shell was hired by the Los Angeles Raiders. (Fritz Pollard was a player/co-coach in 1921 in APFA. It was renamed the NFL next year).
The NBA’s inclusion totally made sense. After all, the league has been more than 75 percent Black for decades now.
But recently that trend has gone the other way. Black coaches have become rare, scarce, if you will.
Clearly, the trend was NOT to hire Blacks. In fact, it felt like the NBA stood for No Blacks Allowed.
Coming into the season, the league had just seven Black coaches in a league with 30 teams.
And the change in philosophy and opportunity was big and bold. Playing in the league seemed to mean little to the powers-that-be.
Instead, it was a move toward quirky and unconventional. It seemed as if guys who didn’t play the game were the most sought after.
Just this past March, Black assistant coaches were disheartened when the Minnesota Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders and made a rare in-season hire of Chris Finch, who was a Toronto Raptors assistant coach.
Lost in the sauce in that hiring was that Wolves associate head coach David Vanterpool, who is Black, was passed over.
What was similar about the hiring of Saunders and Finch? Both were white and both never played in the league.
Vanterpool played briefly with the Washington Wizards, but there was no room at the inn for him.
That wasn’t always the case. Back in the 2012-2013 NBA season, 14 of the 30 NBA heading coaches were Black.
It appeared as if the NBA had found a nice balance. There were no issues or gripes from Blacks looking for opportunities in the league’s front offices or in the coaching ranks.
But just three years after that high watermark, the number dwindled down to just seven.
Enter analytic geeks and pocket protector GMs. That was the new wave. Owners wanted to be hip, in with the new crowd. The numbers, so we were told, were more reliable than people’s knowledge of the game.
That pushed Black people to the back burner. Guys who never suited up were taking over.
According to research by ESPN, 81 percent of Black NBA head coaches played in the league, as compared to just 39 percent of all other head coaches.
This epic run by Black coaches shouldn’t be ignored. And let’s not forget that McMillan’s Hawks beat Doc Rivers’ 76ers. So either way, there was going to be a Black coach in the Eastern Conference finals.
There’s one more guarantee this NBA postseason. There will be a Black coach on the sidelines in the NBA Finals. With Lue and Williams both coaching in the West, one will advance.
Hopefully, it will reverse the trend and get white NBA owners and general managers back to betting on Black again.