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‘I don’t understand what took so long’: Black men now half of the NBA’s head coaches

NBA commissioner Adam Silver says diversity and inclusion are a priority for the league: ‘The goal is that that’s not newsworthy’

The NBA currently has a league-record 15 Black head coaches among 30 teams after the recent hiring of Darvin Ham by the Los Angeles Lakers, with the Charlotte Hornets yet to fill their coaching vacancy. The NBA’s diversity in its head coaches is in stark contrast with the NFL, college football and college basketball, and stunning considering the predominantly Black NBA had just seven African American head coaches at the end of the 2020-21 season.

So, what was the root of so many Black head coaches getting hired in such a short amount of time?

“This isn’t unique to the NBA — and I’ve learned this from other businesses — is that you have to talk about these issues all the time,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said during his news conference before Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals on Thursday night. “If you care about diversity and inclusion in your workplace, you’ve got to look at the data. You’ve got to constantly present it to your colleagues, to your department heads, to your teams, and it has to become a focus. It’s my job in part to say that’s a priority for this organization.

“At the same time, while I’m particularly proud of those numbers and roughly 50% of our head coaches are Black now, the goal is that that’s not newsworthy, and that when people are hired, their first reaction isn’t the color of their skin. I don’t want to be naive either, though, because I know that what we do in this league is important symbolically, not just for sports but for other industries, and people watch us all around the world.”

Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said during NBA Finals media day on Wednesday that the slow but eventual rise of Black head coaches in the league may be “related to a grand scheme of things that kind of goes on in America.” Brown and fellow Celtics teammates Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart pushed for a Black head coach when there was an opening last year. The Celtics hired former NBA player Ime Udoka.

“I don’t understand what took so long, to be honest,” Brown said. “Of course, now it’s a great thing to see and you see a lot of coaches that are getting an opportunity to flourish in these moments. Ime is a product of that. First-year head coach in the Finals, which is — I don’t know how many times that’s been done before. Overall, I think that’s an example, not just in the NBA but our society as a whole, just opportunity is important.”

Tyronn Lue (right) of the LA Clippers is viewed as one of the “most feared coaches,” says Golden State Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala. “Tyronn Lue has done an incredible job of kind of silencing those critics … he’s a very welcoming type of coach, players’ coach, but he knows his stuff, his X’s and O’s.”

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Golden State Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala said that two major issues for African American head coaches were the “narratives that put us in a bad light” and that there was little margin for error. Iguodala believes that LA Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue’s respected basketball IQ is part of the change in perception for Black coaches because he is one of the “most feared coaches.”

“You had to overachieve, or you never got the opportunity again and no one really talked about that,” Iguodala said. “Just kind of how the headlines looked, when you portray Black coaches historically [it] hasn’t been in a fair light, where the other side, you know, you had that term, the good ol’ boys’ club, where you’re just recycling the names over and over again. The NCAA is essentially that right now.

“Tyronn Lue has done an incredible job of kind of silencing those critics in terms of, you know … he’s a very welcoming type of coach, players’ coach, but he knows his stuff, his X’s and O’s. We know we’re in for a tough game because no matter who’s playing for his team, they’re going to be able to rise to the occasion and expose your weaknesses.”

Silver noted that he was pleased that there was also an increase in head coaches who are former players.

Former NBA players who are Black and now head coaches include Ham, Lue, Udoka, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Doc Rivers, the Atlanta Hawks’ Nate McMillan, the Phoenix Suns’ Monty Williams, the Dallas Mavericks’ Jason Kidd and the New Orleans Pelicans’ Willie Green. Williams is the 2022 NBA Coach of the Year and Udoka’s Celtics are in the NBA Finals.

“I’m also putting aside the color of the skin of those coaches,” Silver said. “What we’re also seeing, and this is something we very much focused on, is the emergence of a whole new class of former players who have moved into head-coaching positions. Incidentally, you know, thank you, [San Antonio Spurs head coach] Gregg Popovich. He practically runs an academy there for future coaches, and not just coaches but team executives. He’s done a fantastic job.

“I remember [Indiana Pacers head coach] Rick Carlisle came to us as head of the coaches association in the league a few years ago, to Kathy Behrens [president, NBA social responsibility and player programs], who is here with me, Oris Stuart, the chief people and inclusion officer at the NBA, and said we all collectively need to do a better job. One of the ways we decided is, again, technology helps, having a better database so that head coaches who are looking for assistants or team governors who are looking for coaches have a database, which they could quickly see who is available, who is interested in coaching, how much experience they have. These changes come only incrementally. It doesn’t help just to bang the pulpit and say, ‘Go do this.’ You have to work with people, and you have to understand what the obstacles are.”

Silver said the NBA has been proud of the increase in Black head coaches, but there needs to be more diversity in the league office and in general managers and presidents on the basketball and business side. He also said that it is important to have an increase in women in prominent roles.

Former Spurs assistant Becky Hammon was interviewed for several NBA head coach jobs before becoming the head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces. University of South Carolina women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley, who has led the Gamecocks to two NCAA Division I championships, also received interest from the Washington Wizards when their head coach job was open in 2021.

“Becky Hammon, she had a fantastic position at the San Antonio Spurs and got a great head-coaching job in the WNBA, and she herself said, the last thing we want is to be viewed as a step back, that she is a head coach in the WNBA with a terrific opportunity,” Silver said. “But I’ve said it before and I should have said earlier, there is no reason that women shouldn’t be head coaches and more of them shouldn’t be assistant coaches in the NBA. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be more women officials. We have made progress in both those areas around the league now. There are a lot more female assistants at our teams, but we do have to break through that glass ceiling.

“In the same way that we have made progress in terms of Black coaches, it requires constant dialogue, requires making sure there is a pipeline of women who are coming up, who are known to our teams that we sort of break down the old boys’ network to the extent one exists where maybe it’s not intentional bias, but people hire their friends, people hire the people they have worked with before, people hire the people they know. So, we’ve just got to stick with it.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.