‘I know I can do this’: Nets’ David Vanterpool is ready for his head-coaching shot
The longtime NBA assistant is happy for the influx of Black coaches in the past year despite being passed over for jobs
Like many of their frustrated NFL coaching counterparts today, Black coaches in the NBA who aspired to be head coaches believed not that long ago they were not receiving a fair chance in a predominantly Black league.
The boiling point arrived nearly a year ago when the Minnesota Timberwolves passed on promoting a Black associate head coach, David Vanterpool, to a head coach opening in the middle of the season. The Timberwolves opted to go outside of the organization, hiring then-Toronto Raptors assistant Chris Finch, who is white.
Vanterpool said he was confused and angered by Minnesota’s decision, but he believed that speaking out at that time would worsen prospects for qualified Black coaches who seemed close to becoming an NBA head coach. Since then, the NBA has had a major change in its coaching ranks — seven Black head coaches were hired last offseason and there are currently 14 in the 30-team league.
While Vanterpool wasn’t hired, the ex-NBA player with 13 years of coaching experience who’s now an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets hasn’t stopped dreaming that he will be a head coach one day.
“When it comes to résumé, I got the résumé,” Vanterpool said to The Undefeated in his first public comments since not being promoted by the Wolves. “I’ve done everything almost in this business. When it comes to experience, I have the experience. There just hasn’t been head coach on my title, but I have the experience. I’ve been coaching for too long and have been in this for too long.
“I just want the opportunity and the ability to fail, too. Just like everybody else. I still will get that opportunity.”
Vanterpool spoke with The Undefeated one day after former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores sued the NFL and three teams — the Dolphins, Denver Broncos and New York Giants — alleging discrimination regarding his interview processes with Denver and New York and his firing last month by Miami.
“I was shocked,” Vanterpool said when asked about his reaction to the news. “To take on the whole NFL and a few teams in the process is a big deal. I thought it was more powerful with him knowing what it means careerwise.”
He added: “I don’t put myself anywhere near that. I took a different approach. My approach was more thinking what my reaction would mean for others, especially for the Black head coaches who just got jobs for the first time.”
Vanterpool starred at St. Bonaventure University from 1991 to 1995, averaging 17.5 points as a senior, but the 6-foot-5 swingman went undrafted by the NBA. The highlight of Vanterpool’s professional career was playing 22 games for the Washington Wizards during the 2000-01 season. He also was signed by the Detroit Pistons and New Jersey Nets, but didn’t play a game for either. Vanterpool went on to win championships professionally in the EuroLeague, Russia (twice), Italy, the American Basketball Association and Continental Basketball Association.
He described his pro playing career as “resilient.”
“I know a lot of people don’t realize I played in the NBA,” Vanterpool said. “The hard part for me sometimes is to try to list out my résumé to justify myself.”
Vanterpool’s professional basketball playing career ended in 2007 with CSKA Moscow. He was coached by European legend Ettore Messina, who later became an assistant coach in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.
It was Messina who first told Vanterpool he should coach after his playing days were over and offered a job on his bench with CSKA Moscow. After three weeks of consideration, Vanterpool took Messina up on the offer, becoming a CSKA Moscow assistant from 2007 to 2010.
“It was a lot less of a dream, but more of an assistance from Ettore Messina,” Vanterpool said. “When I was a player, some of the things he saw in me made him believe coaching was in me.”
Vanterpool returned to the United States in 2010, where he was director of player personnel for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He returned to coaching in 2012 as an assistant under Terry Stotts and the Portland Trail Blazers for seven seasons. It was with the Blazers that Vanterpool groomed the likes of NBA stars such as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Vanterpool interviewed for an NBA head coach job for the first time with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013. Then-Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie hired Brett Brown as the head coach.
“Knowing now how the process goes, it was more like a, ‘Let me get to know this guy who might be a future head coach,’ ” Vanterpool said. “It was exciting, new and different.”
Vanterpool interviewed for a head coach opening with the Denver Nuggets in 2015 and the Orlando Magic in 2016 and 2018. He interviewed for the Cleveland Cavaliers head coach opening in 2019 while the Blazers were playing in the Western Conference finals. Vanterpool also interviewed for the Timberwolves head coach opening in 2019.
“Some people say race isn’t always involved. It kind of is always involved in anything you do.”— David Vanterpool
“Early on, I was new to this head coach interview process, so let me learn from each experience and let me grow and get better for the next one,” Vanterpool said. “As I got deeper into my coaching journey, it became: ‘I know I can do this job. I know I can be good in this situation.’ After going through the process, I would think I was pretty good, but that is up for interpretation.”
When asked if he ever felt like he was being used as a token interview, Vanterpool said: “That is really hard to tell. I like to see the best in everyone. I would hate to have that be a reason. Some people say race isn’t always involved. It kind of is always involved in anything you do.”
Seeking career advancement beyond Portland, Vanterpool accepted a job to be the associate head coach under then-new Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders in June 2019. The expectation for any associate NBA head coach is that if the head coach takes a leave of absence, gets ejected or is fired during the season, the associate head coach would take over. For example, the Atlanta Hawks promoted Nate McMillan to interim head coach last season and the Sacramento Kings promoted Alvin Gentry to interim head coach this season after head coach firings.
When asked what getting the associate head coach title meant to him, Vanterpool said: “It was some level of validation. It brought a level of understanding that for everyone around that if Ryan [Saunders] is gone to take care of his family, this is the person that will be in charge. That was what was understood and has always been understood. That is the purpose of that type of title being offered.”
Lillard and McCollum endorsed him as a future NBA head coach. Vanterpool next interviewed for NBA head coach openings with the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets in 2020. But Vanterpool didn’t land those jobs, either.
The Timberwolves fell to an NBA-worst 7-24 record after a loss to the New York Knicks on Feb. 21, 2021. Afterward, Vanterpool said he received a text from Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas to meet him at a conference room at the team’s New York City hotel. Vanterpool assumed he was going to be told Saunders was returning to Minneapolis as his wife was expected to give birth soon. Vanterpool was told Saunders was fired and he wasn’t being promoted.
Instead, Rosas was hiring Finch, whom he worked with during their days with the Rockets, just hours after firing Saunders.
“They use your skill set during the difficult times, but when it’s time to reward you with an opportunity, they always seem to find a reason to not.”— A Black NBA head coach to The Undefeated
A stunned Vanterpool, who kept his job as Wolves associate head coach, said Rosas never explained to him why he was not promoted.
“I was told that Ryan was being let go and Chris was being hired. Natural order, yes, I thought I was being promoted,” Vanterpool said. “But when I was told what I was told, I was just in shock. I was numb, upset and taken aback completely.”
Vanterpool said he only asked Rosas how Saunders handled the news and what the plan was going forward with the team over the coming days. Vanterpool added that he was too angry to ask why he didn’t get promoted, but yearned for clarity.
“Explaining something to me would allow me to explain something to my family and people that care about me if I so chose,” Vanterpool said. “Not telling me anything, when they asked what happened I would look at them and say, ‘I don’t know.’ That feeling of uncertainty when it comes down to communicating with the people that matter, it’s tough to deal with.”
Rosas, the NBA’s first Latino basketball executive, told The Undefeated in a statement last year: “I know there are more hurdles for minorities. I had to leap over those personally, and it’s why I put internal programs in place to help all of our staff be prepared for the next step. I know David’s day will come.”
Vanterpool said he went to his hotel room feeling dejected, confused and angry. His phone soon went crazy shortly after when family, other loved ones and NBA colleagues got the news that he was passed over. Vanterpool had no answers.
“When I got to the room it was all on TV and social media. People were calling me for answers I didn’t have,” Vanterpool said. “I was still frustrated and angry. I was shocked. I didn’t understand at all.”
Several Black head coaches, assistant coaches and front-office executives expressed similar frustration to The Undefeated about the Vanterpool news. Lillard and McCollum expressed their disappointment on social media. The NBA Coaches Association also called out the Timberwolves for their lack of a thorough and diverse coaching search.
“It’s typical of the Black coaching experience in the NBA,” one Black NBA head coach told The Undefeated last year. “They use your skill set during the difficult times, but when it’s time to reward you with an opportunity, they always seem to find a reason to not, and then expect you to continue to be the good soldier.”
Another Black NBA head coach told The Undefeated last year: “Fire Ryan. Hire Finch on the same day. Pass over David Vanterpool. Crazy. Shaking my head.”
“That support was great,” Vanterpool said. “I felt energized by it. Honestly, that support helped me continue to go into work every day.”
Timberwolves three-time All-Star forward Karl-Anthony Towns is a Vanterpool fan who was not consulted about the Finch hiring, a source previously said. Towns also expressed respect for Vanterpool after he was passed over.
“He is a guy that is going to get an opportunity to be a head coach. He deserves an opportunity.”— Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash
While Towns has a solid working relationship with Finch, he still has NBA head-coaching aspirations for Vanterpool.
“When everything went down here in Minnesota, I was the first person to say we had a man of color with the pedigree and who has the résumé to be a head coach in this league,” Towns told The Undefeated last week. “David Vanterpool is a coach that I have respect for, not just as a man and for his character, but as a basketball mind. He understands the game, not just from a coaching standpoint but from a player’s standpoint. He understands relationships.
“That’s why I think you have seen so many players come to his aid to support him. He understands the word ‘relationship.’ I will feel great when he gets the opportunity. I know he deserves it. I know the work he puts in. I know he won’t say this, but I know he wants the opportunity as not only a coach that put in the time as a coach and a player but also as a man of color. He sees that he can be a platform for a lot of men and women of color to have opportunities in this league.”
The Timberwolves’ decision not to promote Vanterpool and not pick up his option for the 2021-22 season shined a brighter light on the lack of Black head coaches in an NBA that was roughly 75% Black. During last offseason, however, seven of the eight NBA head coaches hired were Black. Vanterpool didn’t get an NBA head-coaching interview last year, but was proud to see the progress.
“I was ecstatic for those guys getting those opportunities,” Vanterpool said with a laugh. “Five first-timers. I text everybody. Called them. Jumped for joy. Well deserved. Some have been around longer than others, but we all have had similar struggles and have gone through similar obstacle courses.”
Meanwhile, there was a fallout with the Timberwolves after Vanterpool moved on to the Nets. On Sept. 21, 2021, Rosas was fired by the Timberwolves after learning about his relationships within the organization, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor announced Rosas’ firing, replacing him with Sachin Gupta, executive vice president of basketball operations.
According to Shelburne, the evaluation process on Rosas from pending new ownership sped up the more they learned about the deterioration of his relationship with Gupta and after evidence was brought to them about a consensual romantic relationship between Rosas and another team employee. While sources told Shelburne the Wolves do not believe the relationship violated any of their internal policies, they planned to conduct an internal investigation.
“I was shocked. I thought it was a shame. I didn’t find any joy in another person losing their job or possibly their family because of a situation like that,” Vanterpool said.
He added: “I am happy for the players that are there from my time, Sachin and the organization. They are fighting through, in a better space and doing well. I will always root for them to do well.”
Working with the Nets under head coach Steve Nash, Vanterpool was reunited with Kevin Durant and James Harden, whom he coached previously with the Thunder when they advanced to the 2012 NBA Finals. Nash said Vanterpool’s experience coaching and playing in the NBA and Europe made him an attractive hire.
“He has the pedigree in terms of his basketball IQ and experience,” Nash said. “He is also very familiar with my guys. He was with James and Kevin in OKC way back when, which is a previous relationship that helps as well. He is doing a great job for us. He is a guy that is going to get an opportunity to be a head coach. He deserves an opportunity.”
For nine years, Vanterpool has come up short on being a head coach. Not getting the promotion in Minnesota may always be mind-boggling to him. But through it all, Vanterpool still believes his NBA head coach dream will come true.
“I am still going to be a head coach one day,” Vanterpool said. “I know I am. I’m qualified to do the job.”