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The NBA’s coaching dilemma

Black coaches connect well with players, so why are so few in lead roles?

With the LA Clippers officially hiring Tyronn Lue to be their head coach this week, the number of Black head coaches in the NBA is now at six.

Out of 30 teams.

In a league where nearly 80% of the players are Black, that is troubling, because it is invaluable for players to have a coach who can relate to them.

I’m not suggesting that all white coaches have issues relating to Black players. But in my personal experience in the NBA, that was definitely the case.

I recently sat down with my former Washington Wizards teammate Larry Hughes and we discussed our experiences under both Doug Collins, who is white, and Eddie Jordan, who is Black. Hughes and I reminisced about a failed attempt by Collins to relate to his players.

Nelly’s song “Dilemma” with Kelly Rowland had come out, and Hughes had a cameo in the music video. (Good song.) One day, Collins comes into the training room rapping and dancing like Kris Kross back in the day, lifting up his knees and pointing his hands to the floor (young people may not remember this image, but that’s the best way I can describe it), saying to everyone, “I know this song Nelly Kelly, right? I’m hip, I’m down, and attempting to rap the hook.

“No matter what I do/all I think about is you/even when I’m with my boo.”

Picture that for a moment. A 50-year-old white man coming into a training room filled with Black players trying to rap. We all just looked at him. Some snickered, while others like me were in utter disbelief. There was an awkward silence, then Collins turned around and went back to his office.

It was Christian Laettner who said, “What the hell was that?” as we all burst into laughter.

Head coach Doug Collins of the Washington Wizards talks with Kwame Brown #5, Jerry Stackhouse #42 and Etan Thomas #36 during the NBA game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on January 2, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois.

Noren Trotman/NBAE via Getty Images

But what Collins was attempting to do was what many white coaches have had difficulty doing: relating to Black players. Now, not all attempts are epic failures like this one, but I have seen my share of misses.

Coach Jordan, on the other hand, would simply pull you to the side or into his office and just talk with you. It didn’t feel forced. It didn’t feel manufactured, and he actually connected with guys.

Hughes said he didn’t have that connection with Collins.

“When I was with Doug, he would always ask me, ‘Are you OK? Is everything OK?’ ” Hughes said. “He was just nervous around me because of my demeanor and it would make him nervous.”

I can relate to that because Collins didn’t know how to communicate with me, either. Some of his former assistant coaches later told me that I made him uncomfortable because he couldn’t get a read on me and didn’t know what box to put me in, and that made him nervous. So my question is, how do you coach people you are nervous around?

For me, having that connection with Jordan was crucial. It built a relationship and a trust that translated on the court.

During my time with the Wizards, I released my first book of poetry, More Than An Athlete. I was also performing spoken word and delivering speeches all over Washington about politics, racism and police brutality. Coach Jordan would sometimes ask me about my thoughts and opinions on certain topics and just listen to me. He would share his experiences and we would just talk. He showed a genuine interest in what I was interested in and we connected. That’s how you develop a relationship with a coach, simply by communicating.

And that translated on the court as well. Because of our communication during games, what he specifically wanted out of my position and the role he wanted me to play, I trusted him. So even during the times when I wasn’t getting as much playing time as I wanted to, and he told me that I had to outwork who was playing in front of me to earn more playing time, I was able to trust him and implement exactly what he wanted. That resulted in me being the preferred center despite being 4 or 5 inches shorter than our starting center. All that happened because of communication and trust.

Again, I am not saying that all white coaches are nervous around Black players. You see white coaches with great connections to Black players. Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors is a perfect example. Stan Van Gundy, who was recently hired by the New Orleans Pelicans and whose recent willingness to speak out on activism has connected him with players on a level that probably far surpasses his previous stints in Orlando and Detroit. And just to be clear, I’m not someone who believes Steve Nash got the job in Brooklyn because of white privilege. That was simply because Kevin Durant, who developed a relationship with Nash when he was a special assistant in Golden State, pushed for him to get the job and Kyrie Irving co-signed.

But what I witnessed and experienced in Washington with my white coach versus what I experienced with my Black coach was worlds apart.

And in today’s world, there is a need for Black leadership. Say what you want about Doc Rivers’ performance with the Clippers in the 2020 playoffs, but his presence in the bubble was crucial for players. He could relate to them in ways others couldn’t.

There’s a reason a lot of white coaches send the Black assistant coach to be a buffer with the players.

“Who can normally do that?” Hughes said. “It’s usually people who look like us. Have swag like us. That know how to translate and know how to play both sides. And they typically are not using the white assistant coaches in that role because they can’t play both sides. But it is the Black guy because he can play both sides. That’s how we’ve grown up, that’s been our culture. We’ve had to go from one side to the other side very quickly. And if you can relate and be that guy. …

“T-Lue is one of those guys. He went from being that connector to leading those guys to a championship.”

If NBA teams look to Black assistant coaches to have someone to relate to the players, why not just make the head person the one who can actually relate?

Why do we continue to see coaches who have proven themselves unable to connect to players be recycled while certain Black coaches who have had success on the court and with players aren’t given opportunities?

Assistant coaches Randy Brown (Chicago Bulls), Greg Buckner (Memphis Grizzlies), Sam Cassell (Clippers), Jarron Collins (Warriors), Howard Eisley (New York Knicks), Darvin Ham (Atlanta Hawks), Tim Hardaway Sr. (Detroit Pistons), Popeye Jones (Indiana Pacers), Jamahl Mosley (Dallas Mavericks), Ed Pinckney (Minnesota Timberwolves), Ime Udoka (San Antonio Spurs), Wes Unseld Jr. (Denver Nuggets) and Nick Van Exel (Grizzlies) are among the candidates who should get an opportunity.

Mark Jackson, meanwhile, last coached in the league in 2014. Many of his former players in Golden State spoke highly of him, including Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Kerr has also given Jackson credit for making the Warriors a great defensive team, going from 27th in the league in defensive efficiency to fourth in his final season.

So why does someone with this amount of success on the court as well as the obvious connection with his players get passed up for jobs?

I asked Jackson this past season if he had any interest in coaching again.

“I certainly do have an interest in coaching professional basketball again,” he said. “I had a blast and the time of my life coaching in Golden State for three years. Developed relationships, had a level of success, it was a fun time for me. And I certainly look forward to the opportunity of one day coaching again.”

There were nine coaching vacancies this offseason. Seven have been filled so far, with only two Black head coach candidates getting jobs.

Byron Scott last coached for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016. He once suggested that more players should advocate for Black coaches to get head-coaching jobs like Kobe Bryant did for him.

Maybe that’s the solution.

Etan Thomas is a senior writer for basketballnews.com and is the host of a podcast called The Rematch. He also writes for The Guardian and has previously written for The Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN, ESPN, Hoopshype.com and slamonline. He frequently can be seen on MSNBC as a special correspondent for “hot topics.” and co-hosts a weekly local radio show on WPFW 89.3FM, The Collision, where sports and politics collide.