The Eastern Conference playoffs between the Cleveland Cavs and Toronto Raptors was a rare display of black coaching prowess as African-American coaches Tyronn Lue and Dwane Casey stalked the sideline as leaders of their championship hopeful franchises.
It was a good look for the NBA, which is praised for being the leading professional sports entity on issues of diversity in hiring. It has a long history of hiring African-Americans, women and people of color to ground-breaking positions within its 30 teams and its league offices.
However, when you take a closer look at the types of jobs African-Americans are getting, you will see a lingering disparity in opportunity at the highest positions of leadership within the league and on the team level.
While Casey and Lue did the dirty work on the front line, white team execs and president’s popped champagne in the private suites and watched over their investments with an overseer’s posture, symbolizing the shortcomings the NBA still has with diversity at the leadership level.
Influence starts at the top and trickles down. Without a diverse brain trust influencing the highest levels of decision-making, certain groups of people can easily be eliminated from the process. The NBA has roughly 15 minority owners, including well known celebrities such as Will & Jada Smith (Philadelphia 76ers) and Nelly (Charlotte Hornets) and TNT basketball analyst Grant Hill, who recently became a minority owner of the Atlanta Hawks.
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Michael Jordan (Charlotte Hornets), however, is the lone African-American majority owner. He has an iron fist that can't be tempered and is an anomaly in the NBA; a black boss of all bosses.
You immediately see where the ultimate power lies in the NBA, how it is shaped and distributed, and why there are only eight African-American coaches out of 30 teams in the league.
Or why the last three NBA teams that have made GM and president hires haven’t tapped one of the many qualified minority candidates for the position.
The Brooklyn Nets didn’t interview one person of color before hiring New Zealand native Sean Marks as their new GM, despite his minimal experience as an assistant coach.
Philadelphia 76ers president Jerry Colangelo hired his son, Bryan, to be its new GM and after the Minnesota T-Wolves got rid of African-American GM Milt Newton, they went with a whiteout, hiring Tom Thibodeau as president and coach and Scott Layden as general manager.
In fact, according to Comcast Sports Chicago, “Since 2010, 30 NBA positions for president of basketball operations or general manager have been filled with just six African-Americans."
In other words, we ain’t there yet. Not even close.
In 2015, Dr. Richard Lapchick's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) in the University of Central Florida's College of Business Administration released the latest edition of the National Basketball Association Racial and Gender Report Card, which covers the league’s diversity hiring for the 2014-2015 season.
The report gave the NBA an A overall – A+ for racial hiring practices in men’s sports, and B+ for gender hiring in men’s sports.
The NBA’s score was the best in all of men’s professional sports.
“No other men’s league reaches the same points for race, gender or the combined score,” said Lapchick. “The NBA remains the industry leader among men’s sports for racial hiring practices...overall, the NBA more than understands that diversity and inclusion are business imperatives.”
The NBA received an A+ for racial hiring practices in the League Office, head coaches, assistant coaches, professional administration at the team level and for player opportunities. Across the League, it earned an A- for general managers and senior administration at the team level, and a B for team vice presidents.
They received an A+ for gender hiring practices in the League Office and a B+ for professional administration at the team level.
The league that David Stern built and entrusted to Adam Silver is the darling of The Lapchick report on diversity, year after year.
But for too long, the NBA has gotten a free pass for its lack of diversity at the highest executive positions. In fact, according to Lapchick’s 2015 diversity assessment, there were notable declines for people of color, especially among head coaches.
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With all due respect to LeBron James and Steph Curry’s accomplishments on the court, in the African-American community at least, those declining numbers spark a red flag. If anything, the amount of African-American head coaches, owners, executives, team presidents and general managers should be increasing each season as the game evolves with a changing world.
At the beginning of this season, 33.3 percent of all head coaches were coaches of color, which was a decrease from the 43.3 percent recorded at the commencement of 2013-2014, while the number of white head coaches increased to 66.7 percent at the beginning of 2014-2015, a 10 percent jump from the previous season.
In 2013-14, the NBA set a new record for assistant coaches of color at 46.7 percent. However in 2015, it dropped significantly to 40.8 percent.
The number of team presidents/CEOs of color decreased from 13 percent (seven) in 2013-2014 to 8.8 percent (five) in 2014-2015.
Despite all of the impressive grades the NBA received in its hiring diversity, a deeper look revealed that the NBA received a D+ for senior administrators at the team level and an F for team vice presidents.
This makes sense. Senior administrator and president gigs usually are appointed by the owner, so being that 99 percent of ownership is non-African-American, most of the guys that would be considered an owner’s right hand man or woman tend to be similar to the owner in gender and race.
It’s a commonality and comfortability in hiring practices that tends to leave African-Americans on the outside looking in. Or at the most, looking up to white people who still hold the majority of leadership and high-level decision making gigs in the NBA.
Qualified black candidates are overlooked every day and there’s no logical explanation why.
Last season, Monty Williams was fired after New Orleans made the playoffs for the first time since Anthony Davis stormed the town. His firing came as a shock to many fans and lowered the number of African-American coaches at the time to six.
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ESPN's Stephen A. Smith had some thoughts on the situation and said what many black people, players included, feel:
“What you see...is a situation where there are guys focused on these numbers, these analytics guys. Why are they becoming so popular? Primarily it’s because they speak a language owners understand. So they come in there, the owners are able to hire them on the cheap. They ultimately hire folks they’re comfortable with and they’re in the know with, who are also on the cheap. Unfortunately, they’re usually not black. It’s in danger of becoming an epidemic and I am shocked that no black players have spoken up about this.”
Sam Cassell was supposedly a strong candidate for the vacant Washington Wizards job, but instead it went to former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks in April.
Avery Johnson, a successful NBA coaching veteran, was reportedly in line for a shot at the Pelicans job, but that fell through. At least the hire, Alvin Gentry, is an African-American, but it’s still kind of shocking that a guy like Avery who won 67, 60 and 51 games from 2005-07 before failing in his attempts to revive a horrible Nets franchise and getting fired 28 games into the 2012-13 season has not sniffed another NBA head coaching job since. He’s proved that if he has talent, he can get a team to the Conference Finals as he did in 05-06.
“I’m not saying that 50% of the league needs to be black, but it shouldn’t be six out of 30,” Smith continued. “It should clearly be more in a league that’s predominantly African-American. There are coaches falling every day."
More Than A Few Good Men
It’s like a one shot deal for most of these head coaches. Or no deal in the case of guys like Patrick Ewing, whose name came up for the NY Knicks job which went to Jeff Hornacek, and constantly surfaces when the NBA’s coaching carousel started flying off the handle.
Ewing, Adrian Griffin and Darrell Armstrong are currently assistant coaches with past ties to the Magic and Griffin and Armstrong were both considered strong possibilities for the Orlando Magic position, which went to former Indiana coach Frank Vogel instead.
Since the 2015-16 preseason, eight black coaches have been fired. There have also been nine new black coaches introduced during that time.
With the recent hiring of David Fizdale by the Memphis Grizzlies organization, the NBA now has eight African-American coaches out of its 30 teams (Houston Rockets job is still vacant). That’s just 26.7 percent of all head coaches and it’s an alarming drop off from just two years ago.
It’s not going unnoticed either.
“Clearly the NBA has lost its way,” said WXYZ sports anchor Rob Parker, who has covered the league since 1987. “At one time, the league was at the forefront for hiring people of color as coaches and executives. Something has changed. The league must take a look and see what happened, why things have gone backwards. And make sure there is equal opportunity for all.”
The NBA has done no more than play musical chairs with black head coaches. They are almost faceless at times because one minute they are here, and the next they are gone.
Coaches such as Larry Drew and Mike Brown and Mark Jackson and Tyrone Corbin and Maurice Cheeks and Keith Smart and Paul Silas were all competent minds who were fired in the past three seasons and have since been forgotten about.
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There were nine African-American head coaches at the start of the 2014-2015 NBA season: Glenn “Doc” Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers, Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks, Monty Williams, New Orleans Pelicans, Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors, Derek Fisher, New York Knicks, Lionel Hollins, Brooklyn Nets, Byron Scott, Los Angeles Lakers, Brian Shaw, Denver Nuggets and Jacque Vaughn, Orlando Magic.
Only three of those guys are currently head coaches in the NBA. Doc is still going in LA, Jason Kidd is secure in Milwaukee and Dwane Casey just led Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals. Casey was awarded on Thursday with a three-year, $18 million dollar deal, but if history is any indication, outside of the money, his job security hasn't increased a bit.
Derek Fisher was the first “marquee” hire of the Phil Jackson Era, but his tenure amounted to a quick latte’ with the Knicks as he was only given 136 games to turn around a dysfunctional and depleted franchise. Fish was fired and replaced by Kurt Rambis for the remainder of this 2015-16 season.
White coaches with no experience get hired all the time. Before Fisher got his head coaching job, a black coach without NBA experience hadn’t been hired since 2004.
Lionel Hollins got booted by the Nets in January after a season and a half. Here’s a guy who had six strong seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies in the tough Western Conference, culminating with three straight winning campaigns, 56-wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2012-13. His interim replacement Tony Brown was African-American, but he was just babysitting the position for Kenny Atkinson
The Lapchick Report’s overall generic numbers definitely make it seem as if the NBA has no problems hiring black coaches and that may be true, but when you look deeper into how long these black coaches actually get to keep their jobs, you’ll see that they are no more than symbolic tokens of diversity and usually get one season to turn a team into a winner.
The question we should be asking is, how come if the NBA is 75% black, there are only eight black head coaches?
And usually if these black coaches don’t show some type of miracle results in a short span, then they are fired or their contract is not renewed and their chances of getting one of the limited gigs with another team is slim-to-none.
Many have to go back to an assistant position somewhere, or college, enter TV or find another hustle within the administration. The attitude is almost like, “Ok, we satisfied our quota and our goals for diversity and we don’t have to do any more.“
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That’s the difference in potential opportunity for white coaches like David Blatt and Kevin McHale, who were hastily relieved of their posts this past regular season. They will end up on their feet with another organization. The “ole boys” network will ensure that.
The numbers say it’s more likely that Hollins will be waiting for a call long after Blatt and McHale land new gigs. Interim coach Brown, like many black coaches desperately seeking the rare opportunity to lead a team, was a sacrificial lamb in a dark Nets season of futility. His 11-34 performance will probably cause him to fall into oblivion somewhere and we will forget he ever had an opportunity to coach Brooklyn.
He took one for the team and it backfired. The only thing worse than being a successful African-American coach who was fired and is looking for a second shot is being a former African-American coach with a losing record.
Former Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows success as a player and a coach. He had Golden State on the brink of championship-caliber results when he was fired and replaced by Steve Kerr. The former St. John’s star helped draft, cultivate and prepare the Warriors for the greatness that has blossomed under Kerr, who now gets all of the accolades for the Warriors championship and current historic performance.
The reasons for Jackson’s firing had little to do with his basketball acumen, although team management says he didn’t win soon enough. One former NBA GM, who is now a minority owner with an NBA squad told me “Jackson’s firing had more to do with his “strong” demeanor which collided with Golden State big wigs.”
They basically wanted a coach that would ease up on the “building young black men on and off the the court” thing, step into the millennium and just do it they way upper management wants.
The Dark Ceiling
Despite all of the props the media gives the NBA for being the best of the worst as far as pro franchises and hiring African-Americans to leadership positions is concerned, in reality they have done nothing more than mask this harboring of “real” power and silent bigotry in increased hiring of blacks, women and other minority groups in second and third-tier jobs.
Lapchick’s group of distinguished brains highlight the fact that at the NBA League Office, 35.4 percent of professional staff positions were held by people of color, an increase from 35.1 percent at the end of the 2013-2014 season.
There were also increases in people of color who held team senior administration positions (19.2 percent to 20 percent in 2014-2015) and team professional administration positions (25.7 percent to 26.4 percent in 2014-2015). That can cover anything from being head of arena security to head of the cheerleading squad.
At the same time, however, assistant coaches who were people of color comprised just 40.8 percent of the NBA’s assistant coaches, which was the lowest recorded percent of assistant coaches of color since 2006- 2007. When assistant coach numbers decrease for brothers, then that also slows up their access to the pipeline which leads to higher ranking jobs and front office positions.
The NBA tries to paint a picture of unrivaled progression in diversity hiring, but the numbers still don’t add up. We see singular faces of success in an arena where African-American entrepreneurship, leadership and agenda shaping should be the norm.
Mark Tatum was appointed NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer in 2014.Mark’s appointment made him the highest-ranked African-American in the league office of any of the major American.professional.sports, which is a step forward for African-Americans, but a sad revelation concerning the overall lack of diversity at high level positions throughout sports.
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There is a deep, unshakable and twisted ideology that still remains at the top of the financial food chain in most any major corporation -- especially pro sports. African-Americans can provide the money- generating labor, clean the kitchen, prepare the parties and the meals, even take care of the babies, govern subordinates and give a suggestion to master, but they are still kept on the outside of the “private VIP room,” where all of the real decisions are made and the biggest players play.
Former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling was the perfect example of the NBA’s cloaked bigotry. He had tons of low-level black employees, an African-American head coach and Elgin Baylor had a 22-year stint as General Manager of the team before being fired shortly before the 2008–09 season.
Sterling’s defense to his egregious, secretly-recorded, racially insensitive remarks to his former girlfriend about black people was that he employed thousands of them over the years and fed their families. However, his record with hiring top executives, coaches and filling true positions of leadership, isn’t as diverse. They reflect his true feelings about how high the African-American should rise in his business kingdom. In other words, he’d never let an African-American get their hands on any significant aspect of his team beyond basketball duties.
Sterling’s basketball ideology is similar to Donald Trump’s political philosophies.
Indeed, Trump has hired plenty of African-Americans as administrators and second-tier and lower-level employees at his many businesses, but are any of those black people CEO’s or CFO’s or high-ranking management, driving agendas and leading major decisions in the company? If he rises to the Presidency, will any of Trump’s personal appointments -- the people wielding real power and influence -- be African-American? And I don’t mean the person of color brought in to help put out potential firestorms that happen to strike a national nerve within the black community.
The facts are the facts. While the NBA may be good at filling in the painting with color, the canvas shows a ceiling of opportunity for darker shades of brown that doesn’t exist for their white counterparts striving towards similar goals.
In 2014-15, there were four African-American chief executive officers and presidents in the NBA, a decrease from 13 percent to 8.8 percent. Those classified as “others” held 1.8 percent of the CEO/president positions, while Latinos and Asians had no representation at the CEO/president positions.
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NBA general managers of color remained at six (19.4 percent) in the 2014-2015 season. There were five African-American (16.1 percent) general managers in the NBA. Rich Cho, General Manager of the Charlotte Hornets, remains the only Asian general manager in the history of the NBA. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors GM, is from Nigeria
Is the NBA really contributing to a broader playing field and more opportunity for people of color?
Or has it mastered the art of illusion, satisfying the status quo and appearing ultra progressive, while protecting the interests and concentrating the ultimate power in the hands of the same few that have ruled the corporate landscape since the NBA went viral.
The numbers tell a story that can be perceived in different ways. As African-Americans we are trained to look deeper because we have always been told that any type of progress is acceptable progress. That philosophy in how we judge the NBA’s hiring diversity has led to a decrease in executive power and an increase in lower-level workforce labor.
Some suggest that the NBA needs to institute a mandate similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule” in which a minority candidate must be interviewed for coaching and certain executive positions.
However, it’s 2016. The African-American has proven our capabilities in every aspect of running a major corporation. It’s time for the NBA to stop practicing smoke signals and trying to frame a narrative, and just use an open mind and some common sense.