We just witnessed what can rightfully be described as a rash of coach firings. Six coaches got the ax, beginning with P.J. Carlesimo and, most recently, Reggie Theus. Four of the six coaches that got the bozak were black.
Initially, I thought nothing of it; but then I started thinking about college football and Charles Barkley and thought, “Hold up, is this a trend? Should I be concerned?” So, when I went on the 2Live Stews’ radio show, I was a little on edge and, well, misspoke. Instead of dealing with the real issues at hand—peculiar expectations, somewhat childlike impatience—I had a flashback and echoed a phrase my boys and I repeatedly employed during our high school and college years. I said, “They’re treating these black coaches like interns.” First—that’s not really the case anymore and has always been a pretty bad analogy to begin with. Second and more important—race is an issue here, but in a good way. Even with Theus, Eddie Jordan, Mo Cheeks and Sam Mitchell all out of a gig, it leaves the NBA with nine black coaches (Jordan and Theus were replaced by black men). If you add Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, a Filipino-American, that means 10 of the league’s 30 teams are coached by people of color. In a year where “progress” is on everyone’s mind, the NBA—still the most unjustly disparaged sports entity—remains sports most salient example of marching forward. This has been the case for decades, but exceptional achievement has been realized in the past 10 years. The NBA now features sports only black majority-owner (Charlotte’s Bob Johnson) and the most racially-diverse slate of coaches, team management and league officials. The NBA, in fact, is one of the more progressive big-business entities in America. So much so that the recent firing of nearly half of the League’s black coaches is not exactly a concerning trend—not for fans, not for media and surely not for the league office.
“As a league, I think we’re past that,” is Mike Bantom’s assertion. He’s the NBA’s senior vice president of player development, the dude that reaches out to the Derek Fishers of the world post-retirement and makes sure that the Randy Foyes of the world know “they have the capability to do and be whatever; that they are more than just ball players.” Bantom said the League has been pro-diversity for long enough and with enough tangible results to treat race as a non-issue. It is a league that has, as he termed, “evolved” to a stage where diversity and inclusion happens by a sort of, let’s say, osmosis. It is a league that now gives Mike Brown time to develop with his team and not hijack the squad from him as soon as it’s “on the verge.” It is a league that hires Reggie Theus with scarce head-coaching experience at a middle-rung college and where a black GM puts Michael Curry, with no head coaching experience, in charge of a contender. It is a league that is, in one word, progressive.
This is set against the backdrop of college football, where just four of 119 Division-I coaches are black. The pervasive, good ol’ boy exclusivity in college football would be comical, were it not so infuriating. Barkley ripped his alma mater Auburn for hiring a head coach, Gene Chizik, that went 5-19 in two season at Iowa State, instead of UB’s hotshot Turner Gill. Richard Lapchick, in a piece written for ESPN.com, deemed the import of college football’s lily-white coaching frat “scandalous.” I like to call it criminal. These schools, conferences and television stations make collective billions off these black athletes, right? But they won’t hire their elder black men to lead them? NCAA president Myles Brand wrote a wack editorial for Huffington Post, wringing his own hand. It was a joke. Apparently, the NCAA needs some EOE policies. Lapchick—who directs The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida and has authored the annual Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) for the past 13 years, where the NBA routinely ranks at the top, by a considerable margin—says, college football’s problem is notable because it is going backwards. Fifteen years ago, there were eight black coaches (still criminal), now there’s four. This is brazen. In his article, Lapchick goes so far as to say, “It is time to declare a civil rights movement in college football.” His first suggestion happens to be enacting a Robinson Rule (named after venerable Grambling coach Eddie Robinson). The Robinson Rule would be a sibling of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, established in 2003 to help the NFL with its diversity problem. The Rooney Rule mandates that a minority must be interviewed for each coaching vacancy. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig enacted a similar policy for his league’s hiring practices. Both leagues, unlike college football, have improved. They still, however, feature concerning statistics, such as MLB’s merely three general managers or NFL teams hiring four white men for its four coaching vacancies this past offseason. The NBA—with higher percentages of executives, coaches, general managers, even referees—leaves everyone in the dust.
Not to say that past or present league commissioners and NCAA presidents were/are bigots, but the NBA’s status as a diversity vanguard can largely be attributed to its commissioner, David Stern. True, before David Stern took over in 1984, Bill Russell had already pioneered a movement when he replaced Red Auerbach (while he was still a player) and lead the Boston Celtics to two championships in three years; Lenny Wilkens (Seattle Sonics, 1979) and KC Jones (Celtics, 1984) later followed suit. Stern, however, brought with him a clear and proactive embrace of diversity that was apparent to all who bothered to take notice. As a kid, I remember hearing my pops say things like, “I like this Stern dude. He ain’t scared of the bruthas.” Many of the League’s fans were scared, but it was and is clear to everyone that Stern’s M.O. is to push the NBA forward, even if it leaves some stunted folks behind.
Lapchick, identifying why the NBA has long lapped its peers in the diversity-pursuit, said Stern set the tone on two levels: “He made diversity a business imperative and a moral imperative.” The “moral imperative” part is what strikes me. Often, when it comes to entertainment, diversity doesn’t always make business sense (just check network television and Hollywood). There are reasons why college athletic directors diss colored folk, so often—they’re called boosters. Stern, in a climate that still bore remnants of the league’s Too Black 70s, defiantly marketed black players in the late 80s and early 90s. By the new millennium, this business and moral imperative was bearing conspicuous fruit. It was seen on the court and commercials, yes, but also on the sidelines and in team executive and league offices. By 2002, nearly half of the coaches were black.
When Bantom retired as a player in 1982, after a nine-year, largely pedestrian pro career, he was looking to transition to professional work with the League. Stern wanted him to work for the League. “The door was open,” he says. “He runs as a meritocracy, much like basketball itself.” Recruitment. Each season, my eyes get wide when I see a former player pop up on a bench with a clipboard. “Is that Tyrone Hill?!” “Oh schnap! That’s Monty Williams.” Is there any doubt that Sam Cassell will be a coach? Grant Hill will be the owner or CEO of a squad one day. That’s not even up for argument, right? Chris Carter, had he played basketball, would be a GM.
We can argue all day about whether Mitchell deserved to be fired, while the Raptors hovered around .500; or, while his best player (Gilbert Arenas) sat injured on the bench, if was it cool to tell Eddie to get to steppin’; or if Stefanski was a little too trigger-happy with Mo. Any conclusions on those fronts is circumstantial and subjective. What is interesting to note is that, as the season began, almost every black coach—somewhat historically given the “job no one wants”—manned the sidelines for playoff-hopeful squads. Philly, Toronto and Washington weren’t Memphis or Oklahoma City. Those were desirable jobs. In each case (even Sacramento’s case), the coaches were doing worse than expected when they were fired. I think some patience was in order, but as Rev Run says, “Whayagonnado?” They weren’t winning, that puts their gigs in jeopardy. That’s meritocracy. And what might be even more important to note is that each of these coaches are almost sure to receive another head coaching gig down the road and there are others—like Avery Johnson or Mario Elie or Mark Jackson—we will see calling plays soon enough. As Bantom says, diversity in the NBA is “fluid.”
In a way, the NBA is not just ahead of its sports peers, but American workplaces, in general.
“This is the way we should all be operating,” said Bantom. “That’s how you change society. You do what you can, where you are.”
Don’t smirk. Sports, as Lapchick says, “has always had potential to be a leader on social issues.” And on this issue of diversity, the NBA, in spite of the recent firings, still leads the way. The others should do well to catch up.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.