Who are the best coaches in the league? The typical fan might rattle off a list like: Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Rick Carlisle, Brad Stevens, maybe Erik Spoelstra. It’s not often that you hear of a black coach celebrated for his success. Raptors coach Dwane Casey had a great season this past year and likely will win coach of the year. But his team got bounced from the playoffs early on. Already critics are calling for him to be fired while uplifting white coaches like Brad Stevens. I don’t mean to blame Stevens, the media or any particular person for the lack of positive media coverage for black coaches. It stems from a lack of success currently for black coaches. I think the fact that the best coaches in a league predominately comprised of black players are mostly white is a problem. And I want to know why it exists.
The NBA didn’t always look like it does today. In 1976, the freewheeling, athletic, experimenting American Basketball Association merged with the National Basketball Association. The pre-merger NBA was to today’s Association as curling is to hockey. Boring and oh-so-slow. While the ABA only brought in four teams, its impact on the NBA was immeasurable. Basketball became more exciting, highlighted by the new floor spacing, three-point shot and events such as the slam dunk contest and three-point shooting contest. The merger also brought in an influx of black players. These black players made the game more athletic, as they played above the rim. Julius Erving, or Dr. J as he was known, epitomized this style of basketball.
For as long as there had been black players in the NBA, there have been unfair stereotypes about black players. At first, they were deemed not as athletic as their white counterparts. Post-merger, this ludicrous proposition was proven false. It was proven so false that the notion today is laughable.
Next, the stereotype was that they were not as skilled. Maybe they could run and jump as fast and as well as white players, but they couldn’t dribble or shoot as well. Like its misguided predecessor, this falsehood was also debunked. Then, when people were really grasping for straws, they put out the idea that black players weren’t clutch. Sure, they were just as skilled (not to mention plain better). But when the game was on the line, they couldn’t come through in the clutch. Shockingly, this stereotype also proved to be false.
Finally, people criticized black players for not being a smart. They weren’t team managers, they couldn’t run the offense or defense or think of the game at a high-level. While this stereotype has also been exposed as racist junk (see: LeBron, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, et al.), it lingers. As a result, there’s always been a disproportionate number of black coaches giving the racial breakdown of NBA players. Today, even though the NBA hiring practices enable more racial diversity then other major sports league, they lag far behind in representative hiring practices for strictly basketball jobs like head coach, GM and president. My beloved Knicks, after hiring David Fizdale to join the team of Steve Mills and Scott Perry, are something of a unicorn in the NBA. Those three, the three most important decision makers, are all black. The 2017-18 list of NBA head coaches features seven black coaches out of 30 total: Dwane Casey, Tyronn Lue, Doc Rivers, JB Bickerstaff, Alvin Gentry, Nate McMillan, David Fizdale. The NBA is roughly three-quarters black. Hmm. It’s hard to pinpoint where on the progression from player to coach black players get shut out. I’ll try to figure it out. Expect more next week.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu