N.B.A.’s Head Coaching Diversity Under Scrutiny as Vacancies Loom

The splashy, surprising hire of Steve Nash as the Nets’ head coach is sure to galvanize the team’s fan base, with a roster headlined by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving primed to immediately compete for a championship.

However, Nash’s hire brought back into focus the ongoing discussion about how few nonwhite coaches are in the N.B.A., a league where about 80 percent of the players are Black. Nash, who has no coaching experience — even as an assistant — is white. Jacque Vaughn, who had been the Nets’ interim coach since March, is Black and had kept the team unexpectedly competitive in its 12 games in the N.B.A.’s so-called bubble in Florida, despite losing players to injuries and coronavirus infections. Vaughn was asked to stay on as the team’s lead assistant.

Before Vaughn was promoted to the interim head coaching role, he had been an assistant on the Nets since 2016 and had been one under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. He had also been a head coach for 2 ½ seasons in Orlando, where he went just 58-158.

Nash’s résumé is based almost entirely on his playing career: Over nearly two decades, he became one of the greatest point guards ever, a two-time most valuable player and Hall of Famer known for dishing flashy passes and being at the forefront of the game’s evolution from one favoring centers and post play to the one featuring mobility and 3-pointers that fans see today.

As of Thursday, seven of the 30 N.B.A. head coaches were people of color. Five of them are Black. One, James Borrego of the Charlotte Hornets, is Hispanic, and Erik Spoelstra, the coach of the Miami Heat, is of Filipino descent. Four teams have coaching vacancies: Indiana, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans.

“The N.B.A. and its teams are committed to advancing diversity, including the representation of Black executives and employees,” Mike Bass, an N.B.A. spokesman, said in a statement. He added, “We continue working hard across the board to interrupt bias in our decision-making at every level by continuing to strengthen processes, expand programming and increase accountability, and we expect to be judged over time on our progress and the totality of our results.”

Three Black head coaches were dismissed from their jobs in the last year: David Fizdale of the Knicks was fired in December and replaced in July by Tom Thibodeau, who is white; Nate McMillan was fired by the Pacers on Aug. 26, weeks after signing an extension; and Alvin Gentry was let go by New Orleans on Aug. 15 after the regular season ended.

A representative for the National Basketball Coaches Association declined to comment. The players’ union did not respond to a request for comment.

The N.B.A.’s lack of diversity in some areas has not gone unnoticed. In June, the N.B.A. and its players’ union released a statement that said “strategies to increase Black representation across the N.B.A. and its teams” had come up in their discussions about social justice.

After the statement was released, Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters: “There is no doubt there is more we can do internally, the league and our teams and in terms of our hiring practices. The league needs to do a good job, in particular, when it comes to hiring African-Americans at every level in the league.”

In July, the N.B.A. named its first-ever “chief people and inclusion officer” — Oris Stuart, who was already leading the league’s diversity efforts — aimed at codifying policies to hire more people of color in and around the league. And there has been some progress: This summer, three teams hired Black executives to be their general managers: Troy Weaver in Detroit; Marc Eversley in Chicago and Calvin Booth in Denver.

According to the most recent report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the N.B.A. league office’s staff with 39.4 percent people of color outpaces other sports leagues. After the three G.M. hirings, there are now 10 nonwhite general managers in the league.

As for coaches, the diversity concerns extend beyond the numbers. Nash’s hire also raises questions about which former players receive opportunities and which don’t. Of the nine current coaches who played in the N.B.A., including Nash, seven are white. Two are Black — Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers and Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns.

Historically, front office executives have been willing to take chances on hiring guards, of different races, without coaching experience. Recent examples include Jason Kidd, who was hired in 2013 to coach the Nets, and Steve Kerr, who was hired by Golden State the next year. Kidd’s father is Black and his mother is white. Kerr, who is white, took over the Warriors after they fired Mark Jackson, a Black former N.B.A. player, who also had no coaching experience before taking the job. There was also Derek Fisher, who had a two-year stint starting in 2014 as coach of the Knicks. Fisher is Black. Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Rivers — all Black point guards — were hired for head coaching roles without prior experience.

But there are several Black former N.B.A. players who are current assistant coaches but have yet to receive head coaching jobs. One example is Sam Cassell, who has been an N.B.A. assistant coach for the last 11 years. He also made an All-Star game and won three championships as a player.

Larry Bird, who is white and was one of the best players in N.B.A. history, was hired to coach the Pacers in 1997, with no prior coaching experience. Scottie Pippen, who is Black, won six championships alongside Michael Jordan on the 1990s Bulls and has long expressed a desire to coach. Pippen openly campaigned for the Bulls’ opening in 2007 after Scott Skiles was fired.

“What experience do you need?” Pippen told the Chicago Tribune then. “You have assistants who have been there. If I made a mistake, I wouldn’t be the first coach to make a mistake. I’d love the opportunity to be part of the organization now that Skiles is gone. I’ve won championships with this organization and been in the competition when everything was on the line. I was a coach on the floor. Why isn’t that experience?”

The job eventually went to Vinny Del Negro, a white former N.B.A. player who also had no prior coaching experience.

One of the most notable examples of a Black former player still waiting for an opportunity is the Knicks legend Patrick Ewing, who was an assistant coach in the N.B.A. for 14 years following a Hall of Fame career.

“I’d like the opportunity to succeed or fail like everybody else,” Ewing told The Washington Post in 2015. “I can’t sit around and boohoo, ‘They won’t give me an opportunity,’I just keep working and keep grinding, and whenever my name is called or somebody decides to give me that call, I just want to make sure I’m ready.”

Eventually, Ewing got the call, but it wasn’t from the N.B.A. In 2017, Ewing was hired as the head coach for the Georgetown University men’s basketball team, where he starred in the 1980s.

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