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SAN FRANCISCO — Every time there’s a head coach opening in the NBA, team presidents and owners will get calls from commissioner Adam Silver, deputy commissioner Mark Tatum or executive vice president Oris Stuart offering resources to make sure the hiring process is diverse.
And after years of internal and external criticism, the league has turned things around, particularly in the area of Black coaches. Half of the NBA’s head coaches are Black, after hitting a low mark of six less than two years ago.
Tatum has been at the forefront of this initiative with the league’s teams, having always suggested the numbers were cyclical but knowing something had to be done. The NBA has a database containing the names of nearly 400 assistant coaches across all levels of the league and G League that teams have access to.
“Presidents, general managers, people in charge of making those decisions have access to that database, so they can look, go in there and say, ‘Hmm, I would have never known about this candidate, but now I have access to them,’ ” Tatum told Yahoo Sports before Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Chase Center. “Here’s a list of candidates. So there’s a culture now where it’s just part of the process and it’s just an expectation. And I think we’re seeing that sort of really, really pay off.”
Some have viewed “diversity” as a dirty word, as if a wider net would preclude an organization from hiring the best candidate. And it’s certainly true the margins are often thin in these instances, especially when it’s easy to hire someone they’re familiar with or have a sixth degree of separation connection to.
The league still has plenty of work to do when it comes to team presidents and personnel on the business side as way too many qualified executives and basketball lifers have been passed over for numerous jobs through the years, which the league privately acknowledges. But its progress in the coaching space must be noted.
Tatum says the NBA is on the cusp of a woman coach breaking through, citing legitimate interviews that have occurred through the years. It’s a matter of time, he said.
The NBA had to be intentional and sometimes forceful to the minute number of teams who were resistant to such suggestions. It has always resented the idea of implementing an NFL-style “Rooney Rule,” mandating interviews for non-white male candidates. The primary reasons being: it hasn’t worked, and it felt it could organically change processes around its teams.
Seeing Ime Udoka lead the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals in his first year after watching Monty Williams do it in Phoenix in his second season should’ve at least created a copycat effect, and perhaps it has.
Celtics assistant and former Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire joined Udoka and now has a sense of optimism he can get in the first chair when an opportunity opens.
“When Ime wins, you win. When Monty wins, you win,” Stoudamire told Yahoo Sports. “I do applaud the NBA for, and the owners, first for acknowledging it, and then doing something about it, and then the guys that have gotten the jobs, for being ready for the job.”
The two iconic franchises in the NBA will be led by Black coaches, Udoka in Boston and Darvin Ham taking over with the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s not just coaching jobs for the sake of, it’s the quality of opportunities and a chance to grow from previous experiences.
“I look at guys, [Jason] Kidd, this is his third opportunity, in Dallas,” Stoudamire said. “And he did a great job, he’s not getting enough credit for the job he did. I see this thing evolving. For me, I’m really encouraged.”
Black coaches rarely get the third opportunity, and perhaps Kidd was a special case given his relationship with the Mavericks. Regardless, he has put his stamp on it from the moment he arrived. Coaches had to be aware of which opportunities they selected because some were environments that weren’t conducive to winning. But they couldn’t afford to turn down a chance, either.
There was a sense of despair from veteran coaches and assistants knocking on the door alike. The evidence was clear: last hired, first fired. The number was seven in the 2015-16 season and seven at the 2020-21 season — a year in which four Black coaches made the second round of the playoffs (Doc Rivers, Williams, Ty Lue and Nate McMillan).
The reasons were myriad, from not having the exposure to the game shifting toward using more analytics — an area that routinely excludes diversity, sometimes purposely — to team ownership hands changing at a larger rate over the past decade than at any point in the league’s history.
And it’s not a shock some people weren’t comfortable hiring Black men in positions of leadership and power. The micro in every situation is sometimes justifiable, but the macro picture wasn’t pretty. Plus, coaches often felt like they couldn’t speak out if they didn’t get an opportunity, for fear of being excluded from other opportunities.
No advocates, no avenues.
Coaches like Rivers or Dwane Casey have been left to bang the drum for the entire industry, almost an unfair burden to place on the deans.
“I think some Black coaches, maybe in the past, they got slighted, but you didn’t say too much,” Stoudamire said. “Like if you’re going to be the one to complain and you don’t have anyone speaking up for you, it looks like you’re a malcontent.”
Stoudamire was in the college ranks for years, at Memphis and then later at Arizona, where he starred as a collegian before being the inaugural selection by the Toronto Raptors in 1995. During his playing days, he didn’t see much of a connection between team ownership and assistant coaches, a trend he says has changed, at least in Boston.
“It’s amazing when you know your [team] owners on a first-name basis. Like, the owners break bread with us,” Stoudamire said. “The dynamics are totally different. It’s not out of the ordinary to see our owners watching practice and they’re not watching practice to critique it, they watch practice just to watch practice.
“It used to be when the owners and the president of the team come in, there’s about to be a move being made. Somebody’s gonna get traded. My coach is on the hot seat, but no it’s not like that.”
There’s a personal touch that exists, Stoudamire says, that can’t be gauged in a two-hour interview. Even so, the NBA has been more active in prepping prospective coaches for opportunities.
“We’re doing mock interviews, we’re going through those processes with these assistant coaches, former players who haven’t gone through the process yet,” Tatum said. “And really mentoring them, here’s what to expect when going into those interviews. Not just having the pipeline but the preparation.”
More tools, no excuses — for the teams.
With that human connection, the NBA has fostered more chances for coaches to be in informal settings to create familiarity. Unfortunately, the old-boys network will forever exist, and it’s impossible to know what’s said behind closed doors.
“What is still very true in this business is, when you’re making hiring decisions, you want to make sure that you’re comfortable, like there has to be some rapport,” Tatum said. “We’ve been creating a lot of programs around that, around Summer League where governors, heads of basketball operations engage with and interact and socialize with potential candidates.”
Tatum again acknowledges how cyclical things are, but believes the league’s processes will consistently produce results it can be proud of.