- Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on Friday, Sept 4. after "Giants Postgame Live" on NBC Sports Bay Area.
When Steve Nash was hired as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, I contacted a few NBA assistants and scouts, most of them Black, for reaction. Not one gripe. The expressions of respect for his grasp of basketball were deserving of applause.
There also was considerable elaboration, mostly in the form of frustration with the process by which head coaches are hired at both the NBA and high-major college levels.
The job market for Black head coaches is, in general, cool. In some places, it’s frosty.
The recent firings of Nate McMillan by the Indiana Pacers and Alvin Gentry by the New Orleans Pelicans reduced to five the number of Black coaches in the NBA: J.B. Bickerstaff (Cleveland Cavaliers), Dwane Casey (Detroit Pistons), Lloyd Pierce (Atlanta Hawks), Doc Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers) and Monty Williams (Phoenix Suns). In a league that is more than 80 percent Black, they account for 19.2 percent of the filled jobs, with four still open.
“Some of the guys are frustrated,” one assistant said via text message.
“Steve is a good hire,” another assistant, by phone, said of the two-time NBA MVP. “He’s never coached, but he’s brilliant when it comes to basketball. And I’m sure he has the backing of KD (Kevin Durant) and Kyrie (Irving). That’s a big factor in the NBA.
“But the list of qualified Black assistants, guys putting in their time and going nowhere, seems to be getting longer and longer.”
That can make college hoops tempting. Jerry Stackhouse, an NBA All-Star and former G League Coach of the Year, longed for the NBA but 17 months ago headed to Vanderbilt University.
The college game, at the top, is less welcoming than the NBA. In the Pac-12 Conference, Black coaches account for zero percent of the 12 jobs in men’s basketball. There are no Black men’s coaches and only two Black women’s coaches.
Ernie Kent has coached basketball for more than 40 years. He spent 13 years at Oregon and then five at Washington State before being fired in March of last year. As a panelist on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation” Friday night on NBC Sports Bay Area, he offers a two-part theory on why Black coaches are declining at the college level.
Part One cites the absence of powerful Black men’s head coaches who were part of the national face of the game. Such titans as John Chaney, George Raveling and Nolan Richardson all are well beyond 75 tears old and retired. John Thompson, the biggest of them all and also retired, died last Sunday. Their presence and advocacy mattered.
“There was great opportunity when those powerful voices were in the game,” Kent said. “As those voices have left the game, opportunities are not so great right now. There’s a glass ceiling sitting there, because you have some outstanding assistant coaches that are being well-paid, sitting on benches not getting opportunities to get upper-level jobs or even jobs that are equal. They’re all going to have to go down and start at lower-paying jobs, giving up some of their money. And they may have to do that to be successful.
“So, there’s a bit of a challenge right now in a game that’s majority African American athletes . . . and those numbers are not as strong as they used to be, and certainly not as strong as they need to be.”
While nearly 80 percent of scholarship players – those recruited to carry the program – at major colleges are Black, according to the annual report by Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the percentage of head coaches in the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, SEC) hovers around 14 percent, according to a study by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Compare that to 2005, when Black coaches accounted for nearly one-third of the 68 jobs in power conferences.
Which brings us to Part II of Kent’s theory. Athletic directors seeking a head coach generally rely on the results submitted by search firms.
“And 90 percent of your search firms are white, 90 percent of the athletic directors are white, probably 98 percent of your presidents are white and probably 98 percent of your board of regents are white,” Kent said. “Those are the hiring factors when you consider what comes into that room that they can feel comfortable with.”
The other "Race in America" panelist, Naismith Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, who spent three seasons as head coach at St. John’s, cited the belief that Black coaches get less latitude for failure and also face a higher standard. They’ve always had to “do more,” he said.
“And that still exists,” Mullin said.
Nets interim head coach Jacque Vaughn was impressive in the bubble, but Nash’s star quality and connection with Durant were additional factors. Vaughn was retained as associate head coach, rejoining the ranks of at least 15 Black NBA assistants considered qualified but still awaiting a call.