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Shocking as it seemed at first glance, the Brooklyn Nets’ decision to hire Steve Nash as head coach is a difficult one to criticize. To the extent anyone is equipped to coach an NBA team without any experience on the bench, why not one of the smartest point guards in history who comes into the job with the admiration and respect of star players?
But there’s an uncomfortable narrative that keeps popping back up in a league where only five current head coaches are Black: Is there white privilege involved in someone with no coaching experience skipping the line into one of the league’s premiere jobs?
“It’s what happens all the time,” said Gary Charles, a legend in grassroots basketball who ran one of New York’s top travel programs and puts on the Big Time tournament in Las Vegas every summer. “You’ve been telling us for years that as a Black man if you want a position you have to get experience, go through the process. But now when it suits you, you turn round and say you can cut the line while all these other guys have been sitting there who have been head coaches and have won, what happened with them? Why aren’t they given the same opportunity?”
Given the climate around racial justice this year, Charles was inspired to create an organization called Advancement of Blacks in Sports (ABIS). He’s already gotten some heavy hitters on board including former NBA star Tracy McGrady, rapper Chuck D, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer and Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. It launched publicly on Wednesday.
“We want to create an organization for change,” said DePaul coach Dave Leitao, who is on the executive committee. “The situation is really longstanding and simple and in this case coaches, Black coaches, disproportionately are given jobs that don’t have the opportunity to succeed like white coaches are. The research will prove that out.”
The frustration is understandable. Not just in the raw coaching numbers for a league where the vast majority of players are Black but in the idea that Nash, much like Steve Kerr with Golden State in 2014, is able to walk into a great situation with zero coaching experience at any level.
That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision. Obviously, Kerr’s work with Golden State stands on its own and maybe Nash’s will too.
But there’s an equally valid discussion to be had about the long list of qualified Black candidates who were passed over for the Nets job and the kinds of jobs Black coaches have gotten recently in the league. It’s undeniable: They skew heavily toward rebuilding situations like Lloyd Pierce in Atlanta, J.B. Bickerstaff in Cleveland, Dwane Casey in Detroit and Monty Williams in Phoenix.
That’s pretty embarrassing for a league where diversity is a huge part of its ethos and its strength.
Meanwhile, you’ve got David Fizdale getting fired after 104 games with the Knicks in a clear rebuild situation, Ty Lue getting fired after winning a championship in Cleveland and not immediately getting another look and Alvin Gentry somewhat surprisingly getting fired in New Orleans just recently after a fairly nightmarish year of injuries.
“If your first job is to coach the New York Knicks, you’re probably not going to succeed,” Leitao said. “If your first job is the Golden State Warriors, you probably are going to succeed. If your first job is catching Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, you’re probably going to succeed. That’s the message in this and the timing of it is important. It’s a hell of an opportunity for Steve Nash, but it continues a systemic divide.”
Charles is careful not to criticize Nash — a written statement ABIS released to USA TODAY Sports called him “clearly a winner” and specifically cited his “impressive basketball résumé” — but sees the Nets hiring him as a prime example of why his organization is necessary.
The fact is, the NBA is likely to start next season with fewer Black head coaches than it did to begin the 2018-19 season when there were 10. And that’s despite the NBA and its coaches association acknowledging the issue and creating a “NBA Coaches Equality Initiative” to address it.
“The news of hiring Steve Nash struck such a discordant note with us,” the ABIS statement said. “We question whether owners of sports teams can truly engender change when their organizations simply hire anyone — All-Stars or not — and justify the decision as appropriate.”
Nash may very well become a huge success as an NBA coach. He’s clearly got a high-level understanding of the game and a terrific rapport with players. He wouldn’t have gotten the job without the support of Durant and Irving, and that matters in a star-driven league.
But the trends are worth talking about when they so clearly suggest there’s a different standard for Black coaching candidates. Charles’ organization may just be starting up, but there’s no doubt its voice is necessary.
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