SAN FRANCISCO — Whenever there’s a head coaching opening in the NBA, team presidents and owners will get calls from commissioner Adam Silver, assistant commissioner Mark Tatum or executive vice president Oris Stuart offering resources to ensure the hiring process is diverse.
And after years of internal and external criticism, the league has turned the tide, especially in the area of black coaches. Half of NBA head coaches are black, having hit the six mark less than two years ago.
Tatum has been at the forefront of this initiative with league teams, having always suggested the numbers were cyclical but knowing something had to be done. The NBA has a database of the names of nearly 400 assistant coaches at every league and G League level that teams have access to.
“Presidents, CEOs, the people who make those decisions have access to that database, so they can look, go there, and say, ‘Hmm, I would never have heard of this candidate, but now I have access to it,'” Tatum told Yahoo Sports ahead of 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 kind of really, really pay off.
Some have viewed “diversity” as a dirty word, as if a wider net prevents an organization from hiring the best candidate. And it’s certainly true that the margins are often slim in these cases, especially when it’s easy to hire someone they know or have a sixth degree separation relationship with.
The league still has a lot of work to do when it comes to team presidents and staff on the business side, as far too many qualified basketball executives and lifers have been passed over for many jobs over the years. years, which the league privately acknowledges. But his progress in the coaching space should be noted.
Tatum says the NBA is on the cusp of a female coach breaking through, citing legitimate interviews that have taken place over the years. It’s a matter of time, he said.
The NBA had to be intentional and sometimes forceful in the face of the tiny number of teams that resisted such suggestions. He was always unhappy with the idea of implementing an NFL-style “Rooney Rule”, mandating interviews for non-white male applicants. The main reasons being: it didn’t work and he felt he could organically change the processes around his teams.
Seeing Ime Udoka lead the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals in his freshman year after watching Monty Williams do it in Phoenix in his sophomore season should have at least created a copycat effect, and maybe that’s the case.
Celtics assistant and former rookie of the year Damon Stoudamire has joined Udoka and now has a sense of optimism that he can get in the first chair when an opportunity presents itself.
“When Ime wins, you win. When Monty wins, you win,” Stoudamire told Yahoo Sports. “I applaud the NBA and the owners, first for acknowledging it, then for doing something about it, then for the guys who got the jobs, for being ready for the job.”
The two iconic NBA franchises will be led by black coaches, with Udoka in Boston and Darvin Ham taking over with the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s not just about coaching jobs for fun, it’s about the quality of opportunities and a chance to grow from previous experiences.
“I look at the guys, [Jason] Kidd, this is his third opportunity, in Dallas,” Stoudamire said. “And he’s done a great job, he’s not getting enough credit for the work he’s done. I see this thing evolving. For me, I’m really encouraged.
Black coaches rarely get the third opportunity, and perhaps Kidd was an outlier given his relationship with the Mavericks. Be that as it may, he put his mark on it as soon as he arrived. Coaches had to be aware of the opportunities they were choosing because some were environments that were not conducive to winning. But they couldn’t afford to turn down a chance either.
There was a sense of desperation from veteran coaches and assistants knocking on the door. The evidence was clear: last hired, first fired. The number was seven in the 2015-16 season and seven in 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 exposure to the game moving towards using more analytics – an area that systematically excludes diversity, sometimes on purpose – to the hands of team ownership changing at a faster pace. faster in the past decade than at any time in league history.
And it’s no shock, some people weren’t comfortable hiring black men into positions of leadership and power. The mic in every situation is sometimes justifiable, but the macro image wasn’t pretty. Additionally, coaches often felt like they couldn’t speak up if they didn’t have the chance, for fear of being shut out of other opportunities.
No defenders, no avenues.
Coaches like Rivers or Dwane Casey were left to beat the drum for the whole industry, an almost unfair burden to place on the deans.
“I think some black coaches, maybe in the past, have been looked down on, but you haven’t said too much about that,” Stoudamire said. “For example, if you’re the only one complaining and no one is speaking up for you, it sounds like you’re a malcontent.”
Stoudamire was in the college ranks for years, in Memphis and then later in Arizona, where he played as a college kid before being the inaugural selection of the Toronto Raptors in 1995. During his playing days, he never didn’t see much of a bond between team owners 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 are breaking bread with us,” Stoudamire said. “The dynamic is totally different. It’s not unusual to see our owners watching practice and they don’t watch practice to criticize it, they watch practice just to watch practice.
“Previously, when the owners and the team president arrived, he was about to move. Someone is going to be traded. My coach is in the hot seat, but no, it’s not like that.
There’s a personal touch that exists, Stoudamire says, that can’t be measured in a two-hour interview. Even so, the NBA has been more active in preparing potential coaches for opportunities.
“We do mock interviews, we go through these processes with these assistant coaches, ex-players who haven’t gone through the process yet,” Tatum said. “And really framing them, here’s what to expect in those interviews. Not just the pipeline, but the preparation.
More tools, no excuses — for teams.
Through this human connection, the NBA has fostered more chances for coaches to be in informal settings to create familiarity. Unfortunately, the alumni network will exist forever and it is impossible to know what is being said behind closed doors.
“What’s still very true in this industry is that when you’re making hiring decisions, you want to make sure you’re comfortable, like there’s got to be some rapport,” said Tatute. “We’ve created a lot of programs around that, around the Summer League where governors, heads of basketball operations engage, interact and socialize with potential candidates.”
Tatum again recognizes how cyclical things are, but believes the league’s processes will consistently produce results he can be proud of.