“Whatever the White man has done, we have done, and often better.”
- Mary McLeod Bethune (1935)
“Does race have anything to do with this? Now I’m sure the people who do the hiring say no, but it surely has to be something more than wins and losses. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, eventually you have to say it’s a duck.”
- Al Attles (2005)
In 2005, David Leonhardt and Ford Fessenden of The New York Times looked at a troubling trend presenting itself in the NBA: black head coaches had less of a chance to succeed than their white counterparts in the same league. At the time, there had been a spate of puzzling terminations that seemed to indicate that more sinister racial forces were at play; something beyond wins and losses. Byron Scott had just been let go by the Nets, despite the fact that he had just taken his team to two straight NBA Finals and won 50 games in both seasons. Isiah Thomas had been released by the Pacers in the prior year, even though he had gone 48-34. Paul Silas had just been let go by the Cavaliers, even though his team was 34-30 at the time. It seemed as if black head coaches were being terminated, even though, strictly by wins and losses, they were having success coaching their teams. The two looked at the numbers, and concluded that the smoke did indicate the presence of a fire: from 1995 to 2005, white coaches lasted, on average, 2.4 seasons with their teams before being let go, while black coaches lasted only 1.6 seasons. It certainly seemed like the NBA matched other industries in America, where black employees faced the prospect of a swift termination, despite the fact that the results indicated they were doing as good of a job as — if not better than — their white counterparts.
At the time, opinions on the matter were split, and of course, reluctantly discussed. Leonhardt and Fessenden commented that most NBA types “had little to gain by discussing a controversial topic that made some team executives uncomfortable.” However, a few spoke up, and their quotes are both telling and prescient. Paul Silas, who had just been released from the Cavs, and had been fired from the Hornets a few seasons prior despite posting 49, 46, 44, and 47 wins in four consecutive seasons, offered that “it’s so subjective” when it comes to race, and stated that, “[he'd] known a lot of white coaches who didn’t work hard at all, but the perception was that they did.” Butch Beard, who coached the Nets in the mid-1990s before going to the college ranks, was less guarded in his comments. ”For black coaches, you have to be a Jesus miracle worker,” Leonhardt and Fessenden quote him as saying, “With a bad team, ownership wants you to do more than what the team is capable of doing. If you don’t pull it off right away, they think it is the coach’s fault.” He also added that he was sure that his comments would prevent him from getting another job, “but that [it's] the truth.” Unsurprisingly, white executives were not as bullish on the perceived imbalance between white and black coaches. Donnie Walsh, who at the time the head of the Pacers, and had just fired Isiah Thomas despite a 48 win season, said that his “general feeling” was that “it’s a performance league, and there is equality in it in that sense. If you do well, you’re going to move on to a better job or another job. Those that aren’t performing are going to get fired.” And, of course, the commissioner himself had his thoughts, and true to form, they represented an image of the NBA as a color-blind, equal opportunity workplace:
“I believe that right now each coaching decision is based on a fierce determination made by the owner and general manager that they want to win – and that that decision has become color blind. [The National Basketball Association] is the best example of equal-opportunity employment, even if against the judgment of perfection it isn’t there yet.”
If Stern’s words seemed misinformed in 2005, they seem outright fantastical in 2014. Since 2005, several black coaches have been let go despite the fact that they performed as admirably as their white counterparts. Furthermore, there has been evidence to show that the men who replace those ousted black coaches tend to be white, and afterwards, the team gets worse, rather than better. There are almost too many examples since 2005 to list in a single blog post; a problematic fact within itself. Terry Porter was replaced by Terry Stotts in Milwaukee in 2006, and the team declined. In 2007, Dwane Casey (the last coach before Rick Adelman to have a .500 record with the moribund Timberwolves) was replaced by Randy Wittman in Minnesota, who never produced anything close to a winning product. Michael Curry, who was given a rebuilding, steadily declining Pistons team that was already prone to infighting, yet still made the playoffs, was let go for John Kuesster, who never qualified for the playoffs, never posted a winning record, and did as much as he could to further sully a team that had once been thought of as one of the league’s finest. Sam Mitchell, who won the Coach of the Year award and a division title with the Toronto Raptors, was let go in 2008 after a 9-10 start, replaced by Jay Triano who never got over .500 and never took his team to the playoffs. Avery Johnson, who took his team to a finals and won 67 games, was replaced by Rick Carlisle (who did eventually win a championship), and then later on, replaced again in New Jersey/Brooklyn for P.J. Carlisemo.
The past two seasons have been particularly brutal for successful black head coaches who couldn’t do enough to keep their jobs. Lionel Hollins was removed from his post after taking the Memphis Grizzlies to their first conference finals, replaced by a man who posted fewer wins but somehow garnered nothing but positive press for the job he’s done with an already-good team. Maurice Cheeks was barely given a chance to make his mark with the Detroit Pistons before he was removed. And of course, Mark Jackson just lost his job after playing a key role in reforming the culture, trajectory and brand of the Golden State Warriors, and his replacement — rumored to either be Steve Kerr or Stan Van Gundy — will fit into a long, problematic line of fishy job replacements. During this period only one black coach — Mike Woodson in Atlanta — was given a chance to enjoy his job for more than four seasons. In fact, the average length of employment for black coaches between 2005 and 2014 remained rather static: an average of 1.78 seasons, as opposed to 2.5 for white coaches in the same league.
While every coaching situation is different, it is hard not to see troubling generalities in most of these terminations since 2005. Kenneth Miller of the LA Watts Times asserts that, despite the favorable mentions the NBA receives for its “diversity in the workplace”, black coaches in the NBA are the “last hired, and first fired”; that is, they are hired to rebuilding jobs, and rarely get a chance to see the job through. Certainly this is the case for Byron Scott with New Jersey, Dwane Casey with Minnesota (and until a well-timed Rudy Gay trade, Toronto), Lionel Hollins in Memphis, and Mark Jackson in Golden State. In all of these cases, these coaches were hired to to “establish a winning culture” and “teach young guys how to be pros” and when that was done, all were summarily let go, in favor of a white coach to “take them to the next level.” When the time comes for them to go, there usually is some sort of lip-service paid to the fact that the coach didn’t fit cleanly into the system the owner and front office are trying to run, that expectations are very high, and that that top-down system is guaranteed to provide positive results. We see this in the comments offered by former general manager Bryan Colangelo after the firing of Sam Mitchell in Toronto, who had been a Coach of the Year, and was basically .500 with most of the 2008-09 season left to be played:
“Obviously, last night’s game [a 39 point loss] was just an absolute kick to the gut. When you look back, it’s a culmination of things. Expectations are high. We want to win. I think running becomes a mind-set and a habit. I think if it’s not enforced it becomes easy to walk the ball up the court.”
And we see this in comments made by Jason Levien, who represents the front office of the Grizzlies, following the “mutually decided” firing of Hollins in Memphis, after a contentious season where the front office and coaching staff were rumored to have disagreed, occasionally loudly, over roster moves and on-court schemes:
“After a thorough internal process, which included conversations with Lionel and his representatives, we decided as an organization to move in a different direction. On behalf of the Grizzlies organization I would like to thank Lionel for his service and hard work in helping this organization throughout his years in Vancouver and Memphis.”
And we see this in the firing of Mark Jackson in Golden State after 47 and 51 win seasons with marked defensive improvement in each campaign, whose accomplishments were trumped by a “toxic culture” which has been largely blamed on Mark Jackson’s inability to “control” his staff, and an inability (or unwillingness) to play nice with ownership and the front office:
“I think Mark in his next job probably needs to do a better job managing up and sideways, is one way to put it. Managing down, managing to his players, obviously a pretty good job. Most of his players seemed to really like playing for him. They played hard for him. Which is really important in the NBA. I think if you asked him, I think he would realize–maybe give him some time to answer this–that he probably could do a little better job of managing up and sideways, is the way to put it.”
One of the confounding factors when discussing the ways race influences the NBA is that the outmoded hierarchy of racial superiority is inverted and flipped on its head, and we’re not quite sure what to do about that. Generally speaking, among racist discourse, it is assumed that the white person is blessed with intelligence and capabilities that their non-white counterparts aren’t, and that the more talented white person must be relied upon to pull other “less-talented” people — that is, people of color — up from their destitute positions. This simply is not the case in the NBA: there are very few white superstars, and by and large, they do not win enough to be thought of as “top-shelf” players. Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki exists as exceptions to the rule; most of the time, talented white players become part of the larger cause, joining other role players in supporting a cause being led by a non-white person. As many have pointed out, however, coaching is a realm where white supremacy can be maintained and perpetuated. It is an area where the larger systems at play can continue to have a totalizing effect; arranging the races into a hierarchy, and maintaining old structures of racial superiority even though the salaries, and the presence of non-whiteness, indicates a much rosier, color-blind picture.
There is no simple answer here; no simple solution for fixing a problem that pervades society, not just the NBA. We could change our language; we could change the way we look at things. When reports of conflict between a largely black coaching staff and a largely white front office seem to indicate a growing problem, we could attempt to take a step back, and try to analyze the situation from a more macro-level. We could ask ourselves why a coach goes out of their way to explain what really happened, rather than label them as “bitter” or “defensive” about the way things worked out. We could look at the man who replaces the ousted black coach — typically a white man — and wonder about the larger forces at play which allow these terminations to occur with impunity; without challenge from any sort of official representative body, including the player’s union. We could compare and contrast the NBA with other more sinister leagues like the NFL and college football, where black coaches are given an even shorter leash, and next to no chance of getting rehired if they lose their jobs. All of these case studies exist; all of these methods are waiting to be explored, waiting to be challenged.
But it’s likely this will work out like most other matters of race in the NBA: the playoffs will conclude, the offseason will come-and-go, and the new season will begin before we know it. And meanwhile, in the background, that duck will just keep quacking, waiting for someone — anyone — to listen, and affect some sort of positive, lasting change.