Eric Walden: Though considered a beacon of diversity, the NBA actually has much work to do

In a league in which more than 75% of the players are Black, there should be far more non-white head coaches and front office personnel than there are.

(Eric Gay | The Associated Press) The Houston Rockets' Stephen Silas is one of just seven Black and one of nine non-white head coaches in the NBA in the 2020-21 season. He was the only Black man hired among four first-time head coaches this past offseason.

With Wednesday’s announcement that the Houston Texans had hired Baltimore Ravens passing game coordinator David Culley as their new head coach, the NFL’s top coaching vacancies are now filled.

The controversy surrounding how those seven jobs were filled is still going strong, though.

Of those openings, Culley was the only Black man to be hired. Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, one of the hottest coaching prospects for several years now, was passed up again. Tampa Bay coordinators Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles were eschewed despite their strong track records. Longtime Eagles assistant Duce Staley asked for and was granted a release from his contract after twice being interviewed for Philly’s top job and twice being passed over.

Meanwhile, a tweet meant to break down how the Eagles are filling out their staff became an accidental meme when it was noted that the four men pictured — head coach Nick Sirianni, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, and passing game coordinator Kevin Patullo — all of whom are white, look so much alike that they could be related, or for that matter, could all be the same person.

Culley is now one of just three Black head coaches in the NFL (joining the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Dolphins’ Brian Flores), and the fifth minority head coach in the league (along with the Washington Football Team’s Ron Rivera and the Jets’ Robert Saleh). And so, the NFL is rightly bring dragged for once again for being ever-so-eager to take chances on unproven white coaches while failing to give the same opportunities to Black coaches.

Thing is, while the NBA is perceived as a shining beacon of progressivism by comparison, it’s not necessarily that much better.

Sure, its players were allowed to kneel during the national anthem without repercussion to protest ongoing racial and social injustice this past summer — a far cry from the NFL’s blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. On the flip side, though, the NBA really isn’t all that much more progressive in its hiring practices.

Roughly 75-80% of the NBA’s players are Black. And yet, just nine of its 30 teams are coached by non-white men, seven of whom are Black (Charlotte’s James Borrego is Latino, and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra is Filipino). There is but a single Black president of basketball operations, in the Raptors’ Masai Ujiri (and two VPs, in OKC’s Will Dawkins and Memphis’ Tayshaun Prince). And there are only 10 Black general managers and nine Black assistant GMs.

Viewed through that prism, it seems fair to say that the NBA itself has a diversity problem in its positions of leadership.

And, to be fair, they’ve acknowledged as much.

Back in June, a coalition of players called upon the NBA and its ownership to do more to help Black causes, including a commitment to “improve hiring practices for black front-office and head-coaching candidates — making it so the league’s management better reflects its composition of players.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters back in September that he had spoken to teams about the need for having a diverse set of candidates to fill coaching positions, but ultimately acknowledged, “I know we can do better.”

True enough — of the nine NBA head coaching vacancies filled this past offseason (Brooklyn, Chicago, Houston, Indiana, LA Clippers, New Orleans, New York, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia), just three saw a Black head coach hired, only one of which (Stephen Silas) was a first-time head coach. The Nets, Pacers, and Thunder, meanwhile, hired white first-time head coaches. Brooklyn’s Steve Nash had never before served as a coach at any level.

The NBA is, at least, making an effort. In July, it hired Oris Stuart as “chief people and inclusion officer” — a position intended to generate policies that will lead to the hiring of more people of color around the league. And indeed, three open GM positions this offseason were ultimately filled by Black men — Marc Eversley in Chicago, Calvin Booth in Denver, and Troy Weaver in Detroit.

And yet, it seems, for every step forward, there’s another one back. The seven Black head coaches this year are one fewer than there were a year ago, and just half the 14 total the NBA had at its diversity zenith back in 2012-13.

“Why does it matter, though?” some will ask. “Shouldn’t it be about the quality of the coach, in the end?” Quin Snyder, as the local example, has certainly proved himself capable in his first go-round as an NBA head coach. Which is a fair point.

What’s also a fair point, though, is that you have no way of knowing if someone will be a quality head coach or not until they actually get a chance — and those chances come more frequently for white candidates, while Black coaches consistently get fewer opportunities, less runway in those opportunities, and fewer shots at multiple opportunities.

Silas was considered head coaching material for years and years and years before the Houston Rockets finally gave him his chance. How long will an up-and-comer like former Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant have to wait before he gets his chance? What about Wes Unseld Jr.? Or Darvin Ham? Adrian Griffin? Charles Lee? Jarron Collins? Jamahl Mosley?

Those Black men are all considered some of the league’s top assistants right now. The question is, will the NBA step up to ensure at least a representative number of them ever get the opportunity to be more?


Black NBA head coaches - 7

Lloyd Pierce, Atlanta Hawks

J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers

Dwane Casey, Detroit Pistons

Stephen Silas, Houston Rockets

Tyronn Lue, Los Angeles Clippers

Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers

Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

Black NBA presidents of basketball ops - 1

Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors

Black NBA general managers - 10

Marc Eversley, Chicago Bulls

Koby Altman, Cleveland Cavaliers

Calvin Booth, Denver Nuggets

Troy Weaver, Detroit Pistons

Rafael Stone, Houston Rockets

Trajan Langdon, New Orleans Pelicans

Scott Perry, New York Knicks

Elton Brand, Philadelphia 76ers

James Jones, Phoenix Suns

Brian Wright, San Antonio Spurs

Black NBA assistant GMs - 9

Landry Fields, Atlanta Hawks

Jeff Peterson, Brooklyn Nets

J.J. Polk, Chicago Bulls

Michael Finley, Dallas Mavericks

Mark Hughes, Los Angeles Clippers

Milt Newton, Milwaukee Bucks

Joe Branch, Minnesota Timberwolves

Bryson Graham, New Orleans Pelicans

Walt Perrin, New York Knicks