The NBA’s Coaching Dilemma

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Issue 2, Volume 111

By Taee Chi 

The Brooklyn Nets made headlines last Thursday when they hired Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash as their new head coach. Nash, a two-time league MVP and eight-time All-Star, retired in 2015 after a successful 18-year career in the NBA that cemented him as one of the greatest point guards the league has ever seen. However, Nash's lack of coaching experience has led many fans to question his ability to lead the Nets, a team that, led by superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, is expected to contend for a championship next season. More importantly, Nash’s employment has put a spotlight on the growing lack of diversity among head coaches in the NBA, a pressing concern that is especially important during this time of racial tension in the U.S.

As one of the more progressive sports leagues in the nation, the NBA has always strived to promote diversity and take a stand against racial inequality. Yet in a league where 81 percent of the players are Black, just seven of the 30 head coaches are non-white, and only five of those seven are Black. This statistic has decreased from last year’s count, as the Knicks’ David Fizdale, the Pacers’ Nate McMillan, and the Pelicans’ Alvin Gentry, all of whom are Black, were fired by their respective teams during this year’s regular season. With the number of Black head coaches dwindling, the news of Nash’s hire on Thursday fueled a passionate debate among fans, in which many questioned the decision made by the Nets’ front office to hire Nash—a white coach—despite his inexperience. Stephen A. Smith, a commentator on ESPN’s First Take, even went so far as to call the move “an example of white privilege.”

Smith’s statement, which attributed Nash’s hire over potentially more accomplished candidates solely to his ethnicity, immediately provoked backlash, and many were quick to point out that there had been past instances where Black coaches were hired despite having never coached before like Nash. Namely, Derek Fisher, head coach of the New York Knicks back in 2014, and Jason Kidd, hired in 2013 to coach the Brooklyn Nets, were brought up in such arguments. While Smith’s take on the matter may have been a bit extreme, the fact is that, out of the nine former NBA players who are currently head coaches, only two are African American, a number far too low considering the NBA’s player demographic.

The diversity, or lack thereof, in NBA head coaches extends beyond the position. Currently, only eight of the 30 teams in the league have a Black general manager, while the Toronto Raptors’ Masai Ujiri is the only Black president of basketball operations. With so few Black front-office executives, it may be time for the NBA to consider implementing its own version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule. Enacted in 2003, the Rooney Rule encourages equal opportunities when hiring staff members and executives by mandating teams to interview ethnic minorities for head coaching and senior football operation positions. If the NBA created its own version of this regulation and even expanded the policy to include all levels of workers, it would show the association’s advocacy of diversity and inclusion and set a great example for other leagues and organizations around the nation.

Since the NBA resumed play in the Orlando bubble, it has done a superb job utilizing its media presence and overall popularity to help combat racism in the U.S. To ensure that the league’s support for social justice was clearly visible to the millions of viewers around the nation, players were given the option to display a social justice message on the backs of their jerseys, and the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was printed in giant text near the half-court line. The NBA also postponed three playoff games that were set to occur on August 26 as a response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old African American man who was shot seven times in the back by Wisconsin police on August 23. Moreover, the league held a meeting following Blake’s shooting to discuss the possible discontinuation of the playoffs, an option that was ultimately overturned but still stood as a testament to the NBA’s opposition to racism. These showings in the bubble have made a powerful statement to the world, and it’s now time for the league to look within and address the racial disparity in its leadership and coaching.