The NBA’s lack of Black head coaches is unavoidable

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver set the stage in 2014 for what the league will and will not tolerate in terms of bigoted behavior when he banned former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after racist comments that he made went public. Following threats of a proposed player boycott smack in the middle of the playoffs, Silver kicked Sterling out of the league and beyond.

With a swift boot, Silver and the NBA made it clear about the league’s racial intolerance guidelines. Here is an excerpt of what Silver said during the press conference where he dropped the verbal hammer on Sterling.

“I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league,” Silver said.

“To them, and pioneers of the game like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, the great Bill Russell, and particularly Magic Johnson, I apologize,” Silver continued. “Accordingly, effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA. Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices. He may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team.”

Doc Rivers with team owner Steve Ballmer at a 2014 press conference introducing Ballmer to Clippers fans. Photo Credit: Jevone Moore/

Six years removed from the Sterling debacle, Silver and the NBA are up against another crisis facing the league. The lack of Black head coaches in the NBA is not only a complete embarrassment to the league, but it also stains Silver’s legacy.

For all the messaging of social justice that the league and its players have preached, for all the inscriptions of Black Lives Matter being painted on the courts during the NBA’s restart of its season in a bubble format in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, it doesn’t change the fact that Black head coaches have gone MIA.

Before it was announced that Doc Rivers accepted the head coaching gig to lead the Philadelphia 76ers, the count of Black head coaches in the NBA stood at four. The 76ers hiring Rivers make it five. The problem with that stat line is that there are 30 head coaching positions in the NBA. It is an alarming number considering that 74 percent of all players in the NBA are Black, according to a study put out by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES).

“It’s definitely something that is in the back of our minds and something that we know and something that we would like to change,” Los Angeles Lakers guard Danny Green said during a media availability session in between Game 1 and Game 2 of the 2020 NBA Finals. “I think a lot of players that have played and are playing hope to coach one day. I think because of how the world is changing now they’ll have that opportunity. I think also because of how well they’re understanding the game and how the game is growing and how high of an IQ these guys are learning at or the rate they’re learning at and how they’re studying things, they’re giving us those opportunities.”

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“The fact that those numbers are out there and you know them and other people know them, I think the league — you would hope — would try to change that and give our communities, minorities, a fair chance to be in those positions,” Green added. “I don’t think it’s a worry or concern. We think they’re all great and understand the game, but I think the opportunities will come for those in due time, hopefully in the near future.”

The lack of Black head coaches has been a consistent problem within the NBA as of late. At the beginning of the 2019-20 NBA season, there were seven Black head coaches. By the end of the season, that number had dwindled down to four after Rivers was fired by the Clippers. As NBA players protest and speak out about the lack of equality and structural and systemic racism, it turns out their backyard is also part of the problem.

For the 2018-19 season, representation for Black head coaches stood at 26 percent, according to the TIDES’ 2020 NBA Racial & Gender Report Card. The year before that number was set at 20 percent. And for the 2016-17 season, there were only six positions filled with Black head coaches. The 1998-99 season saw just four vacancies filled by Black head coaches, roughly 13 percent.

There has been only a couple of seasons where Black head coaches flourished in respectable numbers. During the 2003-04 season, Black head coaches snagged 14 of those positions (48.3 percent). During the 2011-12 season, that number slightly decreased to 46.7 percent (14), but they were on par with their white peers who also had 14 positions. As of the 2013-14 season, Black coaches were still doing fairly well, accounting for 40 percent of head coaching jobs. Those numbers have steadily declined under Silver’s watch.

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The lack of diversity in the head coaching ranks is something that has Silver’s attention. Getting rid of an owner who has had a history of discriminating against people of color with a swift boot is one thing. But rooting out a systemic issue that addresses the lack of inclusion of Black Americans for head coaching vacancies is another matter.

Unlike the Sterling situation where he acted with a bold and audacious move, Silver chose his words carefully in regards to what he can do about fixing the league’s head coaching inequity.

“The answer is ultimately yes to should the teams be able to hire who they want,” Silver said. “I don’t see a way to operate a league where the league office, the Commissioner is dictating to a team who they should or shouldn’t hire or who she should or shouldn’t fire, frankly. That’s the other side of the coin. Having said that, I know we can do better. We have six openings right now. We’re in discussions with all of those teams about making sure there’s a diverse slate of candidates.”

“You know, we’ve looked at what might be an equivalent to a Rooney type rule in the NBA, and I’m not sure it makes sense. I’m open-minded if there are other ways to address it.,” Silver continued. “There is a certain natural ebb and flow to the hiring and firing, frankly, of coaches, but the number is too low right now. And again, I think we should — let’s talk again after we fill these six positions and see where we are, because I know we can do better, and I think we will do better.”

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The NBA doing better in improving the number of Black head coaches should not be a problem if you look at the number of  Black assistant coaches in the league. At the start of the 2019-20 NBA regular season, there were 58 Black assistant coaches, roughly 37 percent of all assistant coaches in the league. But even those numbers don’t add up adequately to the percentage of Black players.

Silver and the NBA will find a way to add a couple of more worthy Black candidates to the league’s head coach hiring list during the offseason (Tyron Lue and Alvin Gentry come to mind), but it still won’t be enough to appease some circles. When asked if it’s fair or appropriate for players to speak out on the lack of Black head coaches, particularly at a time when they’ve been outspoken on the social justice platform, Miami Heat forward Jae Crowder said it’s up to the individual.

“I think it’s fair,” Crowder said. “I think everyone has freedom of speech, right? I mean, especially what it is just you telling your side of what you believe. I just feel like, yeah, a player in this league definitely has the right to speak on it if they deem so. So, yeah. That’s my answer to it.”

With the social justice memo having spread like wildfire across the NBA spectrum, it appears that attention paid to the league’s lack of Black head coaches have been left out of the equation. Kendrick Nunn, a rookie sensation with the Heat, said that’s not the case.

“We have been speaking as players and using our platform to make it visible,” Nunn said. “We continue to talk about it. We continue to make it our business to support that, and we want everyone else to see how we feel, how we feel about it, and our thoughts about it.”

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