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Correction: An earlier version of this story included a misspelling on Becky Hammon's name.
In one offseason, the number of Black coaches in the NBA almost doubled and the percentage of Black coaches increased from 23% to 43%
“The last few weeks have been really cool in that regard,” Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams said during the NBA Finals.
Last season that sentiment did not exist. Just seven Black coaches led teams in a league where 74% of players are Black.
"These numbers are just disgraceful,” National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts told USA TODAY Sports this year. “It doesn’t make any sense."
Frustration has given way to encouragement.
Of the eight open head coaching jobs following the regular season, seven Black coaches were hired: Nate McMillan with Atlanta; Ime Udoka with Boston; Jason Kidd with Dallas; Willie Green with New Orleans; Jamahl Mosley with Orlando; Chauncey Billups with Portland; and Wes Unseld Jr. with Washington.
The 13 Black coaches to start the 2021-22 season is one shy of the all-time high at the start of 2012-13 season.
Before the recent vacancies were filled, Los Angeles Clippers coach Ty Lue said, “Hopefully a lot of GMs and owners will see that Black coaches are good coaches and hope they give an opportunity for the young coaches coming up today.”
Diversity in the number of NBA head coaches has been a focal point for the league, the coaches’ association, players and coaches' agents for several seasons. Frustration not just at numbers but interview opportunities rankled many, including Rick Carlisle, the president of the National Basketball Coaches Association.
"The NBCA understands and respects each organization’s right to hire and fire whomever and whenever it chooses, Carlisle said in a statement in February. "But it is also our responsibility to point out when an organization fails to conduct a thorough and transparent search of candidates from a wide range of diverse backgrounds."
That February statement was in response to Minnesota firing Ryan Saunders and hiring Chris Finch, a White coach, in a quick turnaround.
“There is a certain natural ebb and flow to the hiring and firing, frankly, of coaches, but the number (of Black coaches) is too low right now,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the start of the 2020 Finals 10 months ago.
By the start of the 2021 Finals earlier this month, Silver said, “Obviously we have seen positive developments there in terms of the number of vacancies that are being filled. I will say that not unlike a lot of organizations that are dealing with diversity issues, this is something that requires daily attention. So again, positive movement in that direction, but we’re not going to rest on our laurels there.
“Back to the point about data, it’s something that’s a regular part of our team meetings, of our Board of Governors meetings now. Not just in the coaching ranks but across the league and making sure teams are focused on it, and that we’re also working collectively to develop pools of future general managers, like (Phoenix's) James Jones, and future great coaches, like Monty. So that’s part of the work that we have to do.”
Among the diverse hires, one omission stood out. A woman was not named head coach even though San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammonand New Orleans assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon were candidates.
“It’s a little bit frustrating,” Silver said. “It’s an area where even just looking around the room here, you would like to see more women represented in the room here today, in all aspects of our business. We have historically made more progress on race rather than on gender. But I think that’s beginning to change. It’s slow. It’s frustrating. But it’s the work that we have to do every day to change awareness and then develop pools of candidates as well.”
The NBA and the National Basketball Coaches Association, led by president and Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, created the NBA Coaches Equality Initiative. Leery of an NFL-like “Rooney Rule,” the NBA and NBCA developed a coaches database that includes profiles of nearly 275 coaches. The database gives hiring executives a more comprehensive look at who is available and what they’ve accomplished with the idea of expanding the pool of qualified candidates.
“It's important that African Americans, White, Brown, it doesn't matter, I just wish that every team would have a lengthy process so that guys would get the (interview) experience, that's how I view it,” Williams said. “When teams just pick a guy and not allow for younger coaches and African American coaches to at least go through the process, it's hard, because we all need that experience so you can learn like what I need to do, where my strengths are, where my weaknesses are.”
In the NBA’s conference finals, black head coaches represented three of the four teams – the Suns’ Williams, the Clippers’ Lue and the Hawks’ McMillan.
“That says a lot about how we have been coaching,” Lue, who led Cleveland to a title in 2016, said during the playoffs.
All three were former NBA players as are recent hires with Kidd, Billups, Udoka and Green. Mosley and Unseld both played college basketball.
“I certainly believe that, if given the opportunity and a roster that they can work with, they will show that they can have success,” McMillan said. “A lot of times you're getting rosters, whether you're starting over or a development roster, that's going to take some time to build. You don't see many opportunities where we're getting these jobs where that roster is already in place and you have to go out with the expectations of winning. Normally, you're kind of building that roster.
“Sometimes when that roster gets in place, you're removed, and someone else is filling in. So it's good to see guys get that opportunity, and (there’s) a lot of good black coaches out here.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: With seven new hires, NBA nears record number of Black head coaches