How black coaches are still struggling to find their place in the NBA

Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce didn’t think the NBA would be his route to a head coaching job, simply because he didn’t fit the typical head-coaching profile.

He wasn’t a former player, nor did he hobnob through the ranks as a great networker. But opportunity “fell into his lap” — his words — which normally doesn’t happen for black coaches in the NBA.

“I was thrown into player development. Just hoop with NBA guys, helping them get better,” Pierce told Yahoo Sports. “I was coaching in college [at Santa Clara], which was all I really knew.

“When I got to the NBA, it wasn’t [because] I wanted to be a head coach. I wanted to grow and get better at my craft. I had a formula. Mine was put your head down and work.”

Pierce is one of seven African-American head coaches in the NBA, and the roll call was quite easy when he was prompted: Doc Rivers, Alvin Gentry, Nate McMillan, Dwane Casey, J.B. Bickerstaff and Monty Williams.

That number may seem paltry, considering there are 30 teams and around 75 percent of the players are black, but it’s better than the other major professions sports, particularly the NFL.

“We're clearly better than every other league, but that shouldn't be our benchmark,” Rivers, the head coach of the L.A. Clippers, told Yahoo Sports recently. “That's not good enough, in my opinion. Easy excuse, but we should still be better.”

They’ve been better. At the start of the 2012 season, 14 head coaches were black, the highest mark in NBA history.

The opportunities have been cut, for various reasons, but those arguments can be applied to other coaches who’ve managed to keep their jobs through tumultuous situations.

“You always want more, better opportunities,” Casey, the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, told Yahoo Sports. “I don't think anybody in the NBA can say African-Americans don't have the opportunity to get the job done. Whether you get longer leashes as other coaches, that's another story. But the opportunity is all you can ask for.”

The Clippers' Doc Rivers is the dean of African-American NBA head coaches. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Rivers is the dean of the group, a Yoda of sorts. He won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and is one of the longest-tenured head coaches in the league, joining the Clippers for the 2013-14 season.

Rivers is acutely aware that he’s the anomaly, in his third NBA head-coaching job and being the calming presence while steering the Clippers franchise away from embarrassment after the Donald Sterling scandal in 2014.

“We’ve taken a hit lately, in my opinion,” Rivers said about the state of black coaching in the NBA. “We gotta get back to it. I don't know why, it just seems to go in ebbs and flows.”

As easily as Pierce can name the men who walk the sideline, Rivers can name men who haven’t gotten calls for repeat opportunities — probably the aspect that bothers him more than sheer numbers.

“I can name a bunch of guys. Ty [Lue] should be coaching. Mike Woodson, you look at his record and he couldn't get another job,” Rivers said.

Woodson coached the Hawks to three playoff appearances from 2008-10 and then had a winning record with the Knicks in nearly three seasons from 2012-14. The Knicks haven’t been to the playoffs since Woodson was there.

Lue is on Rivers’ staff not long after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title in 2016 and three straight Finals appearances before being fired six games into the 2018-19 season. He was in talks to coach the Lakers last summer, but the sides couldn’t reach an agreement, so he joined Rivers with the Clippers.

There are others, coaches who won’t win in the battle of public opinion but have won on the sidelines. Jason Kidd is an assistant with Frank Vogel for the Lakers, alongside Lionel Hollins. Mark Jackson established the Golden State Warriors as playoff contenders before being dismissed in 2014, as Steve Kerr developed them into champions the next season. Jackson has been a commentator for ABC/ESPN but hasn’t gotten a serious look since.

“We just gotta stay at it. Keep at it. Keep meeting people,” Rivers said. “We gotta get more access for the black assistants to meet owners. You hire who you're comfortable with, who you have a relationship with. Our league does a good job of that, but we can do better so we can establish relationships.”

Pierce has a circle, even though he doesn’t consider himself in that group of coaches who put themselves out there at every turn. In his group chat are men who are in the same boat — guys who didn’t play professionally, started out in the video room and have grinded their way to better spots on the bench, even if there is a glass ceiling.

It’s Pierce, David Vanterpool (Timberwolves), Phil Handy (Lakers), Bickerstaff (Cavs), former Knicks coach David Fizdale, Jamahl Mosley (Mavs), Johnnie Bryant (Jazz) and J.J. Outlaw (Cavs). They all trade similar war stories about the business, what they hope to accomplish and the struggles they encounter daily. Pierce feels Vanterpool has been knocking on the door long enough, interviewing for a number of jobs over the last few years but not getting the opportunity to run his own show.

“The numbers are what the numbers are,” Pierce said. “Is it ever gonna be 12? Is it ever gonna be predominantly black coaches?”

He points upstairs, and while agreeing with Rivers that getting in front of ownership is important, having more color on the executive side is critical.

“How do you know guys are really getting their opportunities? If you start seeing more black coaches in addition to black general managers,” Pierce said. “That's where the growth will be, the perception of opportunity. You'll see more black coaches if you see more black GM’s.”

That number doesn’t seem to be on the rise, which could contribute to the lack of quality jobs black coaches are offered. Pierce is in a rebuilding situation in Atlanta, Williams took over a team in Phoenix that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010. Many had their doubts when Fizdale took over the Knicks in May 2018, and he was fired earlier this season.

Casey was on Rick Carlisle’s staff in Dallas when the Mavs won the 2011 NBA title, three years removed from a short stint in Minnesota where he was fired after going 20-20 to start the 2006-07 season.

When the Toronto Raptors came calling in the summer of 2011, Casey knew he wasn’t in a position to turn down this chance even though it wasn’t a marquee job.

“You build up a résumé where you can be choosy on the jobs you take. Unless you've won, I don't think you can be choosy,” Casey said. “Rick told me, you take it and you build it up. That’s what we did.”

By Casey’s third season, the Raptors were in the playoffs and two years later, they made the conference finals. Even though LeBron James and the Cavaliers ended their season three years in a row, Casey helped turn a bad job into a good job — and was fired before the Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard, who led them to the 2019 title.

Casey’s situation is the outlier; Lue was in the right place, at the right time of sorts, getting the Cavaliers job when the David Blatt experiment went awry. Those chances come few and far between for black coaches, and their successes don’t stick to the masses as much as the failures.

“Blacks aren’t a monolithic group. They don’t give us the same chances or look at each individual case,” a high-ranking African-American executive told Yahoo Sports. “If Lloyd Pierce goes into a tough situation or Fizdale, it’s not an indictment. Blacks are put in position, historically, that they have to take the worst circumstances and make it right in the short period of time.

“One black guy gets a shot to hold a position, if he fails then the establishment looks at it and says black guys can’t do that. White counterparts fail and fail up all the time, and get replaced by more white guys.”

All job openings aren’t created equal, and many are rebuilding situations with terrible circumstances — for some. Kerr inherited a ready-to-win team in the Bay Area — after passing up the Knicks job earlier in the coaching cycle. When the Oklahoma City Thunder still employed Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2015, they hired Billy Donovan from the college ranks to replace Scott Brooks.

Most recently, the Milwaukee Bucks and Lakers have been the “hot” jobs, and they’ve gone to Mike Budenholzer and Vogel, respectively.

Each situation has its own complexities, but in aggregate the results reveal the quality positions don’t make their way to African-American coaches.

It’s clear black coaching candidates see the trends, and even former accomplished players who’ve done their time as assistants realize how difficult it is to break through. Jerry Stackhouse had aspirations to be a head coach and was an assistant with the Raptors and Grizzlies, leading the Raptors’ then-D-League team to a title in 2016-17. But when Vanderbilt came calling, it was obvious he didn’t see a path in the NBA.

Patrick Ewing had years of coaching experience but didn’t get a sniff, going back to his alma mater, Georgetown. Juwan Howard spent years on Erik Spoelstra’s bench, but when nothing serious developed he went to Michigan, where he made his name as a Fab Fiver in the early 1990s.

The pipeline isn’t empty, but perhaps it’s underserved, making Rivers’ call for networking more poignant. Lost in his words is the need for allies in the establishment to champion black coaches.

Casey had one in Carlisle, noting Carlisle put him in charge of the defense during his years in Dallas, while Terry Stotts helmed the offense. Stan Van Gundy would tell anyone who asked that Ewing could be a head coach, and a good one, but it fell on deaf ears.

Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin had Scott Skiles in his corner, with Skiles telling him the second he was done playing he would bring him on as an assistant. Griffin played in Chicago for Skiles from 2006-08, near the end of his career.

“He was true to his word,” Griffin said. “I was cut [after being traded to] the Bucks, he was the coach. … He hired me right on the spot. I went straight from the locker room to the coaches room.”

Highly regarded and respected, Griffin should be atop many teams’ lists should they have openings. But if he doesn’t break through, it’ll be another example of a downward trend, even if it’s just cyclical.

“My next ambition is to be a head coach,” Griffin said. “I think you gotta put as many things in your favor. You need to know the right people, have the right work ethic, the right resources, support group. It's not easy to get one of these jobs. If that means networking or pulling some all-nighters, it's worth it.”

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