|Monday, December 18
Updated: December 19, 2:21 PM ET
Finally, black coaches get their shot
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
When the Sonics had to replace Paul Westphal last month, they had three internal choices from their bench: Nate McMillan, Dwane Casey and Bob Weiss.
Of the three, only Weiss had previous NBA head coaching experience, with the Spurs, Hawks and Clippers in the late-'80s and early-'90s. He's been a coach in this league for 20 years. McMillan is in his second season as an assistant. Casey's been on the Seattle bench for six seasons.
But team president Wally Walker only considered McMillan and Casey for the gig. And he chose McMillan.
No one, as far as I can tell, has raised an eyebrow. Because McMillan was the right hire.
And no one mentioned his race.
McMillan brings the number of African-American head coaches in the NBA to nine. And if Dallas owner Mark Cuban is a man of his word, Sidney Moncrief, who's being groomed to replace Don Nelson on the bench, will make it 10 in a year or so. It goes without saying that no pro sports league has had anything approaching double-digit minority head coaches, until now.
Is nine out of 29 something to celebrate? In my mind, yes and no. Yes, because at nine, the NBA's African-American total currently triples the number of black head coaches in the NFL (Minnesota's Dennis Green, Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy, Washington interim coach Terry Robiskie). In the modern NFL era -- that era running 80 years -- there have been five African-American head coaching hires. (Let's not even talk about baseball, which is even more depressing.) Yes, because for the first time, black coaches that didn't succeed in their first go-round, like Vancouver's Sidney Lowe and the Clippers' Alvin Gentry, are getting another chance.
Still, you have to start somewhere.
"People have recognized -- and by people, I mean guys that do what I do -- that by playing 10-plus years in this league, you gain an amount of knowledge that's at least equal to a college coach," says Indiana President Donnie Walsh. "These guys are really qualified to be a coach. The other reason is, I think, because of the money involved, the amount coaches are paid today, and the fact that players seem to admit to themselves now that they don't want to leave the game when they retire, you have a lot of ex-players who want to get involved in coaching. And that wasn't true a few years ago."
But one must be careful to think this is a permanent trend. It's happened before. When John Lucas helped turn around the Spurs in 1992, ex-players were all the rage. It seemed the years of dominance by the "coach's coaches," guys in the Five-Star universe, were on the wane. But then, things changed. Coaches started getting sick money, as well as a piece of the action. Riles got the bank and full control in Miami. John Calipari got $15 million from the Nets. Phil Jackson got $5 million, then $6 million his last two years with the Bulls, and then got $30 million from the Lakers. Rick Pitino got $50 million from the Celtics.
Black head coaches started disappearing. And those that got chances got lousy teams.
But the job Paul Silas has done in Charlotte, and Doc Rivers' success in Orlando last season has turned the tide somewhat. The easy explanation is that the former players, at least, can relate better to the players -- who are closer in age to them than some of the older coaches. Which has some truth in it. Though it seems to me, sometimes, to be a backhanded slap at their x and o abilities.
"I don't even want to take credit for that," Rivers says. "But what we did last year definitely made it all right to have us and take a chance on us guys with no experience."
Now, a Byron Scott gets his first head coaching job with a Nets team that isn't very good now, but at least has a couple of pieces in Stephon Marbury, Kenyon Martin and Keith Van Horn. Leonard Hamilton has an awful Wizards team, but he's part of Michael Jordan's crew, and he'll get time. Silas is doing his usual terrific job. Lenny Wilkens moves effortlessly from the Hawks to the Raptors, and keeps on winning.
And McMillan gets a shot to turn things around in Seattle.
"I think you have to have someone who's really out, just recently, not really just out of the game but understands what these guys are all about," McMillan says. "There's so many guys who are putting coaches out of jobs because they can. They have the huge contracts and all they've gotta do is say 'look, well, trade me.' You know, 'there go my billboards, there go my commercials,' and so, who do we get rid of, the coach or the player? And it's a blackmail thing. And coaches, unless you have something behind you like a Phil Jackson or a (Jerry) Sloan or Riley, you are in a no-win situation. So I think it's cool that you have management backing you. But once you get in there and you put your stamp on there, you gotta do it your way. Because if you don't do it your way ... it could be short anyway, but at least it's my way."
That's what intrigued Walsh about Thomas. And, let's be blunt -- in Indiana, star power behind the bench has never hurt ticket sales. So Larry Brown begat Larry Bird, who begat Thomas, with no complaints.
"I hired Isiah Thomas," Walsh noted, "and nobody even made that statement, that he was the first black head coach here. And I thought that was a great non-statement."
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The Chinese are looking for compensation, of course, for letting their best player leave their country's Chinese Basketball Association. I'm told the compensation is in the seven-figure range. A million for a player of Ming's potential -- not to mention the other Mings to come that are in the Chinese pipeline -- seems like a drop in the bucket to me. The Chinese also want some assurances that their CBA won't be stripped bare by the NBA. Considering the NBA already subsidizes the Continental Basketball Association here in the States, sending men and material (as well as some coaching clinics) overseas to prop up China's CBA would seem doable as well.
But there is one potential roadblock. It is important for the Chinese that Ming do well. So it is important to them that he not go to a team that, um, sucks. Which is what would likely happen if he goes into the draft, for if he isn't one of the first two players taken, I'd be shocked. It's unclear what the Chinese expect the NBA to do to insure Ming goes to a good team. But Ming might also be very marketable in a city like Chicago, Vancouver, or Washington -- whose arena, MCI Center, is in the Chinatown section of the city.
Whatever they do, in the interim, Kukoc has got to get his head straight. "This guy has got to step up," Larry Brown told me last week. "He's got to stop feeling sorry for himself and realize how good he is. And I've got to make it easier for him. We all do. 'Cause we need him. Same thing with Matt. People don't realize, we had a helluva chance to really do something special early. George (Lynch) is playing with a stress fracture. Allen (Iverson)'s been hurt every game. Aaron (McKie) isn't 100 percent. And Eric Snow got hurt in game one. It's too bad. We've all got to step up now. Everybody's got to make a contribution, and Toni's a big part of that."