David Aldridge

Message Board
NBA en espanol
Lottery/Mock draft
Power Rankings
NBA Insider

ESPN Auctions
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.
Nate McMillan
Not far removed from his playing days, Nate McMillan was an easy choice to coach Seattle.

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.

I hired Isiah Thomas and nobody even made that statement, that he was the first black head coach here. And I thought that was a great non-statement.
Pacers pres Donnie Walsh
No, because why should anyone get excited about African-Americans having barely one-third of the head coaching jobs in a league where 80 percent of the players are African-American? Where there are still no black owners out of 29 teams? One black team president (Terdema Ussery, in Dallas)? Two black CEOs or chief financial officers -- Ussery and Ian Clarke, in Toronto? (Though in New York, Steve Mills is Executive Vice President of the Knicks, with oversight of the team's finances, and in Miami, Michael McCullough is Exec VP and Chief Marketing Officer.) Where there are, as far as I can tell, no black controllers? Only one black physician even affiliated with a team (Dr. Warren Strudwick, with the Warriors)? And only five black general managers?

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."

Van Horn
Van Horn


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."


Around The League
The latest, now, on the status of China's 7-6 Yao Ming, who's the cover story in the latest issue of ESPN the Magazine (I am nothing if not a company man). It is looking more and more like the Chinese basketball authorities will allow Ming to declare for the NBA draft next season. He turned 20 last September, which makes him draft eligible.

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.

1. Sacramento
2. Utah
3. Portland
4. L.A. Lakers
5. Philadelphia
6. San Antonio
7. Dallas
8. Minnesota
9. Cleveland
10. Phoenix

25. Atlanta
26. L.A. Clippers
27. Golden State
28. Washington
29. Chicago

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.

  • The Knicks are again inquiring about Washington's Rod Strickland. The Wizards might be more willing to listen if Gotham would stop insisting they take Luc Longley back as part of the package. Teams had more than casual conversation before the trading deadline last February about a Juwan Howard-Larry Johnson deal.

  • Add Knicks: File this away -- Charlie Ward's base-year status expires next Jan. 20. Until then, the Knicks can only take back $3.75 million in salary for Ward, whose actual salary is $5 million this season. After the 20th, Knicks would get dollar for dollar for Ward, which would make any potential deal more doable.


  • The Sixers are trying to decide if they want to go get a point guard while Eric Snow heals from a stress fracture. They're not interested in the Brevin Knights (base-year guy) or Haywoode Workmans (too many surgeries) of the point guard world. Their problem: they think Snow will be back in six weeks, not eight, which is the current prognosis. So is it worth it to dangle Matt Geiger or Toni Kukoc if Snow will be back on the floor before the all-star break? On the other hand, over those six weeks, Philly's currently comfortable Eastern Conference edge could fritter away.

    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."


  • As we told you last week, the Grizz continue to look for an Othella Harrington buyer. Now they're interested in Orlando's Pat Garrity. Magic still covet Keon Clark from Denver. Speaking of the Nugs, since the details of their player revolt came to light (rule No. 1, fellas: when you're planning a coup, don't tell the media), they've gotten a bunch of calls seeing if they'd part with Raef LaFrentz. Many of those teams haven't gotten calls back, which bodes well for Dan Issel's status. For now, anyway.


  • Don't be surprised if Grant Hill gets put on the injured list again this week, and stays on for a long time. The constant uncertainty about his status is driving the other players crazy. Orlando's doctors have told Hill he can play through the pain, but the pain is unbearable. I continue to believe he is not yet healed from his surgery last spring. He needs to sit for at least another month. Again, I would sit him until the all-star break. Are the Magic not aware they have $93 million invested in this guy? They have to get him healthy. What's six weeks compared with seven years?

  •  More from ESPN...
    Want to take a look back at ...

    David Aldridge Archive

     ESPN Tools
    Email story
    Most sent
    Print story
    Daily email