Bill Russell became the NBA’s first black head coach in 1966, 23 years before Art Shell became the NFL’s first head coach in the modern era.
This season, there are 14 black NBA coaches – nearly half the league. Including Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Charlotte’s James Borrego, more than half of the NBA’s coaches are minorities, and now, there is just one Black coach and two minority head coaches in the NFL.
That doesn’t mean the NBA hasn’t had its issues with minority hires for the top coaching position. At the start of the 2020-21 season, there were just seven Black head coaches, down from a league-record 14 in the 2012-13 season. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said at the time that it was “disgraceful.”
But progress isn’t a straight line, as frustrating as that is. Before the start of this season, seven of eight head coaching jobs were awarded to Black coaches, including five first-time coaches.
The NBA did it without a Rooney Rule, an NFL edict adopted in 2003 where teams are required to interview diverse candidates.
The NBA has resisted such a rule with Commissioner Adam Silver telling reporters at the 2020 Finals, “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.”
The NBA didn’t want a situation that former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores alleges – that teams conduct sham interviews with a minority just to check and box and say it was done with no intention of hiring that person.
“The answer is ultimately yes to ‘should the teams be able to hire who they want,’” Silver said in September of 2020. “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.”
The NBA did better last offseason. Seven black coaches were hired to fill eight vacancies. Previous head coach Jason Kidd (Dallas) and Nate McMillan (Atlanta) had previous head coaching experience, and Jamahl Mosley (Orlando), Willie Green (New Orleans), Ime Udoka (Boston), Chauncey Billups (Portland) and Wes Unseld Jr. (Washington) had not been head coaches.
“Obviously we have seen positive developments there in terms of the number of vacancies that are being filled,” Silver said at the 2021 Finals. “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 (Williams, the Suns coach). So that’s part of the work that we have to do.”
Billups said on Wednesday the NBA is light years ahead of any other league.
“I’m really proud of it, and I think a lot of it has to do with our players and our union,” Billups told reporters. “They’ve been pretty aggressive about what needs to happen.”
Billups strikes on two important points. The NBA with the National Basketball Coaches Association have created the NBA Coaches Equality Initiative “to identify and develop top coaching talent, with the goals of growing the number of highly skilled coaches in the NBA and ensuring a level playing field for the development and advancement of all qualified coaching candidates.”
The initiative includes workshops, learning and curriculum highlighting head coach competencies, skill development and executive coaching, networking opportunities, and a database provides teams and executives with a “comprehensive online resource featuring information on qualified coaching candidates that provides team decision-makers access to accurate information in a single location.”
In the NBA, players have powerful agency. When LeBron James, Chris Paul and others talk about the importance of Black coaches, it matters. With guaranteed contracts and such impact on their team’s success, they are not in fear of retribution for speaking out on the topic. The league and its teams listen. It may not always have an immediate impact but the voices don’t go unheard.
The NBA isn’t perfect. Billups pointed out more can be done in NBA front offices where six Black executives have final say on basketball operations matters.
“Our next level is continuing here in this position and also in front offices,” he said. “We need more minorities in front offices. You have to start somewhere and you have to continue to get better. But right now – in the league right now – we got to be better there (in front offices).”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA hasn’t needed a Rooney Rule to improve minority coaching hires