The number of black coaches in the NBA has decreased in recent years.
What about in front offices?
“We have a long history of minorities being well-represented as top basketball executives. I think it’s a matter of time before the numbers move up,” deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said in a wide-ranging interview with CSNChicago.com, pointing out his belief that it’s cyclical while stating nearly one-third of the basketball operations positions were held by African-American men in 1994-95.
The numbers have gone up in the league office and within teams, but seemingly it hasn’t extended to the top of basketball operations. At least not yet.
Since the summer of 2010, 30 positions for president of basketball operations or general manager have been filled in the NBA and six were African-American hires. Four were hired that summer: Billy King (Brooklyn), Lance Blanks (Phoenix), Dell Demps (New Orleans) and Masai Ujiri (Denver).
King was fired in Brooklyn last month, and Blanks was fired in 2013.
Since that time, though, only two have been hired, with Ujiri taking over in Toronto and Doc Rivers taking over as head of basketball operations while also coaching the Los Angeles Clippers.
The league has trended toward people with mathematical backgrounds as opposed to basketball experience, as the criteria for what made someone qualified for a top executive position changed right as more African-Americans reached the summit.
“One GM told me on a long plane ride: You have to make these owners comfortable enough that they can see themselves having a beer with you,” one executive said. “It’s not just about being good enough or smart enough. They have to be comfortable with you.”
And comfortable enough to see these particular men leading franchises, not just being part of organizations. It goes for all walks of life: People hire who they’re comfortable with, even if it’s not with prejudice or outright or even overt racism.
“Some people have brought up the excuse, ‘You’re not a numbers guy and that’s where the league is going,’” a personnel man said. “It creates the belief we don’t use numbers when we do. We’re just not wholly dependent on it. But what have those guys won?”
Saying “what have those guys won?” hurts the credibility of that personnel man. The last five NBA champions (Warriors, Spurs, Heat, Heat and Mavericks) have relied extensively on analytics. Nearly every team, if not every team, integrates analytics into its decision-making now.
But that lone comment shouldn’t detract from the larger issue.
The rise in analytics has put more people in play for the same number top front office positions; and that numbers crunch continues on down the front office ladder. The general-managing skill set has evolved over time to require an ability to integrate multiple sources of information also carries weight.
I don’t believe the NBA has emphasized analytics as a way to exclude black people. The league has turned to analytics, because they work. Additional information is helpful, and embracing the new landscape is the surest path to advancement.
But this shift in perspective will obviously cost some old school basketball people — including some former players —opportunities.
So, what’s the solution?
In a grander scope, many black people in this country are denied the educational opportunities white people receive. That narrows the pool of black people with the mathematical credentials necessary to receive certain NBA jobs.
There’s also a harmful stereotype that still exists, consciously and subconsciously, that black people aren’t as smart as white people. This limits African-American’s opportunities at every turn, not just in the NBA.
How can the NBA address this?
Obviously, some of these issues are beyond the league’s control. The NBA just isn’t powerful enough to reverse hundreds of years of racist attitudes about black intelligence, racist housing programs that put many black children in neighborhoods with poorer schools and racist hiring practices that make it more difficult for black people to afford college.
But the league can take steps in the right direction. In Goodwill’s piece, Tatum describes a program the NBA will enact to train former players for front-office positions. More importantly, owners must challenge themselves to look past which candidates make them comfortable. That is not the path to building a strong franchise. Owners shouldn’t be afraid to leave their comfort zones to hire the best candidates. The 30 billionaires at the top have the power to affect real change and see their attitudes create a culture within their organizations.
This is not an easy issue. The roots of the problem are difficult to identify, and solving it is much harder. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.
I suggest reading Goodwill’s full piece for a nuanced analysis.