Sports

New Black N.B.A. Coaches Wonder Why It Took So Long to Get a Shot

Jamahl Mosley has traveled the world for basketball.

He played for professional teams in Mexico, Australia, Spain, Finland and South Korea. He was a player development coach with the N.B.A.’s Denver Nuggets when Carmelo Anthony was there. He was an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers during the four long years after LeBron James left for Miami. Dirk Nowitzki’s final years with the Mavericks and the rise of Luka Doncic? Mosley was there, too, as an assistant in Dallas.

He spent sixteen seasons on N.B.A. coaching staffs, developing his skills and hoping for his big break to be a head coach. He had heeded his mother’s advice about playing college basketball for a Black coach, to learn leadership skills from someone who looked like him. The doubts about his ever getting that kind of job only surfaced in recent years when he interviewed for — and was turned down for — seven N.B.A. head coaching jobs.

“Because you knew you were qualified,” Mosley said. “You knew you had interviewed well. You knew that you had the ability to do it.”

The N.B.A.’s coaching and executive ranks have long been dominated by white men, even though more than 70 percent of players are Black. But this year, Mosley became part of an unusual off-season, in which seven of eight head coaching vacancies were filled by Black candidates. Five of them, including Mosley, are first-time head coaches. The others are Wes Unseld Jr. of the Washington Wizards, Willie Green of the New Orleans Pelicans, Ime Udoka of the Boston Celtics and Chauncey Billups of the Portland Trail Blazers.

“If this was 15 years ago, we probably don’t get these positions,” Green said.

The uptick — 13 of the league’s 30 coaches are now Black and two others are not white — came during a broader national conversation about race and hiring practices. Black players harnessed their voices to seek change that they felt was overdue.

“This is a stain on the league that no one can deny,” Michele Roberts, the executive director of the players’ union, said in an interview, “and we’ve got to continue to do better.”

‘There’s a natural cultural bond’

Long before he became the coach of the Celtics, Udoka was a self-described student of the game. As a teenager in Portland, Ore., he would record games that featured some of his favorite college players, standouts like Syracuse’s Lawrence Moten and Lamond Murray of the University of California, Berkeley. Then he would head to the playground to mimic their moves. (Udoka still has a stack of VHS tapes at home.)

“There’s a natural cultural bond that Black coaches are going to have with their players,” Boston Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said.Credit…Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

“I wasn’t the most athletic or skilled guy,” Udoka said, “so I really had to use my brain for an advantage. I always thought through the game a certain way, and I think some coaches saw that in me, too.”

Udoka grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, went to a Black high school and had Black coaches. He was not especially conscious of race, he said, since being in that environment was all he knew. But his high school coach “preached family and togetherness and a brotherhood,” Udoka said, and he carried those lessons with him.

Udoka was bouncing around the N.B.A. as a defense-minded forward when he got what he described as “the coaching bug.” He helped found an Amateur Athletic Union team in Portland that included Terrence Ross and Terrence Jones, future N.B.A. players. Udoka also participated in coaching clinics hosted by the N.B.A. players’ union. After retiring, he joined the San Antonio Spurs in 2012 as an assistant under Gregg Popovich.

The Celtics job opened in June when the team announced that Brad Stevens, who had coached the team for eight seasons, would be its new president of basketball operations. Jaylen Brown, one of the Celtics’ young stars, said in a recent interview with The Undefeated that he had told the team to hire a Black candidate. Representation was important to him, he said.

Udoka, left, talked with Marcus Smart during a preseason game this month.Credit…Winslow Townson/Associated Press

“Players were asking and demanding and wanting to see more guys who looked like them,” Udoka said. He added: “In coaching, I think there’s been a shift from Xs and Os and game plans to the value that’s placed on relationships. And there’s a natural cultural bond that Black coaches are going to have with their players.”

Udoka said he was not suggesting that white coaches couldn’t bond with Black players. He cited Popovich, who is white, as someone who has long stressed the importance of relationships. But for a new coach on a new team, it would be naïve to believe that race was not a factor.

“Basketball is mainly minority-based,” Celtics point guard Marcus Smart said in an interview. “So having a minority as a coach, I can connect with him. I can say things to him, or he can say things to me, and we get it. Whereas it’s different when you don’t. You have to try to figure out, OK, how can I meet them halfway?”

Still, a coach is a coach: Udoka suspended Smart for the team’s preseason finale for breaking an unspecified team rule.

‘This decision is coming fast’

About three years ago, Rick Carlisle, as president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, was hearing from an increasing number of young assistants of diverse backgrounds who felt they were not getting a fair shake at head coaching jobs.

The league and the coaches’ association soon began the N.B.A. Coaches Equality Initiative, a program aimed at developing young coaches and ensuring that qualified candidates are visible when jobs arise. Since 2019, there have been numerous workshops, summits, panel discussions and networking opportunities.

David Vanterpool, left, was passed over for the head coaching job in Minnesota after the team fired Ryan Saunders, right.Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

And there is an app, a coaches database that was unveiled last year. It now includes profiles of about 300 coaches, whom the league’s power brokers — owners, general managers, team presidents — can access, Carlisle said. Coaches can upload their histories, their philosophies and even their interview clips. Think of it is as Bumble for the N.B.A. coaching set. But it is all part of a larger mission, said Oris Stuart, the chief people and inclusion officer for the league.

“We have ongoing conversations with our teams about the importance of making sure that, as they’re making decisions, the process is inclusive,” Stuart said in an interview. “We focus on the importance of making sure that the best talent is considered, that we make a wide reach and that we go beyond the pre-established networks that people are working from.”

But within the past year, the hiring processes for two white coaches — including the one that landed Carlisle with the Indiana Pacers — have been criticized for not appearing to be inclusive.

The Minnesota Timberwolves fired Ryan Saunders as their coach in February and announced his replacement, Chris Finch, who is white, on the same day. The Timberwolves chose not to promote the team’s associate head coach, David Vanterpool, who is Black, which would have been typical after a midseason firing. (Vanterpool is now an assistant for the Nets.)

The perception was that there was no way the Timberwolves could have seriously considered any Black candidates given their accelerated timeline, said Roberts, the executive director of the players’ union. The timing of the change, she added, “got under a lot of people’s skin.”

Within days, Carlisle and David Fogel, the executive director of the coaches’ association, released a statement in which the organization expressed its “disappointment” with Minnesota’s search, saying that it is “our responsibility to point out when an organization fails to conduct a thorough and transparent search of candidates from a wide range of diverse backgrounds.”

Rick Carlisle expressed some trepidation before he accepted the offer of head coach from the Indiana Pacers in June.Credit…Doug Mcschooler/Associated Press

But just a few months later, in June, Carlisle accepted the Pacers job after what appeared to be an abbreviated search. Indiana had fired Nate Bjorkgren earlier in the month after just one season, and they had interviewed only one other candidate when they offered Carlisle the job. Chad Buchanan, Indiana’s general manager, said in an interview that the team wanted an experienced coach and that Carlisle had unexpectedly become available after he resigned from the Dallas Mavericks, which he had coached for 13 seasons and led to a championship in 2011.

Buchanan sought to assure Carlisle by telling him that the Pacers had interviewed 17 candidates, of whom eight were Black and one was female, before hiring Bjorkgren eight months earlier.

“This was something I was concerned about,” Carlisle said, “but when they gave me that information, I was comfortable moving forward.”

Washington Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. was known as the Genius for his attention to detail and his instinctive feel for the game.Credit…Sarah Stier/Getty Images

‘It’s more of a systemic issue’

As an economics major at Johns Hopkins University, Wes Unseld Jr. thought he would get into investment banking. But for two summers, before and after graduating in 1997, he interned for the Wizards. His father, also Wes, who was synonymous with the franchise from his Hall of Fame playing days, had moved into the front office as the team’s general manager after seven seasons as its head coach. The elder Unseld invited his son to learn the ropes, just in case the financial world was not for him.

“If you’re going to be in this business, you’ve got to learn the business,” Wes Unseld Jr. recalled his father telling him. “So I’m thinking, OK, I’ll be around basketball. ‘No, you’re going to intern in every department.’ Community relations, public relations, marketing, sales — you name it, I did it.”

Unseld, who was a very good Division III player for Johns Hopkins, soon realized that he could not leave the game behind, and he became one of the many unsung, behind-the-scenes fixtures in the N.B.A. After eight seasons as a scout for Washington, he spent the next 16 as an assistant for various teams around the league. He refined offenses. He built defenses. With the Wizards, he was known as The Genius for his attention to detail and his instinctive feel for the game. In Denver, he helped shape Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray into stars.

Yet Unseld could not land a head coaching job. He said he was never sure if his race was a factor. “When an opportunity doesn’t pan out, sometimes it’s easy to ask, ‘Was it that?’” Unseld said. “And it may have been. It’s difficult to tell.”

Willie Green, the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, spoke to reporters at a news conference last month.Credit…Sean Gardner/Getty Images

After a record 14 Black coaches were manning benches for teams at the start of the 2012-13 season, those numbers dipped in subsequent years, showing how tenuous progress can be. Unseld said the N.B.A. is “a network business like any other business.”

“If you’re not connected to the decision makers, it can be difficult,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s an overt way of not interviewing or not giving people of color a chance, but maybe they just don’t have that network to pull from. It’s more of a systemic issue.”

Roberts commended the coaches’ association for working to address that issue in recent seasons. But the real power, she said, has come from the players themselves.

“A happy team is probably a more successful team,” she said. “And if the players think management is thumbing its nose at their articulated concerns about a coaching staff, then what’s their motivation to stay?”

In New Orleans, Willie Green often thinks of his uncle, Gary Green, who coached him when he was growing up in Detroit, and who imbued him with the fundamentals. After several years as an assistant with Golden State and Phoenix, Green said he felt a heightened sense of responsibility.

“We have to be caretakers of these opportunities,” he said.

In Boston, Garrett Jackson, a former player on Udoka’s A.A.U. team, is now one of Udoka’s video coordinators. And Mosley got his first win for the Magic with a narrow victory against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He was gifted the game ball, then got back to business.

“It’s like anything,” he said. “You just put your head down and do the work.”

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