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From the archives | 2009

NBA sets pace for sports in race relations

This just in: The president of the United States is a man of color.

What? You knew this already? That’s good. So does this mean we are all now post-racial?

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Of course, we’re not yet quite post-racial, and we may never become an ideally colorblind society, but if we truly want to get there, we do have a working institutional model.

Professional football (1946) and baseball (1947) integrated in the competition area first, and hockey doesn’t really enter into this discussion, for rather obvious reasons, but the fact is the National Basketball Association is the most egalitarian major institution in our society. In fact, the NBA is so infused with black power that it is the only significant American institution I know of where the white man is inherently perceived to be inadequate to the task.

But put the topic of playing ability to the side for a moment. Where the NBA laps and relaps the field is in the area of authority. All this discussion about the paucity of black coaches and managers in football and baseball is so much Sanskrit to those of us who follow the NBA, where black coaches have been coming and going and coming and going and coming and going for 40-plus years.

Unless there’s been a change in the last five minutes (you’d be wise to check), the NBA has nine black head coaches. Two of them replaced fired black head coaches, something that has been going on in this league since the Detroit Pistons fired Earl Lloyd and replaced him with assistant Ray Scott in 1972, when Barack Obama was 11 years old and living in Honolulu.

Entering the 2008-09 season, there had been 75 black coaching appointments in the history of the league covering 47 individuals. The list includes familiar names such as Lenny Wilkens (the all-time winningest NBA coach), Al Attles, K.C. Jones, Nate McMillan, Doc Rivers, Bernie Bickerstaff, Mo Cheeks, and, of course, Bill Russell, the man who started it all when he took over the Celtics in 1966.

It also includes such names as Gene Littles, Darrell Walker, Sidney Lowe, Butch Carter, Leonard Hamilton, and Randy Ayers. In other words, men whose names aren’t quite so recognizable to the casual NBA fan.

And that’s without mentioning the previous interim coaches. I’ve counted 12 of them, ranging in fame from Magic Johnson to Draff Young.

Black coaches are such a matter-of-fact way of life in the NBA that the Lakers and Heat are the only teams that have not yet hired one, although each has had a black interim mentor. Black coaches are so entrenched in the NBA that this spring we will celebrate the 34th anniversary of the first all-black coaching matchup in the NBA Finals (Golden State’s Attles vs. Washington’s Jones).

Look, the NBA has plenty for which to apologize. When Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Lloyd entered the league in the 1950-51 season, it did not trigger some tsunami of talent washing into the NBA. Rosters were small and there were unofficial quotas that lasted well into the ‘70s. It was well understood that a black player was going to have to be substantially better to the point of being irreplaceable to beat out a white player for a job. There weren’t any black journeymen sitting at the end of NBA benches.

Race was a major issue for a long, long time. It was quite a big deal when both the Celtics (Russell, Satch Sanders, Willie Naulls, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones) and 76ers (Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson, Hal Greer, Wally, later Wali Jones) shattered convention by starting five black players in the 1965-66 season. Everyone understood that the reason the St. Louis Hawks, located in America’s “northernmost Southern city,” moved to more progressive Atlanta in 1968 was race, just as everyone understood that the reason the Hawks would later trade potential star Paul Silas to Phoenix for white stiff Gary Gregor a year later was the desire to whiten the lineup a little. A few years later, there was quite a stir when the Knicks finalized the first all-black 12-man roster.

No team was more in the hurricane’s eye than our own Celtics, who, after winning 16 championships, found that some people wished them to apologize for having employed such white stars as John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, Scott Wedman, and Bill Walton. The team that drafted the first black player, hired the NBA’s first black coach (the first of five, at last count), and whose franchise icon insisted on black-white roommate pairings (I can bear personal testimony to this) found its image threatened by being regarded as too white in an increasingly black-oriented league. In retrospect, I guess this was an enormous compliment for the NBA itself.

But the NBA’s embrace of color doesn’t stop with players and coaches. At present, there are four blacks calling the organizational shots as either general managers or vice presidents of operations, or whatever. In addition, Elgin Baylor, in charge of the Clippers’ personnel affairs since 1986, was let go earlier this season. But who should be surprised? Wayne Embry was given control of the Bucks in 1971.

The only major professional sports league with black ownership? The NBA, of course (Charlotte Bobcats).

Referees? Plenty of those have come and gone, including some of the best (Hugh Evans, Danny Crawford) and, yup, some of the worst (as with their white counterparts, far too many candidates to enumerate). And that is what’s so important to note about the NBA.

There have been plenty of failed black head coaches, and isn’t that the point? All anyone, black, white, Asian, whatever, can ask for is a fair chance. There’s no inherent barrier in the NBA, and there’s no condescension, either. It’s produce or get out, which is as it should be.

The NBA is the land of administrative fairness and opportunity, and on the playing front, the days are long gone when a black man must be twice as good as a white man to secure a job. There are countless examples of black journeymen, men who bounce from team to team as glorified Kelly Girls.

Ever hear of Kevin Ollie? Since entering the league in 1997, the former University of Connecticut star has played for 11 teams, one of them (Philadelphia) three times and another (Orlando) twice. It is a journey that would have been unimaginable for someone such as Cleo Hill, a great black player of the late ‘50s and through the ‘60s who could not get a job in the league even though he was, by all anecdotal evidence, one of the top 10 guards alive. It’s not unlike telling people in Honolulu 36 years ago that in their midst was a mixed-race 11-year-old who would grow up to be president.

But no less significant is the coaching resume of a Bernie Bickerstaff, who was no big basketball star, no household name, but who, after being introduced to the professional basketball world by a mentor named K.C. Jones, would find himself coaching four NBA teams and running another one.

It’s an only-in-the-NBA saga.

Barack Obama has to know all this. I’m not saying he has made basketball his sport of choice for this reason, but I don’t know that he hasn’t.

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