The NBA is far from perfect, but there is one area where they are miles ahead of their competitors in the NFL and MLB. That’s in regard to opportunities for Black coaches. Over the last year there have been 12 coaching openings (a 13th opened Sunday when Quinn Snyder resigned from the Utah Jazz) and eight of those have been filled by Black coaches. Currently, barring any new firings or resignations this week. half the league’s 30 franchises (15) have Black head coaches.

Contrast that with MLB’s current two (Houston’s Dusty Baker and Los Angeles’ Dave Roberts) or the long, drawn out NFL process that’s recently seen them have to expand the Rooney Rule regarding minorities getting interview opportunities to include coordinator openings. Longtime Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Bieniemy just conducted an embarrassing press conference last week where he tried to downplay the fact he’d gone on numerous interviews but hadn’t been offered a head coaching job despite the fact that the KC offense under him has routinely been among the NFL’s best. “I’ve just got to go it it,” he said in response to questions about why he’d been bypassed by over a dozen teams over the last four seasons. “I’m not seeking any comfort. I haven’t gotten it for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to keep knocking on that door and I’ve got to keep working to make sure that it happens.”

Meanwhile, the NBA’s first African coach Ume Udoka in his first season has gotten the Boston Celtics back in the NBA Finals. Of cousre his road wasn’t always a smooth one either. Udoka went through a five-year period of interviewing but never getting the job. Even the Brooklyn Nets, whose executives raved about his coaching ability and recommended him to the Celtics, bypassed him for the head job, giving it to Steve Nash. Udoka got good revenge on his former employers though, as the Celtics swept the Nets in the first round of this season’s playoffs.

Unlike NFL job interviews, which many prospective Black coaching candidates often feel are sham or pro forma exercises done to satisfy regulations, Blacks continually do get hired in the NBA. Some take longer than others, but the bottom line is that people do get hired. 

“It means a lot,” said Golden State assistant Mike Brown, one of the eight recent Black hires; he’s taking over the Sacramento Kings when the NBA Finals end. “When my son, and my oldest son’s about to have his first son, when they turn on the TV and they see people that look like them leading an NBA team on the sidelines, it can be inspiring. For me, carrying the torch and then passing it to the next generation is something that I think about often — not just for my family, but for others out there.”

Detroit’s Dwane Casey, Phoenix’s Monty Williams, Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff, Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Tyronn Lue, Houston’s Stephen Silas and Atlanta’s Nate McMillan are the seven Black coaches who had their current jobs last season. They’ve been joined in the last year by Udoka, Brown, Portland’s Chauncey Billups, Dallas’ Jason Kidd, Orlando’s Jamahl Mosley, Washington’s Wes Unseld Jr., New Orleans’ Willie Green and last week, the Los Angeles Lakers hired Darvin Ham.

Mosley interviewed for nine jobs before getting hired in Orlando. Ham, like Udoka, had been a can’t-miss name for years, but never got a chance until now. NBA TV’s Isiah Thomas and Sam Mitchell cheered the Lakers’ hiring of Darvin Ham as coach.

“Darvin is about as good a guy as you’re going to see, a big competitor,” Boston’s Al Horford said. “Extreme competitor. The Lakers are really lucky to have a guy like him. He’s the kind of guy that you want.”

It was almost six decades ago that Bill Russell broke the NBA coaching color barrier when he became the first Black man to coach a team; he accepted the role as player-coach of the Celtics starting with the 1966-67 season and won a championship in his second season. Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens were the next two Black coaches to get opportunities; they would eventually become champions as well. There have been roughly 260 different coaches in the NBA, excluding short-term interim fill-ins, since Russell was hired, and one  out of three of those coaches have been Black. But most of those Black coaches have either lasted in their first job no more than three years or not gotten a second chance at leading a team.

“For many years qualified young coaches of color like Ime Udoka, Jamahl Mosley, Willie Green, Wes Unseld Jr., Darvin Ham and Stephen Silas, to name just a few, were not getting consistent opportunities to interview for NBA head coaching positions,” said Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, the president of the National Basketball Coaches Association. “The last two years changed everything. The league office has tirelessly made franchises more aware of the qualifications and journeys of these talented young coaches. This increased awareness has led to qualified coaches of all backgrounds having greater opportunity to interview and the numbers speak for themselves.”

Part of that awareness came from a meeting that three league officials — Commissioner Adam Silver, chief people and inclusion officer Oris Stuart and president of social responsibility and player programs Kathy Behrens — had with Carlisle, representing the NBCA, in February 2019. Out of that meeting, the NBA Coaches Equality Initiative was born. The NBCA worked with the league in many ways to get it started, including the building of a database; in a couple of clicks, teams in need of coaches could get information, including qualifications, experience and even an on-camera interview in some cases, on every available candidate.

The NBA’s not so great though when it comes to front office positions. Most front-office positions are not held by people of color and Michael Jordan is the lone Black principal owner of a franchise; Jordan leads the Charlotte Hornets, the only team that has a coaching vacancy right now.

“In terms of diversity, we discuss it all the time,” Silver said at All-Star weekend in February. “We’ve made more progress in other areas. And in terms of CEOs on the business side of teams, we would absolutely love to see more progress there. … No doubt, that’s an area we can do a better job.”

The next frontier will be hiring of women head coaches. But for now, the NBA can definitely say it’s the nation’s best league in terms of hiring Black coaches.

That said, the numbers in the NBA wildly exceed the other major U.S. pro leagues.

There are three Black coaches in the NFL — Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Houston’s Lovie Smith and Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles. That does not include Miami’s Mike McDaniel; his father is Black, but McDaniel identifies as biracial. The person McDaniel replaced in Miami, former coach Brian Flores, is suing the Dolphins and the NFL for what he says is racial discrimination in hiring practices.

“Our league leads the charge,” Mike Brown said. “Hopefully other leagues will follow suit.”

But he also points out that he longs for a day when 50% of the coaches in a league being Black won’t seem like a milestone.

“That’s the dream,” he said.