Race, Coaching, and Championships

Wilkens Coaching Sonics
Don’t look so bummed, Lenny!

Piqued by Jacob Greenberg’s post on black NBA coaches being “hired last, fired first”, I was curious on just how often NBA champions are led by black coaches.

So, looking at the NBA’s 65-year history, the deck is stacked in favor of white coaches. For starters, a black coach wasn’t hired until 1966. Thereafter it was slooooow for the league to fully embrace the idea of black coaches. But a larger look across the whole coaching spectrum lies in the future. For now let’s just stick to the championship cream of the crop.

Right off the bat, it’s important to acknowledge that over half (34) of the league’s 65 titles have been won by just five coaches: Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Greg Popovich, Pat Riley, and John Kundla. Among the remaining titles, eight coaches received two each. The last remaining 15 titles were won by 15 different coaches.

Coaches Titles

Flipping the racial light switch creates an even more preponderant hoarding of titles into a small, collective group. In other words, the vast majority of NBA titles have been won by white coaches.

Coaches Titles by Race

22 white coaches have won 86% of the NBA’s championships, unsurprising given the fact that the Big 5 coaches seen above were all white. Meanwhile only five black coaches have won a total of seven NBA titles. And kudos to Erik Spoelstra for giving Asians a place in the discussion with his two titles.

Lastly, I’d like to take a look at when black coaches were winning these titles and did they have previous NBA playing experience. For the first topic, it’s quite clear the NBA has actually been quite horrible over the last two decades. Again, kudos Spoelstra for keeping this decade from lily whiteness, so far.

Coaches Titles by decade and race

As for the second parameter still begging my interest: what’s the breakdown on playing experience for these title-winning coaches?

Coaches by race and experience

Clearly, it pays to be an ex-NBA player to winning NBA coaching titles. But not having pro experience isn’t that much of a handicap for white coaches. For blacks? It’s a death sentence. Notice that 0%. Not a single NBA title has been won by a black coach with no prior playing experience.

So What?

So what does any of this mean? It means that the upper echelons of NBA coaching – at least when it comes to winning titles – remains starkly white. And there is a sound counter-argument that there just aren’t that many titles to go around, so maybe this is a bad measurement.

To somewhat deflect that critique – but not to dismiss it – let’s include the runner-up coach in the Finals in the discussion. Only nine times in NBA history has the coach on the opposing sideline been African-American. So, from 130 possible chances to be the winner or runner-up coach, just 16 times has a black head coach been in that position.

And only once… ONCE… has a black man simultaneously occupied both spots. That would be the 1975 NBA Finals when Al Attles’s Golden State Warriors defeated KC Jones’s Washington Bullets.

What’s worrisome, though, is that the pool of runner-up coaches is extremely similar to championship coaches. And with the exception of Mike Brown, all of these coaches spent lengthy time as NBA players.

Coach Titles Runner-Ups
Bill Russell 2 0
Al Attles 1 0
Lenny Wilkens 1 1
KC Jones 2 3
Doc Rivers 1 1
Mike Brown 0 1
Byron Scott 0 2
Avery Johnson 0 1

For a league that had its first black coach in 1966 and has been majority-black since the same period, this isn’t exactly a sterling track record on having black coaches ascend to the top of the profession. What’s striking is that we don’t find it the least bit odd or notable  that year-after-year in a sport so heavily filled with black athletes that white men continue to lead and instruct them at disproportionate levels. Hard to imagine a similar scenario ever playing out with the racial roles reversed.

I suppose that’s the ultimate “so what?” of this story.

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