The NBA coaching box is looking far more diverse these days.
When the season starts next week, there will be the league’s first head coach born and raised outside North America and the first Hispanic-American full-time head coach. And there’s a real chance that before long, someone like Becky Hammon could become the first woman to lead a NBA club.
In a league where minorities make up the overwhelming majority of stars on the floor, there’s still a movement to make those same diverse strides in who is calling the shots on the sideline.
“The league is starting to move in a direction with the coaches of being more diverse,” said Memphis coach J.B. Bickerstaff, whose father also was a head coach in the NBA. “And it’s just about opportunity and everybody wants an equal playing field. And I think when you get an equal playing field you know people from all backgrounds can rise to the occasion.”
That’s what the Suns believed when they hired Igor Kokoskov, a native of Serbia, and the Charlotte Hornets did when they tabbed James Borrego — the league’s first full-time Hispanic coach. Borrego’s whose seat on the front row of the Spurs’ bench was inherited by Hammon after she was promoted by San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich — after a summer where Hammon was a candidate to take over in Milwaukee.
Popovich’s team has long been at the forefront of finding talented players in places far outside the U.S. and it’s no surprise he’s thought outside the box to grow his coaching tree. Besides employing Borrego and Hammon last season, his top assistant is Italian Ettore Messina, and Brett Brown had been coaching for nearly two decades in Australia before Popovich hired the current Philadelphia head coach for his staff.
“It’s got nothing to do with quotas or anything like that, just people who are qualified for jobs and getting the opportunity,” Popovich said. “So, there are no ceilings for anybody based on race or religion or gender or anything like that.”
Nearly a third of the league changed coaches, providing opportunities for successful head coaches to quickly land with new teams (Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee; Dwane Casey, Detroit; David Fizdale, New York; Steve Clifford, Orlando), assistants a shot at finally running their own clubs (Kokoskov, Phoenix; Nick Nurse, Toronto; Lloyd Pierce, Atlanta), and second chances to coaches who only had brief stints at the top (Bickerstaff and Borrego).
Though they come from such varying backgrounds, they are family. Coaches support each other even while sometimes competing with each other for the same jobs. Fizdale received calls from coaches around the league when he was fired early last season in Memphis, and he made a similar call to Jeff Hornacek when he was let go by the Knicks.
“Because we’re a fraternity,” Fizdale said. “We really do take pride in that in the NBA, that we look out for each other and stay connected with each other and when I got fired they all reached out to me the same way. And it’s heartfelt because there’s only 30 of these.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver asked teams to review their hiring practices in the front office following the workplace harassment investigation of the Dallas Mavericks, with the hope of more women being hired at the senior levels.
He doesn’t have the same concerns at the coaching level, in part because of Hammon’s success. When she coached the Spurs to the Summer League title in 2015, Silver said he had “no doubt” that a woman would someday coach an NBA team.
“I think just like we’ve seen enormous change in our society, just in the last decade, I think that’s another ceiling, another barrier that will be broken,” Silver said at the time.
He credited women such as Hammon and players willing to follow them for his belief. But Popovich and other coaches say the credit goes to Silver for making diversity and inclusion such important themes in the NBA.
“I think our league is probably the most diverse league, whether it’s nationality, race, gender, whatever it is,” Casey said. “I know we have issues as far as things are going on just like corporations in the world, but it starts with Adam’s outlook. He really promotes that from a leadership standpoint of diversity, inclusion, the whole nine yards, but it starts with him.”
But it started before Silver became commissioner. There were 16 coaches of color — more than half the league — in 2012, with 14 African-Americans, a Filipino-American in Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, and Kaleb Canales, who became the league’s first Mexican-American coach when he replaced the fired Nate McMillan in Portland on an interim basis. He’s now an assistant to Fizdale in New York.
Kokoskov was well respected in the coaching ranks by then, having won a title in Detroit during six seasons as an assistant and helping the Suns reach the Western Conference finals in 2010.
Perhaps the league wasn’t ready then for a European head coach, just as Bickerstaff can remember a time before his father Bernie got his first shot at running a team in the mid-1980s that there wasn’t such of an acceptance of black coaches.
“No matter what position it is, no matter what field we’re in, diversity is a huge part of who we are as America and there’s no better place than the NBA,” Bickerstaff said.