The last five coaches hired in the National Basketball Association have been John Lucas in San Antonio, Fred Carter in Philadelphia, Sidney Lowe in Minnesota, Quinn Buckner in Dallas and Don Chaney in Detroit. They are all former NBA players. They are also all black.
In joining Wes Unseld of the Washington Bullets and Len Wilkens of the Cleveland Cavaliers, they raised the number of black coaches to seven -- the most there have ever been. Nearly 26 percent of the league's head coaches are black, and the Atlanta Hawks have not named a replacement for Bob Weiss, who was fired last week. Weiss is white.
Last year, however, the league came under fire from black executives, star players and civil rights leaders after 13 coaching vacancies were all filled by whites. Those hires included Rudy Tomjanovich in Houston and Dan Issel in Denver, both of whom lacked coaching experience.
Were this season's minority hirings a result of outside pressure, a trend, or simply a case of being in the right place at the right time? The likely answer is a combination of all three.
Wilkens, who ranks second behind Red Auerbach on the all-time coaching list with 869 victories, said the only major change "was opening the door for these guys."
"A year ago, when you had 13 coaching vacancies, guys like Chaney, Carter and Gene Littles [former Charlotte Hornets coach], who had paid their dues and were obviously well-qualified, never even got interviewed," Wilkens said.
"All I wanted to see was a level playing field in the hiring process, and, fortunately, that's what happened this year."
Said Bullets general manager John Nash: "I don't believe any of these men were hired because of their race or color.
"The latest trend is hiring ex-NBA players, and when other teams seeking a coach saw that it worked for the Spurs with Lucas' hiring, they followed suit.
"There was a tendency in past years to look for successful college coaches. But now a proven winner like Rick Pitino at Kentucky is making so much money with all those perks, that it would probably cost him money to return to the NBA," Nash said.
Lowe, Chaney and Carter were all serving as assistants when the head coach was fired this past season. Carter, who is still waiting to hear whether he'll return next year, and Lowe assumed command immediately; Chaney was hired two weeks ago to replace Ron Rothstein with the Pistons.
"My dream was always to become a coach, not an NBA player," said Lowe, who played for DeMatha High in Washington and Jim Valvano's 1983 NCAA champion North Carolina State team before an undistinguished career as a pro guard.
"But I didn't expect it to happen this quickly. I think it was mostly circumstantial. If I hadn't gone to play for Minnesota one year [1989-90], I probably wouldn't have been in this position today."
Lowe signed a three-year contract extension in March to remain as the Wolves coach.
Last year, two of the NBA's five black general managers -- Denver's Bernie Bickerstaff and New Jersey's Willis Reed -- hired whites as coaching replacements. Bickerstaff signed Issel, and Reed grabbed a high-profile coach in Chuck Daly, who had won two titles in Detroit.
"I think the NBA has progressed to the point where you simply hire the best man for the job," Bickerstaff said.
"People bring up the fact that Issel had no coaching experience," he said. "But he served as our team TV analyst for a number of years, and he could view the games just like a coach. Plus, in his playing days, he was an All-Star with obvious leadership skills. He knows how to communicate with today's players."
Said Reed: "Give the NBA credit. They've been at the forefront of race relations since Walter Kennedy was the commissioner in the '60s, and the Boston Celtics had an almost all-black team. But I believe the blacks hired as coaches this season just happened to be in the right place.
"The other major consideration is that Carter, Lucas, Chaney, Lowe and Buckner were all guards, who are like the quarterbacks of their team in terms of leadership. They best understand what it takes to win on the floor, getting everyone involved. They also understand players will make mistakes, so ,, they can be more tolerant."
But not everyone is tolerant with the NBA, even though 75 percent of its players are black.
One of the league's major critics is Charles Grantham, the executive director of the NBA Players Association.
"I still believe the progress is more illusion than reality," Grantham said.
"It's true that you have more blacks today in coaching positions, but we haven't seen significant changes in executive positions or in support roles."
"There is still work to be done, but the NBA still sets the standards for the other leagues as far as minority hirings in management positions and in the NBA offices," said Chartese Berry, a spokesperson for the NBA.
Grantham said that the NBA is still almost without minority representation in terms of team doctors, legal counsel and in significant marketing positions.
"The fabric of the sports community has to change," he said. "A certain mentality still exists in which high-ranking NBA executives say, 'We'll do what we can.' That's not enough. There has been a shield of comfort built around the league that has kept the watchdogs at bay. . . . Priorities have to be set."
Grantham works closely with Richard Lapchick, director of the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern University in Boston.
Since 1986, Lapchick and his aides have compiled a "racial report card" in tracking minority hirings in the NBA, Major League Baseball and the National Football League.
"At first, the commissioners would be annoyed by our study and ask, 'Why are you doing this?' " Lapchick said.
"Now they respect the fact that we consult with them.
"Our annual reports give them an opportunity to evaluate and improve the situation."
Lapchick's figures show the NBA remains at the forefront. In last year's report, the league office staff was 14 percent black, compared with nine percent for baseball and eight percent for the NFL. This year's study is incomplete, but Lapchick noted gains in the NBA support staff.
"We still need black ownership," said Lapchick, who added that it would be a "significant breakthrough" if the group Magic Johnson was involved with is successful in getting an expansion team for Toronto.
In the meantime, Grantham and Lapchick will serve on the "glass-ceiling committee" that will work with the Department of Labor in investigating artificial barriers that prevent members of minorities from obtaining management positions.
B6 "We've got to keep moving forward," Grantham said.
BLACK AND WHITE
The following figures are from the 1992 "Report Card" of Richard Lapchick, chairman of Northeastern University's Sport & Society program, which monitors social changes in the major sports. The 1993 report will be released in June.
.. .. .. .. .. .. NBA .. .. .. .. NFL .. .. .. Baseball
Black .. .. .. .. 75% .. .. .. .. 62% .. .. .. .. .. 17%
White .. .. .. .. 25% .. .. .. .. 36% .. .. .. .. .. 68%
Head coaches and managers
.. .. .. .. .. .. NBA .. .. .. .. NFL .. .. .. .. Baseball
Black.. .. .. .. . 7% .. .. .. .. 7% .. .. .. .. .. 11%
White .. .. .. .. . 88% .. .. .. . 93%* .. .. .. ... 89%
.. .. .. .. .. .. NBA .. .. .. .. NFL .. .. .. .. Baseball
Black .. .. .. .. . 14% .. .. .. .. 8% .. .. .. .. .. 9%
White .. .. .. .. . 84% .. .. .. .. 92% .. .. .. .. . 84%
* - 1991 figure