Black Excellence, Not Exceptionalism, Defines the Recent Success of Black NBA Head Coaches

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Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams was named 2021-22 NBA Coach of the Year. Image: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images.

When the email arrived in my inbox announcing that there would be a press conference for Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams this week, it was obvious what this was about.

As the head coach of a Suns team that had the best regular season record in the NBA this year, Williams being officially named the league’s Coach of the Year was expected.

But the voting for this particular award said more about the state of the NBA now, than it does about Williams and his coaching acumen.

Williams will get the award, but the real winners are the Black coaches throughout the league who absolutely dominated the voting for Coach of the Year this season.

Of the top seven vote-getters, five were Black men (Ime Udoka of Boston; J.B. Bickerstaff of Cleveland; Tyronn Lue of the Los Angeles Clippers; and Jason Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks). And a sixth man of color, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra who is of Filipino descent, finished third for the award.

To put that in perspective, the top finishers represented almost half of the NBA’s head coaches of color.

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To see the praise and adulation that they receive, has led many to view their success as exceptional.

But the truth is, their success is more about Black Excellence than exceptionalism.

Because putting their accomplishments solely in the silo of exceptionalism, doesn’t do justice to the transformative power that them being in the positions there in, has brought about.

What they are doing is delivering Black Excellence at an exceptional level which goes far beyond just being a really good coach. Backed into that reality, is the impact that it has on others who may not have seen a path towards coaching before, that now see folks who look like them, not only doing it but doing it exceptionally well.

The root of that can be summed up in one word: opportunity.

More than anything else, it has been what has kept Black coaches from enjoying more success in the past.

As the NBA became a more diverse and progressive league among its players, the same could not be said for the league’s history when it came to Black head coaches.

And it didn’t matter if those few afforded an opportunity were successful. Think about it.

Four of the first six Black head coaches in the NBA (Bill Russell; Al Attles; K.C. Jones and Lenny Wilkens) won titles at some point in their coaching careers.

But the floodgates for Black head coaches remained nothing more than a trickle with little to no effect on the number of Black coaches until the past couple of years which has seen a noticeable spike in the number of Black head coaches.

The Sacramento Kings recently announced the hiring of Mike Brown as their new head coach. If all the current NBA coaches remain in their respective jobs to start next season, the addition of Brown would bring the total of Black head coaches in the NBA to 15 which would be the most ever in NBA history to start a season.

“This is not a sports issue,” Atlanta head coach Nate McMillan, who is Black, told reporters in February. “It’s a society issue that the opportunities sometimes certain people, they don’t get the opportunities because of the color of their skin. With the NBA, we seem to have given those opportunities to some Black coaches and they’ve had some success doing it.”

Frequently you would hear about them not being “the right fit” or lacking the “right kind of experience” and were thus passed over for white coaches whose resume when it comes to coaching, was paper-thin.

Look at the Brooklyn Nets who a couple years ago hired Steve Nash, a great player who had no prior head coaching experience. Among the coaches on his staff was Ime Udoka of Boston who became the Boston Celtics head coach this past season and led them to a 51-win season and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

In the first round of the playoffs last month, the Celtics played the Nash-coached Nets team and swept them out of the playoffs, the lone sweep in the playoffs this year.

Udoka didn’t gloat about the series win, or grumble or gripe when the Nets passed him over previously. He stayed on the grind, waited for his opportunity to be a head coach, and to his credit, has made the most of it.

He is not alone when you look at the top coaches this year, and how so many of them are Black men who patiently waited for their opportunity to shine.

They are examples of patience, persistence and Black Excellence who this past year were exceptional at their jobs because the opportunity to succeed now is greater than ever.

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