As the final horn sounded, the crowd at Los Angeles’ Staples Center was in both a somber and celebratory mood as the road team, the Phoenix Suns, advanced to the NBA Finals by knocking off the Clippers.
For those watching at home, you saw an emotional Chris Paul afterwards, the longtime veteran finally getting a chance to play for a championship, the one gem that has eluded him for so long. And now it’s game two of the Finals, and the Suns are playing the Milwaukee Bucks after taking game one.
And this came about in a season that snapped a decade-long drought of the Suns not even making the playoffs. Their transformation, it’s like going from having a good seat at a really good Broadway play, to being on the stage a year later as the main attraction that’s being watched by the world.
And while Paul and teammate Devin Booker certainly deserve top billing for what they have done for Phoenix, their play and the team’s unexpected ascension to the top of the NBA mountaintop is not what makes this particular journey so unique. This team’s journey has been fueled by the kind of leadership that we seldom see in the NBA, let alone see on a stage as big as the NBA Finals.
Monty Williams, who is Black, is the team’s head coach and was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year by the NBA’s Coaches Association. James Jones, who is also Black, is the Suns’ General Manager, and he was named the league’s Executive of the Year.
Never in the league’s history has an NBA team competing in the Finals had both a Black head coach and General Manager on the clock at the same time.
For all the feel-good stories that will surely emerge from the Finals in the next couple of weeks, this will be one that won’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Both men were brought on board in Phoenix before the nation and world for that matter, began to pay more attention to Black and Brown issues which have brought about an undeniable racial reckoning since the killing of George Floyd last year.
As we saw NBA players protest in the streets and inside the league’s Orlando, Florida bubble to conclude the 2019-2020 season, the cry for increased diversity in the front offices of the NBA and the sidelines as head coaches was slowly beginning to gain some steam. But with that increased call, there was added pressure and expectations on those who were Black already in those respective positions, to deliver.
And that’s exactly what we saw in the NBA playoffs this season from a coaching perspective. The last four coaches playing this season, three of them (Atlanta’s Nate McMillan, Williams and Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue) were Black.
And with a handful of coaching jobs opening up, a number of them have gone to people of color (Chauncey Billups in Portland; Jason Kidd in Dallas; and Nigerian-American Ime Udoka in Boston).
But what we see in Phoenix this year is special.
For far too long, organizations intent on having Blacks among leadership would often go with a Black head coach or the rare Black GM—but seldom do we see both at the same time. The value in celebrating their success and achievements through the prism of their Blackness has tremendous value. And while there will be some who believe that when it comes to hiring, color should never be seen. The issue should never be if color is seen or not; but rather, does it bring any added value to the job?
It is a trait that isn’t going anywhere for Jones and Williams, just like Kevin Durant’s near 7-foot frame. As exceptional as Durant is when he’s handing the ball or displaying his impressive shooting skills, do we pretend that we don’t see his height as being a trait that helps him do his job at an elite level? When it comes to Jones, Williams and any other Black executive or coach in the NBA, how your team performs is the ultimate litmus test regardless of skin color.
But in order to prove oneself, that involves opportunity, something that doesn’t come nearly as often as it should even as Black folks continue to make strides in both the front office and the frontline of the game as head coaches.
That is why what we are seeing with the Suns right now, is so important. This is what happens when Black excellence and opportunity collide.
In past conversations I’ve had with James Jones, he fully understands the power and promise that comes with being an executive in a league where those in his position who are Black, are so few and far between.
“I feel privileged because the road for me and the path for me and the struggles for me aren’t as great as they were for the trailblazers before me,” he said. “I look at it as carrying the ball but I don’t have to carry it as far. I just have to continue to work and build on the foundation they laid.”