Steve Nash's hiring leads to more questions as Black coaches sit on the sidelines
At the intersection of relationship, privilege, Black grievances and an ugly history of NBA coaching hires sits … Steve Nash?
On Thursday, the Brooklyn Nets made the stunning hire of a Hall of Fame point guard with two MVPs yet zero days on a coaching sideline, seemingly a prerequisite for most coaches — especially Black coaches.
It’s clear the Nets made this hire with one player in mind: Kevin Durant.
Durant, more than even Kyrie Irving, is the player the franchise has hitched its success to. Durant is the champion and generational talent whose mere presence and health guarantees the Nets a place in the championship conversation.
Durant appears to want Nash, and Nash, revealing coaching has been a secret desire after years of denying interest, wanted in.
When a player of Durant’s caliber seems to have the power to pick his coach, and he wants you, guess what happens? You become his coach.
On that level, it’s quite simple, the power of relationships. Durant and Nash developed their relationship in Golden State, when Nash was a player-development consultant. It’s widely known Durant and Warriors coach Steve Kerr didn’t always see eye-to-eye, even though Kerr was by far the best coach he’s played for since entering the league.
Durant didn’t have that level of sway in Golden State, and who knows if he wanted it, considering the circumstances of what was built before he arrived. And he didn’t have it in Oklahoma City, either.
So now that he’s reached the point of his career where his voice matters as much as it ever has, he flexed. Black power, one would say.
Nash’s basketball acumen, his career accolades and potential connection with Irving make it a logical hire, especially given how the Nets didn’t respond to Kenny Atkinson, who was fired shortly before the NBA shut down.
Had Durant pressed for Tyronn Lue or Mark Jackson or the countless, qualified Black coaches who are waiting for their first opportunity or a second chance, or a better chance, one would think the Nets would’ve acquiesced to his wishes.
But Nash happened to be the recipient, aided by his relationship with Nets GM Sean Marks — no fault of his own — but he benefits from circumstances, roads that are often closed off to Black coaches, avenues they aren’t allowed to benefit from.
The No. 5 is startling for NBA coaches. That’s the number of Black coaches currently leading NBA teams. Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce, Detroit’s Dwane Casey, Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers are the chosen few in a league that’s overwhelmingly Black and is the sport where relationships seem to matter more than the other majors.
Jacque Vaughn will be retained as an associate head coach, the Nets announced, but it dwindles the numbers. Alvin Gentry in New Orleans? Fired. Nate McMillan in Indiana? Fired.
On its face, it can be deemed as justifiable, but look up and down the list of teams’ current coaches — you’ll find plenty who could be deemed as “fireable” but routinely hold onto their jobs.
That’s the inequity Black coaches feel when they look across the board, the settings for what feels like understandable reasons that never apply to them.
So the last thing they want to hear about is mitigating circumstances that always seem to fly against their favor and for others. The label of being a “players’ coach” isn’t a positive one when used by media and front offices, especially when the label is applied in the opposite way to someone who fits a different narrative.
When you’re a “players’ coach,” it’s often said with the wink and nod of lacking tactical expertise, never given the benefit of the doubt in the way of their white counterparts. It attacks the roads they’ve had to take to be one of the few Black coaches who gets the opportunity, all the while operating with the knowledge of knowing it won’t take long before you’re shown the door.
Even winning a championship and taking a team to consecutive NBA Finals isn’t enough to earn a chance to shepherd a team through a rebuild, because of course, that ring came courtesy of LeBron James — as was the case with Lue in Cleveland.
Only Rivers has what’s called a “good job,” when he took over a team with talent in a big market — and that was when Donald Sterling owned the Clippers, not long before his scandal forced him out and Steve Ballmer in.
Williams is helping the Suns show signs of relevance after years of darkness. Pierce’s, Casey’s and Bickerstaff’s teams sit at the bottom of the East, and not because they’ve squandered the talent they’ve inherited.
Casey helped build the Toronto Raptors, being named Coach of the Year before being fired and replaced by Nick Nurse in 2018. The Raptors responded by winning the title last year, which had plenty to do with acquiring Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs.
Pierce and Bickerstaff aren’t in winnable situations right now, and given the state of Black coaches, every day their key works in their respective facilities feels like a good one.
They don’t have the benefit of being able to pass over jobs for better ones to come along, or dance around coaching altogether until a generational player pulls you in for a lifetime opportunity.
Their gripes and frustrations, if they have them, aren’t about Nash but the system that works against them. Pierce and Jason Kidd congratulated Nash on Twitter when news broke about Nash’s job, and there’s no animus.
But teams can be caught speaking from both sides of their mouth when speaking about why a league can be 80 percent Black but its coaching ranks look as paltry as they do.
It looks mighty suspicious when a league and teams tell its players that their voices on matters of race and justice are respected, welcomed and necessary, but the leadership positions often shut them out for reasons hard to justify when the inconsistencies are laid bare for all to see.
Relationships matter, to a degree.
Basketball acumen matters, to a degree.
Foresight and a moral compass matters, to a degree.
Until it comes to owners putting these smart, relationship-building and forward-thinking types in positions that would allow them to flex their knowledge, then it becomes about something else, anything else — as long as those goalposts keep on moving.
The state of coaching in the NBA or even the social climate isn’t Nash’s fault.
But it isn’t Black folks’ fault, either, so pardon them if they look around wondering why they have to be exceptional to be the rule.
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