Ahead Of The Curve: In Minority Hiring, NBA Has Always Led The Way

By David Steele
Updated: January 28, 2007

BALTIMORE — Someday, the NFL will catch up with the NBA. It hasn’t happened yet, even though the ascent of two black coaches to the Super Bowl mirrors what took place nearly 32 years earlier at the NBA Finals.

The difference? The meeting of Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith next Sunday is a huge deal today, the talk of the sports world and much of the non-sports world.

The meeting of K.C. Jones and Al Attles in May 1975 was hardly noticed, barely commented on and definitely not scrutinized. Not even by the two coaches themselves.

“The thing I cherish most about it,” said Attles, who led the Golden State Warriors to a 4-0 sweep of Jones’ Washington Bullets, “and a lot of people might not think it’s right, is that [at the time] they didn’t bring a lot of attention to it.”

Said Jones: “Back when it was Al Attles and myself, no one even thought about it. Now, it’s a big whoop-de-do. That tells you something.”

It tells you everything that the crowd of back-patters, all those congratulating themselves about the milestone moment, is a little shy to talk about. In 1975, the NFL was still 14 years away from hiring the first black coach in its modern era. The NBA had already been there, done that.

“Red Auerbach got the first black player in the league [in 1950],” said Jones, now the radio analyst for the University of Hartford basketball team and a special assistant to the school’s athletic director. “Then he got the first black coach in Bill Russell [in 1966]. It tells you the genius of Red Auerbach.”

Russell — Jones’ Celtics teammate for eight of their previous nine NBA championships — became player-coach and won two more titles in 1968 and 1969. So by the time the Bullets and Warriors met for the championship six years later, having two black coaches at the height of their profession, much less one, barely qualified as news.

In fact, before Art Shell got the Raiders’ job in 1989, Jones reached the NBA Finals three more times and won twice, with the Larry Bird-era Celtics.

“It just so happened that basketball, in my mind, was so far ahead of every other sport,” said Attles, 70, who coached the Warriors for 14 years and has been with the team as a player, coach or executive since he was drafted in 1960. “And you see it hasn’t happened for another [32] years.”

There hasn’t been another face-off between black coaches for a major sports championship since then. Still, in all, black coaches or managers have led teams to the NBA Finals 12 times, the NCAA men’s basketball championship game eight times and the World Series three times.

Only in football, pro and college, is the mere discussion of hiring a black coach, much less winning with one, still an extreme oddity. Virtually everywhere else, those battles have been fought, won, learned from and consigned to history.

In 1975, in fact, Attles and Jones each also had a black assistant coach, and 18 of the 24 players were black, including 10 of the 12 Warriors. If any of that got more than a glancing notice, both men said, they were unaware of it.

Nor had their hirings been cultural touchstones. In 1973 — the year the Bullets moved from Baltimore to Landover — owner Abe Pollin simply found Jones, who had been a head coach in college and the ABA after his Hall of Fame playing career, to be best-suited for the job.

Three years earlier, late in the 1969-70 season, Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli had made Attles player-coach. “The people who get the credit and deserve it are the guys who did the hiring,” Attles said.

“They wanted me as a coach, period,” said Jones, now 74. “The owner [Pollin] was fantastic, and that’s what it was all about.”

Russell had blazed the trail by then; at that time, Jones said, “it was expected that you would fail, because of the color of your skin. You heard, ‘Oh, black coach, not smart enough.’ ”

Of that perception, Attles said, “Bill killed it, K.C. killed it, I killed it, and Wayne [Embry, the NBA's first black general manager] killed it.”

Time will tell whether Dungy’s and Smith’s success will eventually kill it in the NFL.

“I’m not surprised,” Jones said. “The process was slow, but it picked up, and what do you know? Two coaches in the final.”

Said Attles: “I’m glad that football has finally come to grips with it. But my biggest concern is, I hope it doesn’t stop there. I hope people get interviewed and hired based on your qualifications.

“Then there’s this — one of those coaches is going to lose, and I hope it won’t be that if he loses, they’ll say, ‘Oh, he can’t coach.’ I know they said that about Russell. If he lost, they said he really couldn’t coach, and if he won, they’d say it’s because Russ the coach had Russ the player.”

Once again: problem solved in the NBA long ago, still being addressed in the NFL. Maybe, in 32 years, football will be caught up.