Attles, Jones Have Been Where Smith, Dungy Now Sit

By Carl Steward
Updated: January 30, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO — Whether we like what it says about the progress of equal opportunity in this country or not, the biggest story line of Super Bowl XLI is that two African-American men, Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy, will be opposing coaches this year.

In a fair and colorblind world, it wouldn’t be a big deal. We wouldn’t care. But the reality is that we still notice and assess these kinds of “firsts” in America because inequality of opportunity based on race still exists. Hence, it cannot be ignored. Maybe one day, but not yet.

“It says very simply that for as far as we’ve come, we haven’t come very far,” said Golden State Warriors executive Al Attles. “It says we still have to continue to work to make the playing field a lot more level.”

The 70-year-old Attles has great perspective on this week’s Super Bowl “first.” In 1975, he and Washington’s K.C. Jones were the first African-American men to face off as coaches in a major professional sports championship when the Warriors and Bullets met in the NBA Finals.

It hasn’t happened since in any pro sport — nearly 32 years since — and if not for what was happening on Sunday, it might be a milestone lost in time. The relevance of it hadn’t even dawned on Attles until someone mentioned it to him last week, perhaps because back in’75, the implications of the “first” wasn’t dwelled upon in the media or by the participants themselves.

“Back then, it was probably a big thing in a lot of people’s minds, but I don’t think K.C. or I even thought about it that way,” Attles said Monday. “I know one thing, we never talked about it. We never ever said a word with each other about it. Both of us were more concerned about winning.”

Attles believes there were several reasons for the relative lack ofattention in 1975. First, Bill Russell already had broken down the barrier as the first African-American coach to win an NBA title when he did it twice with the Boston Celtics in the late 1960s. Second, he said, the NBA was ahead of its time in recognizing and hiring qualified minority candidates as coaches. In the 12-year period from 1968 to’79, African-American coaches were involved in five NBA Finals, winning four.

That was an anomaly to the rest of the sports world, however, and perhaps still is. Two African-American managers have never faced off in a World Series, and only one, Cito Gaston, has won one (Gaston never got another managerial job after his Toronto tenure, either). The NFL didn’t get its first African-American head coach until Al Davis hired Art Shell in 1989 and continues to order its teams to interview minority candidates, although that directive has been ignored by certain teams this offseason.

And this doesn’t even to take into consideration the appalling situation in Division I-A college football, in which only four African-American coaches have been hired to fill more than 100 openings since the year 2000.

With that in mind, Attles acknowledges the achievement of Jones and himself, as well as Dungy and Smith, as important. But at the same time, he wishes it didn’t have to be the focus.

“Dr. (Martin Luther) King said you should be judged by the strength of your character rather than by the color of your skin,” he said. “That speaks volumes, as far as I’m concerned. But if you don’t get the opportunity, you never will get the chance to be on that stage. Those two coaches (Dungy and Smith) got an opportunity presented to them, and they took advantage of it.

“Now what I think we have to do is we can’t sit back and rest on our laurels and say we’ve done it,” Attles continued. “The bottom line is, it’s always going to be about the people who created the opportunity for you.”

To that end, Attles is forever grateful to former Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli not only for giving him the chance but also operating the entire franchise without a prejudicial eye.

“There weren’t many Franklin Mieulis back then,” Attles said. “We had situations where I went to him for input because of our racial makeup (the’75 Warriors had 10 black players and two whites),” he recalled. “Franklin said, ‘Al, you take the best 12 players available to you, and I don’t care what they look like.’

“That was a statement to me. I was going to do what I thought was best regardless, but if you get the backing of the person who’s paying you. I don’t know if that happens very often, even now.”

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Jones, whose Bullets lost to Attles’ underdog Warriors in’75 but later won multiple titles as Boston’s coach, echoed Attles’ sentiments.

“People have to ask why is it that two black coaches in the Super Bowl is something that should be all over the media,” he said. “I’m happy they’re there with their teams, but does a double standard still apply?”

For Attles’ part, he will watch the Super Bowl with a sense of pride and hope this “first” represents some sort of momentum for continued change, among not only sports’ coaching ranks but also at the general manager and ownership levels. But he is wary, not so much for the winner but the loser.

“I just hope whoever the losing coach is, he isn’t judged because of what he looked like,” he said.