Jamahl Mosley has traveled the world for basketball.
He played for professional teams in Mexico, Australia, Spain, Finland and South Korea. He was a player development coach with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets when Carmelo Anthony was there. He was an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers for the four long years after LeBron James left for Miami. Dirk Nowitzki’s final years with the Mavericks and the rise of Luka Doncic? Mosley was also there as an assistant in Dallas.
He spent 16 seasons on NBA coaching staff, developing his skills and hoping for his big break to become a head coach. He had taken his mother’s advice to play college basketball for a black coach, to learn leadership skills from someone similar to him. Doubts about whether he would ever land a job like that only surfaced in recent years when he interviewed for — and was turned down for — seven NBA head coaching jobs.
“Because you knew you were qualified,” Mosley said. “You knew you had interviewed well. You knew you had the opportunity to do it.”
The NBA’s coaching and leadership ranks have long been dominated by white males, even though more than 70 percent of players are black. But this year, Mosley was part of an unusually off-season, with seven out of eight head coaching positions being filled by black candidates. Five of them, including Mosley, who was hired by the Orlando Magic in July, will be head coaches for the first time. The others are Wes Unseld Jr. of the Washington Wizards, Willie Green of the New Orleans Pelicans, Ime Udoka of the Boston Celtics, and Chauncey Billups of the Portland Trail Blazers. Jason Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks and Nate McMillan of the Atlanta Hawks had previously been head coaches elsewhere.
“If this was 15 years ago, we probably wouldn’t get these positions,” Green said.
The uptick — 13 of the league’s 30 coaches are now black and two others are not white — came amid a wider national conversation about racing and recruiting practices. Black players used their voices to seek change that they believed was too late.
“This is a stain on the league that no one can deny,” Michele Roberts, the executive director of the players’ union, said in an interview, “and we have to keep doing better.”
‘There is a natural cultural bond’
Long before he became the coach of the Celtics, Udoka described himself as a student of the game. As a teenager in Portland, Oregon, he recorded games that featured some of his favorite college players, such as Lawrence Moten of Syracuse and Lamond Murray of the University of California, Berkeley. Then he went to the playground to imitate their movements. (Udoka still has a stack of VHS tapes at home.)
“I wasn’t the most athletic or capable guy,” Udoka said, “so I really had to use my brain to an advantage. I’ve always thought about the game a certain way, and I think some coaches saw that in me too.”
Udoka grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, attended a black high school, and had black coaches. He wasn’t particularly conscious of race, he said, as he was only in that environment what he knew. But his high school coach “preached family and togetherness and brotherhood,” Udoka said, and he carried those lessons with him.
Udoka bounced through the NBA as a defensive forward when he got what he described as “the coaching bug.” He helped start an Amateur Athletic Union team in Portland that included future NBA players Terrence Ross and Terrence Jones. Udoka also participated in coaching clinics organized by the NBA players’ union. After retiring, he joined the San Antonio Spurs in 2012 as an assistant under Gregg Popovich.
The Celtics job opened in June when the team announced that Brad Stevens, who had coached the team for eight seasons, would become its new president of basketball operations. Jaylen Brown, one of the Celtics’ young stars, said in a recent interview with The Undefeated that he had told the team to hire a black candidate. Representation was important to him, he said.
“Players asked and demanded and wanted to see more guys who looked like them,” Udoka said. He added: “In coaching, I think there has been a shift from X’s and O’s and game plans to the value placed on relationships. And there’s a natural cultural connection that black coaches will have with their players.”
Udoka said he was not suggesting that white coaches could not bond with black players. He referred to Popovich, who is white, as someone who has long emphasized the importance of relationships. But for a new coach on a new team, it would be naive to believe that racing played no part.
“Basketball is primarily based on minorities,” Celtics point guard Marcus Smart said in an interview. “So having a minority coach I can connect with him. I can say things to him, or he can say things to me, and we get it. While it’s different if you don’t. You have to try and figure it out OK, how can I meet them half way?’
Still, a coach is a coach: Udoka suspended Smart from the team’s preseason finals for violating an unspecified team rule.
‘This decision is coming soon’
About three years ago, Rick Carlisle, as president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, heard from an increasing number of young assistants from diverse backgrounds who felt they weren’t being shaken well at head coaching jobs.
The league and the coaches association soon launched the NBA Coaches Equality Initiative, a program aimed at developing young coaches and ensuring qualified candidates are visible when jobs arise. Since 2019, there have been numerous workshops, summits, panel discussions and networking opportunities.
And there’s an app, a coaching database that was unveiled last year. It now contains profiles of about 300 coaches, which the league’s power brokers — owners, general managers, team presidents — have access to, Carlisle said. Coaches can upload their history, their philosophies and even their interview clips. Think of it as Bumble for the NBA coaching set. But it’s all part of a bigger mission, said Oris Stuart, the competition’s chief people and inclusion officer.
“We have ongoing conversations with our teams about the importance of ensuring that, as they make decisions, the process is inclusive,” Stuart said in an interview. “We focus on the importance of ensuring that the best talent is considered, that we have broad reach and that we go beyond the predefined networks that people work from.”
But in the past year, the hiring processes for two white coaches — including the one who brought Carlisle to the Indiana Pacers — have been criticized for appearing unequal.
The Minnesota Timberwolves fired Ryan Saunders as their coach in February and announced his replacement, white Chris Finch, on the same day. The Timberwolves chose not to promote the team’s associate head coach, David Vanterpool, who is black, which would have been typical following a mid-season layoff. (Vinterpool is now an assistant for the Nets.)
The perception was that the Timberwolves could not have seriously considered a single black candidate given their accelerated timeline, said Roberts, the executive director of the players’ union. The timing of the change, she added, “got under the skin of a lot of people.”
Within days, Carlisle and David Fogel, the executive director of the coaches association, released a statement expressing the organization’s “disappointment” with Minnesota’s search, saying it “is our responsibility to point out when an organization is fails to conduct a thorough and transparent search for candidates from a wide variety of diverse backgrounds.”
But just a few months later, in June, Carlisle accepted the Pacers job after what appeared to be a shortened search. Indiana had fired Nate Bjorkgren earlier in the month after just one season, and they had interviewed only one other candidate when they offered Carlisle the job. Chad Buchanan, Indiana’s general manager, said in an interview that the team wanted an experienced coach and that Carlisle had unexpectedly become available after he resigned from the Dallas Mavericks, whom he had coached for 13 seasons and became a senior in 2011. championship led.
Buchanan tried to reassure Carlisle by telling him that the Pacers had interviewed 17 candidates, eight black and one female, before hiring Bjorkgren eight months earlier.
“This was something I was concerned about,” Carlisle said, “but once they gave me that information, I felt comfortable moving forward.”
‘It’s more of a system problem’
Majoring in economics at Johns Hopkins University, Wes Unseld Jr. that he would go into the investment bank. But two summers, before and after graduating in 1997, he interned with the Wizards. His father, also Wes, who was synonymous with the franchise from his Hall of Fame playing days, had moved to the front office as the team’s general manager after seven seasons as head coach. The elder Unseld invited his son to learn the ropes, just in case the financial world wasn’t for him.
“If you want to work in this business, you have to learn the trade,” recalls Wes Unseld Jr. remembers his father telling him. “So I think, okay, I’ll be around basketball. “No, you’re going to do an internship in every department.” Community relations, public relations, marketing, sales – you name it, I’ve done it.”
Unseld, who was a very good Division III player for Johns Hopkins, soon realized he couldn’t put the game behind him, and he became one of the many unsung behind-the-scenes games in the NBA. After eight seasons as a scout for Washington, he spent the next 16 as an assistant for various teams in the league. He refined transgressions. He built defenses. He was known by the Wizards as The Genius for his attention to detail and his instinctive sense of the game. In Denver, he helped star Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
Still, Unseld was unable to land a job as head coach. He said he was never sure if his race was a factor. “When an opportunity doesn’t present itself, sometimes it’s easy to ask, ‘Was it that?'” Unseld said. “And maybe it was. It’s hard to say.”
After a record 14 black coaches staffed benches for teams at the start of the 2012-13 season, those numbers declined in subsequent years, showing how feeble progress can be. Unseld said the NBA is “a network company like any other company”.
“If you’re not connected to the decision-makers, it can be difficult,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s an overt way of not interviewing or not giving people of color a chance, but maybe they don’t have that network to draw from. It’s more of a system problem.”
Roberts praised the coaches’ association for working to address that problem in recent seasons. But the real power, she said, comes from the players themselves.
“A happy team is probably a more successful team,” she said. “And if the players think the management is squeezing their noses at their expressed concerns about a coaching staff, what’s their motivation to stay?”
In New Orleans, Willie Green often thinks of his uncle, Gary Green, who coached him growing up in Detroit and taught him the basics. After several years as an assistant at Golden State and Phoenix, Green said he felt a heightened sense of responsibility.
“We have to be caretakers of these opportunities,” he said.
In Boston, Garrett Jackson, a former player on Udoka’s AAU team, is now one of Udoka’s video coordinators. And Mosley took his first win for the Magic with a narrow win against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He was given the match ball as a gift and then went back to work.
“It’s like everything,” he said. “You just lay your head down and do the work.”