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  • New York’s Front Office Sets the Example for African Americans in Sports Leadership Roles

New York’s Front Office Sets the Example for African Americans in Sports Leadership Roles

Photo: TKW Illustration

The ‘Bockers possess a rare group of African-American leaders in sports. What contributed to the three’s ascension in the roles, and do American pro sports still have ways to go to include minorities in decision-making positions?

In sports, it is rare for men of color to have a seat at the decision-making table. Among the four major sports leagues, the NBA has been the most progressive in giving specifically black men the opportunity. While Michael Jordan is still the league’s only black majority owner, he has opened the door for down the line, other former players to pony up and possibly buy that access. Recently, seven-time NBA All-Star and 2018 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Grant Hill was announced as a key part of an ownership group that would now own the Atlanta Hawks.

Advancement at the next tier below ownership is inching along. There is much disparity when it comes to leadership levels in direct contact with players, coaching staff, and the moving parts that keep a franchise functioning. Commissioner Adam Silver has encouraged dialogue around the hot-button sociopolitical issues and championed diversity initiatives. Everything about Silver’s tenure thus far indicates his commitment to pushing the league forward. His power only goes so far, though. One can simply look up a team’s personnel and see how the NBA mirrors any other company in terms of employment.

The Knicks have been one of the few franchises to employ a black man in the most prominent job—president of basketball operations. The position has not come without turmoil, controversy, and scandal. Steve Mills is on his second term and this time, he’s unintentionally on track to make history. The symbolism in power was further cemented in the hiring of Scott Perry as general manager. It was stated over and over that bringing David Fizdale as head coach was not about race, but about fit and player development. However, it is hard to ignore that the Knicks are in a unique situation in terms of optics and influence.

Steve Mills is one of two black presidents of basketball of operations (Magic Johnson is the other). Scott Perry is one of the three black general managers. There are 30 teams in the NBA. In 2018, you would think there’d be a few more black faces in at least the general manager position. With James Dolan sitting on his hands and letting Mills, Perry, and Fizdale run the Knicks as their own, it’s important to consider what influence the Knicks’ brain-trust of blackness could have on the league’s decision-makers as well as players.

People need to see color

I know this is a sports site, but guys, for the billionth time: talking about race doesn’t mean you’re anti-white! It means that you’re aware of a problem. The NBA is 75 percent Black. And yet people of color (not just black) in executive positions continues to be a glaring issue. Mills himself stated this hiring Perry and Fizdale wasn’t about them being black men. He told The Undefeated’s Marc Spears: “I wasn’t thinking a black-white thing. I wasn’t thinking if I hired a white guy what that said, or if I hired an African-American what that said. It just didn’t hit me.” Moves like this don’t go unnoticed. They can’t when the Knicks are valued at $3.6 billion dollars. When those three governing positions are filled by black men and the franchise continues to produce a good product, other team owners might think thrice about taking chances on the minority talent pool.

Low Risk Reaps Very High Rewards

Remember Shaka Smart? He came in and made Virginia Commonwealth University basketball a force to be reckoned with. Many rallied around a little-known team out of Richmond and cheered for this young black coach. Smart parlayed that success into a high-paying job at the University of Texas, where he just coached Mo Bamba to a sixth-overall selection. Smart was able to create his own version of a good product—tenacious, frenetic defense—and a bigger school snatched him up.

David Fizdale is getting another chance to do the very same thing in New York. Being a part of a rebuild is no easy task for a coach. Black coaches get an even shorter leash when it comes to wins and losses. We see what happened with Memphis. Having men who look like you as bosses sometimes alleviate that pressure. Between the lines, it gives Fizdale a different managerial support relationship that will benefit the franchise long term. In a nutshell, as a coach coming into an expected tank season or two, there is room for Fizdale to make mistakes and fully develop his players his way because he’s not coaching for his job for 82 games.

Players and their relationships are different now

Every summer, Knicks fans photoshop every big name free agent into orange and blue and debate on why he’s going to come to the Garden. My argument has always been New York is not appealing, mainly because the taxes are insane. But aside from that, what relationships have management shown they’ve cultivated? Nothing has ever panned out and perhaps it can be attested to the lack of connection between free agents themselves and Knicks brass. For example, players want to play for certain coaches because the coach is known for being a solid guy. Fizdale embodies a player’s coach. He’s outspoken on social issues. He speaks the language of this generation of players. But he’s also approachable and amenable. From the perspective of owners, seeing a young(ish) black coach project that rapport with players and management alike dismisses the belief that black coaches have to be or act a certain way to be worthy of an opportunity. Intangibly, Fizdale is the perfect coach with ability to attract savvy, prime players who can overlook the stench of losing and be a part of a new culture being created.

One common characteristic that I found interesting about Mills and Perry is they come from fathers who were trail blazers. Perry’s father was the first black plant manager for Chrysler while Mills’s father was one of the most successful hoops coaches in Long Island’s history. Establishing diversity trends and breaking barriers isn’t something new to them. I believe adding David Fizdale at a turning point in the Knicks’ future is no accident. The Knicks’ trifecta of black faces may not be about race, but it certainly is about showing that change is not only possible in the boardroom, but it’s time.

Fan of Knicks/Cuse hoops, Panera sandwiches, Avion Tequila, and a good whiskey. Invested in improving your 40 time.

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