NBA Legend Isiah Thomas Happy For Steve Nash, Concerned For Black Coaches

We like simplified debates. Yes or no answers, true or false tests. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Good or bad. Smile or frown. Liberal or conservative. 

On Thursday, the Brooklyn Nets hired Steve Nash, a two-time NBA MVP but also a white man with no coaching experience, to be the head coach of their championship-ready team. It was a surprising hire that set off hard feelings.

Stephen A. Smith might have said it first on ESPN, though he wasn’t the only one. He called the hiring “white privilege.’’ 

But that isn’t the whole story. So I called Isiah Thomas, the Hall of Fame guard and former head coach of the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, for his perspective.

“In the coaching profession and the management profession in sport, the black coaches, myself included, our first jobs are rebuilding, building jobs,’’ he said. “Or expansion jobs.

“My first NBA job, I started a franchise, the Toronto Raptors (as owner and executive). My second job was a rebuild, coach of the Indiana Pacers. My third job was a rebuild with the New York Knicks. But the jobs that whites have been able to step into as first-time jobs sometimes is where you get the cream of the cream. You get a championship-ready team.’’

Sure enough, Steve Kerr stepped into the Golden State Warriors job, won NBA titles and built a dynasty. Yet there are few examples of African-Americans getting their first coaching job as the head coach of a contending NBA team stocked with superstars. Tyronn Lue, another former point guard, comes to mind in Cleveland with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Most people believe LeBron forced the Cavaliers to install Lue midway through the 2015-16 season. 

The Warriors and the Nets chose Kerr and Nash in the calculated cold of the offseason. 

The real debate is this: Is Nash a good and just and understandable hire? Or is this more evidence that black coaches travel a more difficult path to success?

To boil it down: Was Nash’s hire good or bad? Yes or no? Smile or frown?

I’m going with yes and yes. Yes, Nash was the right hire, a creative find. And yes, it also was more evidence that black coaches rarely get these opportunities because the system views them more skeptically.

Sorry, but this isn’t a debate for Twitter. In fact, it isn’t a debate at all. It’s two topics rolled into one. And you can hear that clearly when you listen to the noise-makers. Even Smith said that Nash will be successful, which, in fact, is the purpose of a hire.

Thomas takes a measured look at both questions. And he also comes up with yes and yes as his answers.

“Privilege comes into play,’’ he told me. “But let me say this: I am close to Steve Nash. I am a fan of his, extremely happy for him. I texted him and told him he’s going to do a great job.

“This is where society is looking at sport and saying, `We want to be like sport.’ In sport, Nash is a brother; Nash is a friend; Nash is a former player. Now, let’s critique the system. Those are two totally different conversations. Here’s what we all have to do as Americans: We all need to critique this system that’s forcing us to live this way and pitting us against each other.’’

In Nash, the Nets are trying to have their own Steve Kerr, to turn themselves into the Warriors. You see success, you copy success.

The dynamic of coaching is changing in sports. In baseball, the Chicago Cubs hired recent player David Ross as manager, straight from Dancing With the Stars. He has never managed or coached. But he has the respect of the players as a contemporary and former teammate. And the Cubs are in first place.

When you have a team with superstars, the goal is to blend superstar egos. Nash is reportedly close to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. As a recent MVP point guard, Nash should also have Irving’s respect.

In the superstar player-driven NBA, it’s hard to imagine the Nets hiring Nash without Durant’s endorsement, and probably Irving’s. Should the Nets care what Twitter and Stephen A. Smith think of Nash’s hire, if Durant and Irving approve?

Nash steps into great expectations in the racial crosshairs of the times. But the deck is stacked in his favor.

Thomas agrees that the deck is stacked. And while he’s glad for Nash about that, he says it just never works out that way for first-time black coaches.

“And then they start comparing records (between white and black coaches),’’ Thomas said. “When you look at the records of a black coach, he’s at a startup, and the other one (white coach) is at a guaranteed winner. This is where it gets muddy, because you’re really not comparing apples to apples.’’

Isiah’s right. It’s not apples to apples. It’s like all coaching hires.

Wait and see.

Written by
Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in and The Guardian. Couch penned articles and columns for Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.