Reading between the black and white

Editorial meetings at my school paper were frequently contentious, but we usually arrived at a consensus by the end of the day. We doled out the writing of the editorials, basically, by who felt strongest about a given issue. And when it came to matters of race, just as with matters of campus, or city, or nation, we would talk, agree, disagree, occasionally yell, but ultimately arrive at consensus.

And then, unlike matters of campus, or city, or nation, everyone would look at me.

As, almost always, the only person of color in the room, I guess I was supposed to always feel strongest.

I always wondered why my white colleagues weren't as appalled by racial injustice, why they didn't feel it in their bones, why it wasn't something that compelled them to stand and yell, "I have something to say about this." Because racism is something that hurts everyone. It keeps you from knowing the person that's different, from getting the most out of what everyone is capable of giving.

And so, when the results of ESPN.com's head coach rankings came out last week, the NBA editor wanted to know if I had something to say about the fact that the highest-rated African-American coach was 13th and that most of the lowest-rated coaches were African-American. I personally know the other writers that were asked to participate in the survey. I don't believe any of them are biased or prejudiced. And yet, the results indicate that the consensus of my colleagues is that the highest-rated African-American coach is 13th. (I will say this once: the highest-rated African-American coach on my list was not 13th. Paul Silas was sixth on my list. For what that's worth to you.) And I wanted to know if my white colleagues had anything to say on the subject. I know how I felt about it.

My suspicion is that most coaches, white and black, could not care less what a bunch of sportswriters think about their job performance. A compilation of opinions without the reasons why means absolutely nothing. And yet, what writers write and what broadcasters say does have an impact. People do take it into account. And so, what does it say that most of my colleagues don't believe there's an African-American coach good enough to rank in the top dozen? Does it say anything? What are the criteria by which one judges?

Here's my fear: I read where Isiah Thomas is accused of not working hard at his job. Now, I don't happen to agree with that perception. I think Thomas works as hard as, say, Larry Bird worked at it. Like Bird, who had Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter as assistant coaches, Thomas trusts his assistants (Brendan Malone, Tree Rollins, Jim Stack and Vern Fleming) enough to delegate much of the coaching in practice to them. I've been in a few Pacers practices with Thomas in charge. Believe me, he's not sitting on the sideline reading the Daily Racing Form.

What concerns me is that kind of whispering seems to follow African-American coaches in NBA managerial circles. "People" (it's never established exactly who, though many around the league claim it came from Pat Riley, a charge Riles vigorously denies) believed that Silas didn't work hard, didn't study hard, wouldn't put in the hours. The same has been said about Lenny Wilkens, that his practices aren't that rigorous. I'm not sure what the standard for rigorous is, but I know this: On the list of all-time winningest coaches in the NBA, beside the number "1," is Wilkens' name and picture.

All I know is that Wilkens got to the playoffs last season (and for the 20th time in his last 26 coaching seasons) after losing his best player, Vince Carter, and losing 17 of 18 games after the All-Star break. And that the Raptors took the Pistons to five games in the first round.

All I know is that Silas has taken the Hornets to the playoffs three straight years since taking over for Dave Cowens and to the conference semis two years straight, during which time, 1) the team's leader, Bobby Phills, was killed in a car crash, 2) the team played to near-empty crowds at home because of its impending move to New Orleans, and 3) the team's best player, Jamal Mashburn, missed most of last year's playoffs with vertigo.

All I know is that Byron Scott made the Finals in his second year as head coach of the Nets. And yes, Jason Kidd had a lot to do with that, just as Michael Jordan and Shaq and Kobe have had a little to do with Phil Jackson's success, and Bill Russell and Bob Cousy and John Havlicek and Sam Jones were of some benefit to Red Auerbach.

All I know is that Thomas has been in the playoffs both years he's been a head coach, and has lost both years to the team that ultimately got out of the East and made the Finals. Consider that there are two players left from the Indiana roster that played the Lakers in the Finals two years ago (three if you count Jonathan Bender, who wasn't on the Pacers' postseason roster but worked out with the team in practice). The Pacers, like the Spurs, played with a rookie point guard last season. Unlike the Pacers, the Spurs had that Duncan fellow you hear so much about on their roster as well.

Should the Pacers have finished better than eighth in the East last season? Given their talent -- young though it is -- probably.

Should the Bucks have finished better than ninth in the East -- and out of the playoffs -- last season? Same answer.

Good Lord, please don't take this as blanket support for any African-American head coach. Of course, some coaches are better than others. Some white coaches are better than some black coaches; some white coaches are better than other white coaches. I happen to think Larry Brown is the best coach alive. (Maybe the craziest, too. But that's another story.) But I wonder if those who prefer a certain type of coaching style hold it against those who come at it differently.

Some coaches run long, hard practices. Some are more in favor of video work. Some are teachers, stopping every few seconds to make a point. Some like to talk. Del Harris, for example, did a lot of talking as a head coach during practice. That makes him different from, say, Jerry Sloan. Not better, just different. Also, ex-players who become coaches tend to be more sympathetic toward players, and maybe more lenient when it comes to a guy missing or participating less in practice, than coaches who never played in the L. And almost all African-American coaches in the league now are ex-players. (By the way, only recently have you seen non-star African-Americans get a real head coaching shot. With Sidney Lowe in Memphis, Alvin Gentry with the Clippers and Frank Johnson in Phoenix, to name three African-American coaches, maybe that's changing.)

That doesn't make their approach better, or worse. Just different. But does that lead "people" to think African-Americans don't work hard at their head coaching jobs? Or don't look at tape? Or don't obsess about who's officiating on a given night?

For five years, I covered Wes Unseld's Washington Bullets. They weren't very good, but no team worked harder with limited talent. They took on the personality of their coach -- smart, prepared, ready to do battle every night. But they weren't good enough to win down the stretch. The best team I covered of those five finished 40-42. Did that make them less intelligent, or less diligent, than teams with white head coaches? Were the Suns better under Scott Skiles, or Johnson? And why? And does any of the why have to do with the race of either coach? Of course not.

The NBA has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to opportunities for African-Americans, and Hispanics, and women. And it does my heart good to note that one of the reasons there's so much hue and cry over these ratings is that there are so many African-American coaches on the job today -- 13 of the 29 possible jobs. That's a percentage so far ahead of Major League Baseball, the NFL, college football and hockey that you need the Hubble Telescope to look back. So I guess I would say, at the end of the day, that I can't believe anyone in an NBA front office would give a damn what a group of dot-commers surveyed en masse thinks.

You all don't care about that.


David Aldridge is an NBA reporter for ESPN.