How Bill Russell’s coaching career opened doors for NBA’s Black head coaches

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When the 2021-22 NBA season tips off, there will be 13 Black head coaches on the sidelines, six of whom were hired this past offseason. That is one shy of the most ever entering a single season.

Among that number are five first-year head coaches in Chauncey Billups (Trail Blazers) Willie Green (Pelicans), Jamahl Mosley (Magic), Wes Unseld Jr. (Wizards) and Ime Udoka, who begins his head coaching career as the lead man of the Celtics, one of the most storied franchises in the history of all professional sports. 

MORE: Ranking the NBA’s new head coaches

A sometimes overlooked part of the Celtics’ history is the franchise’s role in breaking barriers, as it was Bill Russell who became the first Black head coach in NBA history, paving the way for each of the aforementioned names to be where they are now. 

The news first surfaced following Game 1 of the 1966 NBA Finals, when Hall of Famer Red Auerbach formally announced that at the conclusion of the series, Russell would succeed him as head coach. While it had become common knowledge that the 1965-66 season would be Auerbach’s last on the sidelines, the choice to appoint Russell is what has had a lasting effect over the last six decades.

10 seasons into his playing career, Russell was set to become the first Black coach in league history — as a player-coach, no less, which was a fairly common practice of the time.

It’s worth re-emphasizing that this came in the year 1966, where American Jim Crow Laws had only recently been formally abolished but the after-effects of governmentally-enforced segregation permeated throughout the nation as if such laws were still in place.

Just one month prior to Auerbach’s appointing of Russell as Boston’s next lead man, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of an audience at Southern Methodist University and spoke on integration, acknowledging that “we have come a long, long way but we still have a long, long way to go.”

As groundbreaking of a moment as this was, Russell was actually not Auerbach’s first choice as a successor — nor his second or third, for that matter. In fact, it was after three of Auerbach’s former players in Frank Ramsey, Bob Cousy and Tom Heihnson expressed different reservations about taking the job that Russell was chosen. 

The above point wasn’t made to diminish Russell’s achievement or to criticize Auerbach, who played a hand in some of the most groundbreaking moments of integration in league history, but rather a point to illustrate that had it not been for three white candidates turning down the job, we might not have seen Russell land the opportunity to blaze a trail in the manner that he did.

Be that as it may, Russell proved to be the right choice.

“I wasn’t offered the job because I am a Negro,” Russell said to reporters of succeeding Auerbach. “I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.”

MORE: As coach, Russell headlines 2021 Hall of Fame class

From the onset, Russell did his job at an extremely-high level. In his first season as player-coach, he led the Celtics to a 60-21 record, but the team’s historic title streak would come to an end as they fell to the 76ers in the East Finals.

Over the next two seasons, however, Russell compiled a 102-62 regular season record while leading Boston to back-to-back NBA titles in 1968 and 1969. After defeating the Lakers in seven games in the 1969 Finals, Russell would step away from the game, both as a player and a coach but by then, he had made his mark.

(Getty Images)

With the first Black coach in league history winning two titles in three years – while doubling as his team’s defensive anchor – the barrier had been broken for others to follow suit.

The 1969-70 season saw two more important figures in Lenny Wilkens and Al Attles take over as player-coaches of their respective teams, the Seattle SuperSonics and San Francisco Warriors. Then, in the 1971-72 season, Earl Lloyd became the first Black coach to be hired as a full-time head coach when he was hired by the Detroit Pistons.

Lloyd didn’t experience much success at the helm in Detroit but his successor, Ray Scott, became the first Black coach to earn Coach of the Year honours after leading the Pistons to a 50-32 record in the 1973-74 NBA season. A season later, Attles, who had retired as a player, would lead the Golden State Warriors to the 1975 NBA title, following Russell as the second Black coach to lead a team to a title and the first to do so as a full-time head coach.

In 1979, Wilkens followed Attles as the third Black head coach to lead a team to an NBA title when the Sonics defeated the Washington Bullets for their first and only championship. Wilkens, who coached nearly 2,500 games, currently stands as the second-winningest coach in NBA history with 1,332 victories to his name.

In total, four of the NBA’s first six Black head coaches – Russell, Attles, Wilkens and K.C. Jones – would go on to win a title at some point in their coaching career. Of the other two, Scott earned Coach of the Year honours and Lloyd was a trailblazer in his own right as he was the first Black player to ever play in an NBA game.

This almost-instant guaranteed success both confirmed that Black coaches were deserving of the opportunities they had long been denied while subsequently serving as a reminder of the level of excellence that Black coaches must quickly reach to be deemed successful.

That these coaches each brought great success to their respective franchises opened the door for more and more Black coaches to blaze trails in their own way.

2021-22 NBA season preview: Part 1 | Part 2

55 years have passed since Russell first assumed player-coach duties of the Celtics, and the NBA has seen over 70 Black head coaches grace the sidelines for at least one game. Each of the 13 Black head coaches taking the sideline this season are in unique circumstances to bring about success.

Black head coaches in the 2021-22 season
Name Team Age Seasons
J.B. Bickerstaff Cleveland Cavaliers 42 6
Chauncey Billups Portland Trail Blazers 44 1
Dwane Casey Detroit Pistons 64 13
Willie Green New Orleans Pelicans 40 1
Jason Kidd Dallas Mavericks 48 6
Tyronn Lue LA Clippers 43 6
Nate McMillan Atlanta Hawks 56 18
Jamahl Mosley Orlando Magic 42 1
Doc Rivers Philadelphia 76ers 59 23
Stephen Silas Houston Rockets 47 2
Ime Udoka Boston Celtics 44 1
Wes Unseld Jr. Washington Wizards 46 1
Monty Williams Phoenix Suns 49 7

McMillan is coming off of a season in which he led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2015. He’s proven to be the perfect voice to guide Atlanta’s young, talented roster that is led by the trio of Trae Young, Clint Capela and John Collins.

Casey is one of nine Black coaches to be named Coach of the Year in the award’s history and enters his fourth season as the lead man of the Pistons. The long-time head coach is now tasked with leading a youth resurgence that is headlined by 2021 No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham.

Beside the definition of resurgence should be the job that Williams continues to do in leading a franchise-wide culture shift in Phoenix. Not only did he help the Suns end a 10-year playoff drought in 2021, but he also led them to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993, making the most of his connection with stars Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

Bickerstaff and Silas are familiar names in the basketball coaching world as they are both second-generation head coaches. J.B. Bickerstaff’s father, Bernie, coached nearly 1,000 games in his career while Stephen Silas’ father, Paul, coached just under 900 games with four different franchises.

Bickerstaff and Silas are in situations that are similar yet different, as the Cavaliers and Rockets franchises are each beginning to rebuild their way back to prominence. There’s no denying that the futures are bright, as Houston has No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green and Cleveland will build around No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley.

Unseld joins the above duo as another second-generation head coach, with his father leading the Bullets from 1988-94. As Washington has surrounded superstar Bradley Beal with a largely-new supporting cast, Unseld has an opportunity to help the franchise usher in a new era, while maintaining the tradition that comes with the family name.

Kidd, a Hall of Famer as a player, makes his return to head coaching in the same city that his legend began. He’ll be tasked with getting the Mavericks to the next level as all things revolve around generational superstar Luka Doncic. 

Lue and Rivers, who worked together in the 2019-20 season, are leaders of teams with very real title aspirations in the Clippers and 76ers. They are also two of eight active championship-winning coaches and two of just six Black coaches to lead their team to an NBA title.

Could Udoka become the next? With the All-Star duo of 23-year-old Jayson Tatum and 25-year-old Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are in a position to dominate the league for years to come. The stars’ preexisting familiarity with Udoka from their time with Team USA could smooth out the learning curve and have the Celtics ready to contend right away.

MORE: What to know about Udoka | Udoka’s plans for Brown and Tatum

Among other first-year coaches, a former Finals MVP in Billups will look to make the most of his connection with Portland’s superstar point guard, Damian Lillard, while Willie Green, the youngest of the group, tries to connect with a young Pelicans team looking to breakout in Year 3 of the Zion Williamson era.

Mosley, who spent 16 years on various staffs before getting his opportunity, is manning the lead of a rebuild, with the Magic possessing an intriguing crop of young talent, specifically in the backcourt. After working with one Rookie of the Year in Doncic as an assistant, Mosley could coach No. 5 overall pick Jalen Suggs into earning the honor.

With the number reaching 13, nearly half of the NBA’s head coaches are Black, placing the league far ahead of other major North American professional sports with respect to diversity. Still, there is always more work to be done from a representation standpoint in a league in which over 80 percent of its players are Black.

In the late 1960s, Russell’s accomplishments cracked the door open and as time has progressed, that crack continues to widen, making way for the next generation of Black coaches diligently working towards their first head coaching opportunities.

Look throughout various NBA coaching staffs and names like Sam Cassell, Adrian Griffin, Darvin Ham, Charles Lee and David Vanterpool often come up when coaching vacancies present themselves. And from the college ranks, it’s only a matter of time before Dayton’s Anthony Grant or Michigan’s Juwan Howard makes the leap to find continued success at the professional level.

To again quote Dr. King, we’ve come a long, long way and still have a long, long way to go but can’t help but be encouraged by the direction in which we are heading.



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