African-Americans dominate executive roles with Knicks, a rare situation even in the NBA
The team has the league’s only black president and general manager combination, and that’s just the start of it
BEVERLY HILLS, California — Steve Mills and Scott Perry sat in an empty Georgie Restaurant finishing a late lunch the Friday of NBA All-Star Weekend while talking about their common backgrounds and a patient plan to turn around the long-suffering New York Knicks.
The former bankers have nearly 50 years of experience combined in professional basketball. Both are former college basketball players and sons of trailblazing fathers. The Knicks’ first-year president and general manager also are African-American.
Mills and Perry are not only the lone African-American president of basketball operations and general manager combination in the NBA, they also lead a front office with several African-Americans in prominent positions.
“To be honest with you, it didn’t hit me until I read a story that we are the only two blacks,” said Mills, the team president. “I’m serious. It didn’t even hit me. That wasn’t what this was about. This was about me finding someone I wanted to work with that I thought approached things the same way, not that you have to be lockstep with everything, because you should bring different experiences to the table.
“Our basketball journeys are very different, but we’re old basketball guys and took different paths. I think that all matters. 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.”
While growth is still needed, the NBA has long welcomed African-Americans as players, coaches and executives.
The NBA’s first black players, Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, debuted on different teams during the 1950-51 season. The Boston Celtics had the first black starting five in 1964 and the first black head coach in Bill Russell in 1966. In 1972, the Milwaukee Bucks made Wayne Embry the NBA’s first black general manager.
Robert Johnson became the first black majority owner of an NBA franchise when he bought the expansion Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets) in 2002. He was succeeded by another African-American, NBA legend Michael Jordan, who remains the NBA’s only black team owner. The Bobcats once had Johnson as owner, Ed Tapscott as team president, Bernie Bickerstaff as general manager/head coach and Karl Hicks as assistant general manager. The team later had Jordan as head of basketball operations, Rod Higgins as general manager and Sam Vincent as head coach.
The Detroit Pistons had an All-Star backcourt in Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars who later opened doors for African-Americans in NBA front offices. Thomas has been part-owner, executive vice president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors, hiring a black coach in Darrell Walker. The Hall of Famer also served as president, general manager and coach of the Knicks, all at the same time. Dumars, as president of basketball operations, built the Pistons into an NBA power that went to six straight Eastern Conference finals and won a 2004 NBA championship.
Despite those milestones, there are still not a large number of African-Americans in executive roles compared with the nearly 75 percent of players who are black, according to The Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association. From 2010-16, six of the positions for president of basketball operations and general manager were filled by African-Americans, according to Comcast Sports Chicago. The NBA currently has two African-American presidents of basketball operations in Mills and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Magic Johnson, one African president in the Toronto Raptors’ Masai Ujiri and three black general managers in Perry, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Koby Altman and the New Orleans Pelicans’ Dell Demps.
“This is an issue that is very important to the league and me, personally,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told The Undefeated in 2016. “This league has a long history of inclusion at all levels, whether that is at the coaching level, the management level and certainly at the league level. That has been a result of the most senior level people of our organization and with our teams as well. There are guys out there that have the capability, clearly, to [perform in executive and management roles] who will get opportunities.”
The Knicks have bucked the trend with Mills; Perry; assistant general manager and former NBA player Gerald Madkins; assistant general manager, G League Westchester Knicks general manager and former Knicks player Allan Houston; player personnel director and ex-NBA player Harold Ellis; and vice president for player and organizational development Craig Robinson, who is the brother-in-law of former President Barack Obama.
Mills said the high number of black executives in his front office was purely coincidental.
“We wanted to build a good organization,” Mills said. “This is just how it mapped out as we went out and hired people. At the end of the day, if you end up with a diverse organization, that’s what should happen. It should happen naturally. At least, I feel better about it when it happens naturally.
“I think we were just looking at who are the people that we think we could work well with us and build a good team, and it happens to be a diverse group of people we ended up with.”
Said Perry: “We were trying to figure out how we were going to create one of the most efficient, well-run, cohesive staffs in the league. That’s the goal, and it has nothing to do with color or creed or anything like that. Our drive and our desire to detail, do the very best we can, highly competitive, all of those things. That’s what drives us.”
James L. Dolan, executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Co., announced Mills had been promoted to president to replace Phil Jackson and that former Sacramento Kings executive Perry had been hired as general manager on July 14, 2017. Dolan said in a news release that it marked a “culture change for our organization where we re-establish the pride, work ethic and responsibility that comes with playing for the Knicks and representing New York.”
Mills said Dolan simply told him to hire who was best for the organization.
“He told me from the beginning that he was going to give me the room, just like he gave Phil the room to build the basketball team,” Mills said. “He was not involved with our day-to-day stuff. Obviously, it’s a big decision we have to make. We’re going to tell him this is what we think we’re doing. This is the financial implications.
“This is how it fits against what we laid out as our plan. He didn’t tell me who to hire. He said hire somebody you feel good about and is going to buy into what you think we need to do as an organization.”
The Knicks recently hired David Fizdale as their new head coach. The former Memphis Grizzlies head coach grew up in South Central Los Angeles and has a black mother and white father. Fizdale has a reputation for being vocal about civil rights issues and social injustice. Mills has said the Knicks considered 11 candidates before hiring Fizdale.
Fizdale, Mills and Perry appear to be on the same page about having a patient approach to rebuilding the Knicks.
“David’s vision is very much aligned with the direction Steve and I have laid for the Knicks,” Perry said. “He is a fierce competitor who wants to establish an identity of being a tough, defensive-minded team. David is firmly committed to player development, has a track record of holding players accountable and brings offensive philosophy that emphasizes pace and sharing of the basketball. He is the right person for this team and New York.”
A year ago, Mills was perhaps overqualified to be the Knicks’ general manager.
The former Princeton star had 30 years of experience in pro basketball, including 16 in the NBA. Mills joined the Madison Square Garden Co. in 1999 as executive vice president of franchise operations and was promoted to president of MSG Sports two years later. Responsibilities for the Long Island, New York, native included overseeing the basketball and business operations of the Knicks, the WNBA’s New York Liberty and any sporting events in the Garden. Mills was named president and general manager of the Knicks at the start of the 2013-14 season.
“For a guy who couldn’t afford to come to the Garden, to have an opportunity to come in as senior vice president of basketball and business operations for the Knicks, that was like a dream come true,” Mills said. “I was able to say I was actually working for the Knicks and come to work at Madison Square Garden.”
Mills, however, lost his role as Knicks president after Jackson was hired as president in 2014. Mills said Dolan gave him the opportunity to see if he and Jackson could work together, with an option to opt out of the general manager role he still held. Mills ultimately decided to stay.
Jackson’s tumultuous time as the Knicks president was short-lived. The franchise announced they “mutually agreed to part company” on June 28, 2017, with two years remaining on his contract. The former Knicks star was constantly embroiled in drama as he feuded with and wanted to trade then-Knicks star Carmelo Anthony and didn’t rule out trading prized young forward Kristaps Porzingis.
The Knicks initially turned to Mills to run the franchise’s daily operations until Jackson’s replacement was found.
“I learned a lot from him,” Mills said about Jackson. “It’s just one of those things that didn’t work. Again, you take the learnings that you have from that experience. You take the good and the bad and try and put something together.”
After Jackson’s departure, Mills said Dolan asked if he was interested in being president of the Knicks again. If so, Dolan also wanted to know his game plan, philosophy and view of the organization. Mills said yes and offered a patient rebuilding plan that was to Dolan’s liking.
“It felt good. I knew I deserved it. I knew I was ready to do it and capable of doing it,” Mills said.
The Knicks considered hiring ex-Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, but on July 10 he withdrew his name from consideration after they couldn’t agree on the role. Shortly afterward, an agent friend recommended that Mills consider Perry for general manager. Mills raised an eyebrow since Perry had only been on the job with the Kings for about three months.
The rebuilding Kings hired Perry as executive vice president of basketball operations on April 21, 2017. The veteran front-office executive was to report to Kings general manager Vlade Divac and assist in all aspects of the daily operations of the front office.
Perry quickly made his mark on the Kings, as he led them to their most successful draft night in years. Sacramento selected highly regarded Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox with the fifth pick. In need of more talent, the Kings traded the 10th pick acquired in the DeMarcus Cousins trade to the Portland Trail Blazers for the 15th and 20th selections. The Kings used those two picks to select North Carolina forward Justin Jackson and Duke center Harry Giles, a former No. 1 recruit who was recovering from surgeries on both knees. Perry also spearheaded the signings of veteran free agents Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and George Hill.
“I was impressed with the things he did while he was there,” Mills said. “In this league, we know what it’s like to be in a place where people don’t want to go play and know how hard that is to fix. It’s critical to fix it. The player world and the player circles are too small and too tight that you can’t be a place where guys are saying, ‘I don’t want to go there.’ ”
Mills called Perry while he was in Las Vegas with the Kings for summer league in early July. Perry was interested despite the fact that he was new on the job with the Kings and had just closed on a home in Sacramento. It had long been a dream of Perry’s to be an NBA general manager. He had an out in his Kings contract for a general manager opening elsewhere.
“I immediately called, and then we started a conversation and it felt right to me. Then I knew it was something that I wanted to pursue. That started the process,” Mills said.
Mills next reached out to Kings general manager Divac to get permission to speak to Perry. Divac didn’t want to stand in the way of a possible promotion for Perry.
“The Kings were great. I want to preface that because I spoke with Vlade about it. Vlade said, ‘This is a better opportunity. This is a bigger job for Scott. If he wants it and it’s a bigger job, he should have an opportunity to pursue it,’ ” Mills said.
Soon afterward, Perry was in New York City interviewing with Mills for his “dream job.” They spoke over dinner one night and spent the next day talking basketball and life. They quickly learned they had a lot in common.
“This is where we’re connected in a crazy way,” Mills said. “He was talking about his dad and getting a chance to see him start this journey. My dad was the first African-American teacher in the county we lived in.”
Mills’ father, Ollie, became the first African-American to teach at Long Island’s Hempstead High when he was hired in 1957, according to Newsday. Ollie Mills taught business education at the high school for more than 30 years and was also one of the most successful basketball coaches in Nassau County. He died in 2000 at age 74. Hempstead High named its basketball court after him.
“My father taught me the value of finding balance between sports and academics,” Mills said. “He always stressed that being a good basketball player and a good student were not mutually exclusive. You have to commit to both areas. He also showed me, by example, the importance of being an advocate for the well-being of youth in your community.”
Perry’s father, Lowell, became the first African-American assistant coach in the NFL since World War II in 1957 as wide receivers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The former Michigan football star was also the first black man to provide color commentary during a nationally televised NFL game in 1966. Lowell Perry was Chrysler’s first African-American plant manager in 1973 in Detroit.
Lowell Perry was proud to see his son realize his dream of being hired in an NBA front office with the Pistons in 2000. He died in 2001.
“My dad was a trailblazer in a number of ways,” Scott Perry said. “He always taught me, as well as my siblings, to follow your passion. Don’t let anybody outwork you. Keep persevering every day to get where you want to go.”
Like Mills, Perry was a college basketball player. He played for Oregon and Wayne State and also began his professional career working in the banking industry. The Detroit native was an assistant coach with Michigan, where he was a respected recruiter during the Fab Five era, and was the head coach for three seasons at mid-major Eastern Kentucky. Perry began working in an NBA front office with the Pistons under Dumars and helped build a roster that won an NBA title in 2004.
Perry was assistant general manager with the Seattle SuperSonics when they drafted NBA All-Star Kevin Durant. He returned to the Pistons as vice president of basketball operations from 2008-12 and served as the Orlando Magic’s vice president and assistant general manager from 2012-17.
Perry interviewed for several general manager openings, but no one made an offer before New York. While he was quite familiar with the paltry number of black NBA general managers, he stayed positive, believing his day would come.
“One thing that I learned at a young age, I can only run my race and my journey,” Perry said. “Those were going to be the cards dealt for me. You sit back and you feel like, I want this opportunity. You feel like you’re qualified for it. For whatever reason, you aren’t getting it. That does not deter my belief that one day I was going to get there. It just fueled me to work hard, to learn more.”
Word leaked that Perry was being considered for the general manager job as he flew back to Sacramento. After getting Dolan’s blessing, Mills pushed to get Perry hired as the new general manager of the Knicks.
Perry hired a former Knicks guard in Madkins to be assistant general manager. Madkins worked as a scout for the Knicks from 2003 to 2007 and was credited for persuading then-Knicks general manager Isiah Thomas to draft Trevor Ariza in the second round. Madkins was previously an assistant general manager with the Los Angeles Clippers and worked with Perry with the Sonics.
Madkins, who has 17 years of experience as an NBA scout and executive, is excited about the challenge of rebuilding a “flagship organization and a flagship team in the NBA.”
“We just hired qualified people, honestly,” Madkins said. “The fact that we are African-American, that I have 17 years of experience, Craig Robinson is who he is and has worked with Harold before. Steve has a history in this organization. He knows guys that can work well with him and get the job done that he needs to get done to help this team get to where we all hope it ends up getting. As significant as it is that we are black, it’s more significant that we are all qualified.”
The Knicks also hired Robinson in August as vice president of player development and G League operations. Obama’s brother-in-law played with Mills at Princeton. The former Oregon State head coach was the Bucks’ vice president of player and organizational development during the 2016-17 season. Robinson has a crucial role in planning the development of Porzingis and point guard Frank Ntilikina. Like Mills and Perry, Robinson also has a background in banking.
“The cultural part of our group is significant,” Robinson said, in regards to the Knicks’ front office.
“You don’t see this very often in any industry,” Robinson said. “I grew up in the investment banking industry. I’ve been in the coaching ranks. I have seen different industries. You don’t see this that much. That’s exciting. But what makes this more exciting is that it’s not just three or four guys thrown together here for the sake of a visual or a cultural or a social statement. When you take a look at all of our backgrounds, this is really about a diversity of experience. I think it just so happens that we all happen to be minorities.”
So, has Mills received any questions or criticism for having a predominantly black front office?
“I don’t know. I’m sure there is some skepticism about it, but all I can do is say what happened, what I know and what was in my mind when I was approaching it,” Mills said.
Mills and Perry made one major move together in trading Anthony, a 10-time All-Star, to the Oklahoma City Thunder for center Enes Kanter, forward Doug McDermott and Chicago’s 2018 second-round pick. Both the Knicks and Anthony were excited to get the trade done before media day and training camp began.
The 2017-18 season wasn’t a memorable one for the rebuilding Knicks, as they finished 29-53. Porzingis, a 2018 All-Star, suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury after an awkward landing against the Bucks on Feb. 14. The Knicks also fired coach Jeff Hornacek after the season.
It has been 45 years since the Knicks won an NBA championship. Just getting Porzingis back and returning to the postseason would be a major step forward for New York. With Perry representing the franchise, the Knicks are hoping for some good luck in the draft lottery on Tuesday night in Chicago.
New Yorkers love winning now, but Mills and Perry keep preaching patience and building the right way. If Mills, Perry and the Knicks are ultimately successful, it could open doors for other people of color hoping for front-office opportunities.
“I tell people all the time that there are no shortcuts here,” Mills said. “You have to work your way into getting people to respect you and getting people to think highly of you so that when an opportunity presents itself, the narrative about you is positive.”