Black coaches to square off in NBA Finals for the first time since 1975
Matchup between Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue and Golden State’s Mike Brown ‘technically’ won’t happen
On May 18, 1975, history was made as two black head coaches stood on the sidelines for the first time in the NBA Finals.
There had been black NBA head coaches before in Bill Russell and Earl Lloyd, but when Al Attles coached the Golden State Warriors against K.C. Jones and the Washington Bullets in the 1975 Finals, it was a first on a championship level.
“K.C. and I were players who became coaches, but the credit goes to the team owners who had faith in us,” Attles said to The Undefeated. “Bill Russell was the first African-American coach, and then Earl Lloyd, myself and K.C. came in. You have to give credit to the people who hired you. We couldn’t do it by ourselves. Someone had to give us the leeway to do it, which is why I give [then-Warriors owner] Mr. [Frank] Mieuli so much credit. It wasn’t something that was done every day back then.
“I remember talking about it with Mr. Mieuli. He never, ever thought it was a big deal. … It was a big deal,” Attles said.
When head coach Tyronn Lue and the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers take the court for Game 1 of the Finals on Thursday against the Golden State Warriors and acting head coach Mike Brown, it will be just the second time two black coaches have faced each other in the Finals — even though the matchup “technically” won’t happen. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose status for the series is uncertain because of lingering issues after back surgery, still assumes any wins or losses on his record. Brown has coached the Warriors in 10 of the team’s 12 postseason games.
Attles became the second black head coach to win an NBA championship when the Warriors swept the Bullets in 1975. Russell was the first black man to win an NBA title as a coach with the Boston Celtics in 1968. Six black coaches have won titles: Russell (Celtics 1968-69), Attles (Warriors, 1975), Jones (Celtics, 1984, 1986), Lenny Wilkens (Seattle SuperSonics, 1979), Doc Rivers (Boston, 2008) and Lue (Cavaliers, 2016).
“Seventy-five, huh? Dang,” the 40-year-old Lue told The Undefeated. “It’s crazy to think that it’s been that long and only six black coaches have won an NBA championship. It’s amazing to get two black coaches back in the NBA Finals. I was happy for myself coming from where I came from with the things I had to go through last year. But also for Mike Brown, who I’ve always liked and respected, who has an opportunity and a chance to coach a great team like Golden State.
“Making it back to the Finals as a head coach, it’s good to be there and be a part of. I wish Mike Brown the best of luck. To have two black coaches in the NBA Finals where a lot of times you don’t get a lot of credit, it’s good to see, good to have.”
Brown said two black coaches “coaching to win” is good for NBA fans to see in the Finals and “makes it special.”
“Having two black coaches in the NBA Finals could inspire anybody,” the 47-year-old Brown told The Undefeated.
Lue and Brown found inspiration and mentoring from two successful black NBA head coaches in Rivers and Bernie Bickerstaff, respectively.
Lue said Rivers first viewed him as a possible NBA head coach when he played for him with the Orlando Magic during the 2003-04 season. Rivers told Lue that he would give him an assistant coaching job once he was done playing. After Lue completed his 11-year NBA career with the Magic during the 2008-09 season, Rivers kept his word by adding Lue as a Celtics assistant coach the next season when the franchise advanced to the 2010 NBA Finals. Lue was also an assistant coach under Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers and associate head coach with the Cavs before being promoted to head coach on Jan. 22, 2016, after the dismissal of David Blatt. Lue coached the Cavaliers to their first NBA title last season and became the first black head coach to win a championship since Rivers in 2008.
“Every time I saw [Rivers] in Boston he would tell me, ‘I’m telling you when you’re done playing, you can coach for me,’ ” Lue said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, OK.’ And when I finished up in 2009 I gave him a call and said, ‘Doc, I want to try this coaching thing. …’ The next day he had a coaching job for me, and it started from there.
“He just said that I had that ‘It’ factor. He said that most of the things that people talk about are X’s and O’s. The biggest thing is you have to be able to deal with personalities and egos, and he saw the way I handled myself and the way people gravitate and respond towards me. He said I did a good job of telling someone to do something and making those guys respond by the way I said it.”
Brown was a senior in college playing basketball at the University of San Diego during the 1991-92 season when he came across a school magazine cover story on Bickerstaff. At the time, Bickerstaff was the Denver Nuggets’ president and general manager with previous NBA head coaching experience with the SuperSonics. The fact that Bickerstaff ascended to those heights despite never playing in the NBA strongly inspired Brown, who has never played in the NBA.
“After learning his story that he was one of the first African-Americans to work at a high level in this league and have success, but he didn’t play in this league, automatically I started to idolize him,” Brown said. “And he went to USD too.”
Brown began his NBA career in 1992 as an unpaid video intern with the Nuggets after being hired by Bickerstaff. Brown spent five seasons as a Nuggets scout and video coordinator before joining Bickerstaff’s coaching staff with the Bullets in 1997. He went on to assistant coaching jobs with the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers before becoming head coach of the Cavaliers in 2005, where he inherited a budding NBA star in LeBron James.
The 2009 NBA Coach of the Year led the Cavaliers from 2005-10 and 2013-14, including a trip to the 2007 NBA Finals, and coached Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers from 2011-12. Brown said Bickerstaff is “the reason” he became a coach.
“You don’t know what can inspire anybody,” Brown said. “After reading that article, Bernie became my idol. He didn’t play in the league, but he had a lot of success in the league and he was an African-American. I thought, maybe there is a chance for me to have success in this league.”
Lue is seeking a second consecutive NBA championship. Brown could earn redemption from the Cavaliers, who are still paying him, by coaching the Warriors to a title without Kerr. While the stakes and competition are high, Lue and Brown respect each other and their black history in the making.
“It’s Steve’s team, and Mike has done a great job of acknowledging that,” Lue said. “But also, let’s acknowledge that Mike Brown has done a hell of a job going to a situation where you took over in the playoffs. It’s not like he took over at the beginning of the season and he had a chance to learn with these guys and grow with these guys.
“He took over in the playoffs and did a hell of a job. You always want to wish the best for Steve Kerr and his health. That’s the most important thing, your health and your family. I wish him well and a speedy recovery. … That’s the most important thing, but Mike Brown has done a hell of a job while taking over.”
Brown said aiding Lue as a coach was his mentality as a player to “carve a niche in the NBA.” Brown also mentioned that Lue has played for several respected coaches, including Rivers, Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, Doug Collins, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Woodson, Rick Carlisle and Stan Van Gundy.
“He wasn’t the quickest guy or best shooter,” Brown said of Lue. “He found a way to carve a niche in the NBA. Guys like that you have a lot of respect for because they didn’t rely strictly on their talent or their length or their athleticism or this or that. Usually, those types of guys bode well for coaches because they always find a way.
“He’s worked with some great coaches. He’s turned it into a great career himself.”
There are eight black coaches among the 30 NBA teams in a league that is about 75 percent black: Lue, Rivers, Nate McMillan (Pacers), David Fizdale (Grizzlies), Jason Kidd (Bucks), Alvin Gentry (Pelicans), Dwane Casey (Raptors) and Earl Watson (Suns).
Lue and Brown are hoping that young black kids and kids of color watching the Finals can draw inspiration from seeing them. Lue said the key for kids inspired by him and Brown is to “always dream big.”
“Who would have ever thought I’d be in this position, winning a championship last year being a [former] player and getting back to the Finals this year?” Lue said. “This is a big accomplishment. This isn’t something that you can say is going to happen all the time. Before we got here, you had coaches like Jim Boylan, who coached for 35 years and had never been to the Finals. You can’t take moments like this for granted.
“I just think that when a black kid sees two black coaches who are in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors, the best regular-season team for three straight years, and me being a young black coach with a chance to win another championship, it just shows you that anything is possible. Always follow your dreams, and whatever you want to be, you can aspire to be.”
Brown said that there is “always an impact” that a coach in his or Lue’s position can make.
“Young coaches of color often reach out to you. They try to emulate the same path you took to get to where you are. So, you respect that, appreciate that and hope that it continues to help guys who want to achieve certain dreams,” Brown said.