Monty Williams and James Jones: The only black coach-general manager duo in NBA
A conversation with the Suns tandem about being African American in their positions in the NBA, learning from the greats, their mentors, and more
PHOENIX – First-year Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones know a thing or two about taking the long road to the top.
Williams overcame a heart condition to be drafted by the New York Knicks with the 24th overall pick in 1994. He went on to play nine years in the league and was a coaching intern for the San Antonio Spurs when they won the title in 2005. Jones was a second-round pick in 2003 who enjoyed a 14-year career with three championships.
Today, Williams is in the midst of his second stint as a head coach (he coached the New Orleans Pelicans to a 173-221 record over five seasons) and Jones, a former Suns forward, was promoted to full-time general manager on April 11.
Together, they form the league’s only black coach-general manager duo. (The Knicks entered the season as the only NBA team with an African American head coach, general manager and president, but the team fired David Fizdale last week.)
Williams and Jones sat down with The Undefeated recently at Talking Stick Resort Arena to talk about the challenges of being African American in their positions in the NBA, learning from Tim Duncan and LeBron James, and more.
(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
‘I know that I’m a role model’
You two are now the only black GM-coach duo in the league. What are your thoughts on that?
Jones: For me, I know that I’m a role model and I’m blessed to be in this position. And I know that a lot of people look at my opportunity and my success as kind of a light, a positive sign that there is a lot of balance and diversity at every level in the NBA. Not just coaches and players, but also to management. So I’m prideful. I have a lot of pride in the fact that I have accomplished it, but I really don’t think about it much. I think about the team and our unique situation more than the global perspective.
Williams: [Indiana Pacers coach] Nate McMillan taught me about respect for the position and that always … for me it dominates any other component like race or age or anything else that would creep in there because, to me, to have these jobs, that is rare. And I’ve already had it once, I know how easily it can be gone, so I don’t think much about that part from a social perspective.
If I had to ponder it, I do see the benefit of being a good example for other young African Americans. I do think about not messing up the things I can control because I know that impacts the next Willie Green [an assistant coach with the Suns]. Those guys may not get the opportunity at 38 that I got if I’m just doing the normal NBA thing. You know what I mean?
Is there pressure that comes with you wanting to hold that door open for somebody else?
Jones: It’s a responsibility. My responsibility is always motivating me to be better. Knowing that I’m in a unique position, that I’m in a position that a lot of people aspire to makes me honor that responsibility. And so I don’t see it as pressure. It’s actually a great challenge for me because I look back to every player, every executive that came before me and try to learn from what they did and I tried to build on that package that they present.
Williams: I think for me it’s a huge responsibility and I’m also mindful that I am African American. I do come from where I come from, but I also was afforded this opportunity because two white guys saw something in me that nobody else did, R.C. [Buford] and Pop [Gregg Popovich].
I keep this picture in my phone, this girl named Janie Forsyth, she was 12 years old in 1961. She was a white lady who stood up for the Freedom Riders. You know, back during the civil rights movement. And so I’m always mindful of it is not just a black thing or a minority thing. It’s an us thing. … A guy like Mr. [Robert] Sarver [owner of the Suns]. Bottom line is he’s taking a chance on both of us. …
I’m mindful of people like Janie and R.C. and Pop who said, ‘Nah. I don’t care what color he is. He can do a good job.’
Jones: It’s a people thing. It really is. It’s less me, my color, my race. Human. I’m in this position because a human being thought that I was capable, because some human being, regardless of race, coaches, teammates, they saw something in me that they thought was special.
Lessons from Timmy, Reggie and LeBron
What respect do you have for each other’s basketball careers?
Williams: You always have respect for guys who come the hard way. You know what I mean? Not like the LeBrons and the ADs and the Devins don’t deserve respect. I mean those guys, they’ve worked their talent. But you can relate to each other. We can tell stories and I can just listen to a story he’s telling and I’ll be like, ‘Yep.’ Been there.
I know what it’s like to have a coach tell me I’ve got to keep working, be ready, all that stuff. I tell our guys all the time, ‘I don’t know what it’s like to be Dev, but I do know what it’s like to be you five, so don’t try it.’
I think there’s a respect level because of the familiarity.
Jones: For me, it’s respect for the work.
My talent never kept me in the league. There are guys way more talented than me, but waking up every day and going to the arena and knowing I had to work to remain was just who I was and who I became and that was just my life as a player. And I was able to do that for a long time.
And Monty in a similar vein had to earn every opportunity and had to work to gain the respect of his teammates and his coaches, but was an ultimate pro. It takes a tremendous amount of character and integrity and it takes a very special human being to be able to navigate the physical, emotional, social toll.
So when you find people who have a similar path, have faced similar challenges and came out the same way you did, there’s a given, a natural respect and it’s easy to grow. It becomes a platform for developing a deeper relationship.
Monty, what did you learn from Tim? I assume of all the stars you played with he probably had the biggest impact on you.
Williams: Him and Patrick [Ewing]. I always felt like those two were the most humble. They had like a role player’s mentality. Nothing was ever beneath them and I used to just marvel at Tim. … He was going to touch the line. He was going to stay in the hotel when he could stay at home. He was going to be at the football field with everybody else running sprints because that was what you were supposed to do.
I remember back in, this was the lockout, we were at Trinity Stadium. Jesse James, the boxer, used to come run with us and kill us. Tim and I were stretching and back then we were just dudes and we had our feet together and we were holding hands and pulling each other, how we used to stretch. And he looked at me and he was like, ‘Man, we get paid for this.’ I didn’t say anything. I just looked at him. I was just like, ‘This dude is … he’s different.’ …
It had such an impression on me because I was always told I was that guy. When I was around him, I was, like, I’m not even close.
What superstars had the biggest impact on you?
Jones: It started with me with Reggie Miller in Indiana as a rookie. Reggie, a legend, Hall of Famer. But you couldn’t tell, the way he treated everyone from the rookies to the coaches to the staff to the attendants to the arena personnel to the bus drivers. … If you looked at Reggie and the way he carried himself, you would never say, ‘Oh, he’s the superstar of that team.’ Because that wasn’t his thing.
It was as the leader of this team, as the guy who truly appreciates the NBA and the opportunity, what can I do for my teammates? Playing in games, scoring a lot of points and pushing himself to the physical limit. Reggie was in great shape and not just because he wanted to be in great shape. He knew his team needed him to be relentless. That was his contribution to the squad.
And then my time with LeBron was different because he’s a guy who plays on a whole ‘nother level. You just realize how much the details matter to him and how much he’s willing to do whatever it takes for his teammates. Not the team, like, the teams can change, but for his teammates. And how much time he spent thinking about how he can help his teammates be better and more importantly, how much effort he had to put into his preparation so he can shoulder the burden of carrying his teammates, you know?
So having him in Miami, just seeing how his approach to the game changed when he realized that he had to carry two other stars. … And then going back to Cleveland and changing again, figuring out how do you carry a franchise that really turned on you? How do you get past that personally? Like how do you swallow your pride and your ego and how do you do it for the team, for your teammates, for the city.
So from him, I would say that is the ultimate testament to a guy making it about his team, not about his pride, not about his ego. That was profound for me.
Doc Rivers and Pat Riley were right
I once interviewed Doc Rivers and he said the reason why he became a head coach was because of Pat Riley. Pat Riley was like, ‘I think you’d be great at this. Forget about doing TV. I think you need to do this.’ Who was the one person that believed in you that you look back at now and be like, ‘Man, that person really pushed me to end up being where I am today.’?
Williams: Doc. I was playing for him in Orlando and I’ll never forget this. I was in the game and the team went on a run. I come over to Doc and I’m like, ‘Doc, I think we need a timeout.’ And he’s like, ‘Just play.’ I’m looking at the clock, I’m looking at the game and then I start walking towards the court and he called a timeout. … Not long after that, he said, ‘Monty, you’re going to be a coach in the league one day.’ And I was like, ‘There’s no way I’d ever do this.’ I don’t want to deal with myself, let alone all this.
He was the first person that told me I was going to coach. Then when I fell into the San Antonio thing, they just kept throwing stuff at me. Every couple of weeks it was like, go to the University of Georgia, go to this practice, go to Rice, go talk to this company. Go on this trip, coach summer league. I didn’t know what was going on. I just thought they didn’t have anybody else to do it.
Jones: For me, it was two people. Once again, it was Reggie. … Because when I came in as a player, some of our initial conversations were around, if you show up early, if you work hard, if you listen and learn, if you just listen more than you talk, you’ll play in this league 10-plus years as a second-round pick, which is unheard of. More importantly, if you do that, you’ll be able to live in this game for the rest of your life. … So if that’s coaching, if that’s the front office, they’ll know that you’re a pro.
And then it was Pat. After my stint in Portland, one year, my year I was with Monty, and my conversations with Pat were about coming home to Miami and wanting to finish my career in Miami, like coming full circle. … High school in Miami, University of Miami basketball, played for the Miami Heat, won a title, that’s my story. That’s how I pictured it, and my path with the team went up, went down, sideways, you got the Big Three, things change.
But through all of that, Pat was always proud of me and pushing me to think about the next phase. And when you’re a player, you don’t want to think about it. No player wants to think about what do I do next. Am I going to be a coach? Am I going to be in the front office? And he was always like, ‘No, this is something you should do. Like, you’re built for it.’ Pat as a player, as a coach, and as an executive, when they say, ‘No, you have promise,’ you listen.
Monty, you could have stayed in the front-office realm. What brought you back to the bench?
Williams: It’s weird you asked me that because I’ve often tried to put it into some thought where I could … like it’s where I feel like I have the most purpose and peace. Even when it’s chaotic and stuff’s happening. I remember having a conversation with R.C. in San Antonio … this was like three years ago and I said, ‘R.C., I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it again.’ And he just stopped. He was like, ‘Mont, you can’t not coach again.’ I was like, ‘I just don’t think my family will ever be in a situation where I can. I don’t think I can give myself to it the way that I need to.’ And he was like, ‘Mont, your family won’t be right if you don’t coach again.’
And it messed me up because I forgot how much they enjoyed me being me. You know what I mean? Like I was trying to set the table so they could be fine. I could be home, do the daddy thing on an everyday basis and R.C. was just like, ‘Mont, that’s not how it works.’ He knew my family enough to hit me with that and it made me think. Like three years ago, he brought it.
But I didn’t know what opportunities were going to come my way. I just knew from that point on I was like, it’s who I am. Like I enjoyed management. I did. It gave me a perspective that I like. Business, marketing, owners, scouting, I did it all. They gave me every opportunity in San Antonio. I was with load management trainers. Every soccer team from Europe was coming over. Companies from all around the world come to San Antonio to hear Pop and R.C. And they’re there and I’m doing everything. I enjoy it, but it didn’t wag my tail the way coaching does.
What’s it like being back on the bench?
Williams: I do feel a level of unspeakable gratitude that I can’t put into words that I get a chance to do it again. It’s going to sound weird, but I want to do it again because I know it’s not for me anymore. It’s for others. Like I really want to see Devin [Booker] become an All-Star. I want to see Deandre [Ayton] be consistent and become an All-Star. I want to see Mr. Sarver looked at differently.
I want to see James … like everything that I have was because somebody said they wanted to elevate me. … And so when I sit in that position now, maybe it comes with age, maybe there was a reflection time after being fired that I had to really look at what was really important and it was just people. Yeah, I want to draw up tricky plays and win a game. I want to have efficient offenses and defenses. I want to be all that stuff. But I don’t want to do any of that without giving the people around me a chance to be the best version of themselves.
I know it sounds corny, but that’s really on my heart when I coach.
James, do you remember when you got the call that said, ‘Hey, we want you to be the general manager.’?
Jones: I do. I wasn’t as emotional as some people may think because I had been acting in that role on an interim basis. And what that allowed me to do was … because I’m a basketball guy. I love the game. I could sit down and we can talk basketball all day. I love the strategy. I love the X’s and O’s. I love everything about it, but Monty is me in coach form. And that’s not what I can do. And so when Robert gave me the opportunity to be a general manager, I felt gratitude too because I felt like, you know what? I can be in a position to find someone like Monty, and particularly Monty, that will do what he said, elevate everyone else and I can be in a position to allow him to do that. To be totally aligned.
And so when Robert gave me the opportunity to be the GM … humble, excited, just utterly excited for the chance to empower somebody to do exactly what Monty wants to do. That’s what gets me excited about our opportunities because I know where we’re in good hands and we have good people. I’m in a position that allows good people to become great at what they do. It’s no different than being in that locker room and winning the title. Getting to see people achieve at the highest level. That’s, for me, what this is all about. It really is about empowering people.