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The NBA’s black leaders open up about the league’s diversity problem

NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum and SVP chief diversity & inclusion officer Oris Stuart discuss how they’re addressing the NBA’s lack of black leadership

Last week, The Undefeated looked deep into some stunning diversity statistics troubling the NBA. Although the league is widely held as the current trailblazer for diversity among the professional and college sports, 75 percent of its players are black and only one team president and three general managers are. While the NBA cannot force teams to hire or interview anyone, the league has two African-Americans in Mark Tatum and Oris Stuart leading the charge to get more minorities considered for executive positions. Tatum is the NBA’s deputy commissioner and chief operating officer. Stuart is the NBA’s senior vice president and chief diversity & inclusion officer.

The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears sat down with Tatum (Stuart participated via cellphone) for a discussion addressing the lack of diversity in NBA front offices and the plans to improve it. The discussion took place before Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.

Tatum: This is an issue that is very important to the league and me, personally. 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 Undefeated: When you see the statistics, what comes to mind on the lack of [black] presidents and general managers?

Tatum: We want to make sure that diversity and inclusion continues to be part of all their hiring decisions. It’s a holistic thing. Our teams are always looking for an edge. They’re always looking for who is the best person for the job. I will always tell you that they are searching for different backgrounds, for different experiences, for a diverse pool of candidates to make sure they identify the appropriate candidates to make sure they identify the appropriate person.

That might mean it’s somebody like [Sacramento Kings GM] Vlade Divac [who is Serbian] or [new Brooklyn Nets GM] Sean Marks [of New Zealand] who has the international experience. It might be somebody like [Charlotte Hornets general manager] Rich Cho [who is Asian-American]. It’s [Toronto Raptors GM] Masai Ujiri [who is Nigerian]. Look at the opportunity that Masai was given to run a team and do what he’s doing. But of course, we are not where we want to be as a league. What I think Oris is focused on is making sure that our teams have a culture of finding the best possible person, looking at a diverse group of people and creating a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Stuart: I will just pick up on that point about culture. You can create a culture. We know, of course, of the Rooney Rule [in the NFL rule that mandates teams interview at least one ethnic minority candidate for head coaching and executive positions]. We celebrate the fact that the NFL has implemented that before. But with us, we have to do something that will work for our unique situation. Focus on culture that we believe will create a sustainable outcome, one that is not based on just a process or that kind of oversight.

To Mark’s earlier point, it’s just not rational in our league to exclude a whole category of potential candidates. We are going to get to the bottom of where there are gaps and where there are barriers. It’s about a culture of inclusion that will ultimately start a sustainable process that is going to really address that issue.

The Undefeated: What can the NBA actually do? You can’t force an owner to make a hire. But it did seem to me that a lot of the black [candidates] I talk to say, ‘Hey, we appreciate the NBA’s efforts, but they can’t force anyone to hire us.’

Tatum: It shouldn’t be about the forcing. This is not about checking the box. This is about creating. And what we can do as a league is create a culture and understanding that going out and identifying a diverse pool of candidates and the best possible talent out there is good for business. It is good for your team. Teams generally do understand that.

Stuart: We have implemented an associates program within our basketball operations with the objective of putting former players into a position to develop the skills and to prepare themselves for these roles. Expanding that pipeline is something that we are doing and can continue to expand.

(from left to right, top to bottom) Masai Ujiri, Dmitry Razumov, Vlade Divac, Rich Cho.

Photos by Bernard Weil/Toronto Star, Elsa/Getty Images, Rocky Widner/NBAE, Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer

The Undefeated: Is there anything that the NBA can do in collaboration with the National Basketball Players Association [NBPA] to tackle this issue? From the players’ standpoint — not just African-American players, but players in general — there doesn’t seem to be a high number of former players in these positions as well.

Tatum: As Oris mentioned, there is the associates program, where we can work with the [NBPA] and players or recently retired players interested in getting into the business of basketball or the operations side and put them in this program to give them exposure to what it takes to be a general manager in this league.

I know [NBPA executive director] Michele Roberts knows, as do I, many of our players aspire to be entrepreneurs and aspire to be owners in our league — not just necessarily coaches or general managers. And we encourage that.

The Undefeated: What would you tell someone who has paid their dues in this league, a black executive or a former black executive like Joe Dumars or Rod Higgins, who question whether they should have hope that a team will give them a chance or another chance?

Tatum: I would say our teams are always looking for the best possible candidate for the jobs, regardless of their race or their background. I would say if you have success in this league, that you will always be given an opportunity, if you have had success in the past.

The Undefeated: Why did the league feel the need to hire someone like Oris Stuart?

Tatum: [Richard Lapchick’s Racial and Gender Report Card] has consistently rated [the NBA] at the top of the list in men’s sports in racial and gender equality and diversity. But we needed to make sure we were proactive and this wasn’t just a matter of happenstance. We said it is really time to take a strategic, proactive look at it.

The Undefeated: There were eight GM candidates interviewed by the Nets and none of them happened to be black. There was a Hispanic candidate in Houston’s Gersson Rosas. Marks was hired, and he’s from New Zealand. But when you have capable African-American candidates and none were interviewed for the job, did you take notice of that?

Tatum: I don’t know the exhaustive list of all the people that were interviewed or not for the job. Those things aren’t always made public. I will tell you that we are certainly, through the work that Oris is doing, always encouraging our teams to talk to as diverse group of talent as possible for those jobs.

The Undefeated: When a NBA president or GM job is open, do you send teams a suggestion list? Do you reach out as they go through the process?

Tatum: There are a pipeline of candidates out there that, at times, we make sure teams [are aware of]. Sometimes they will seek our counsel and advice, as well. There is an ongoing dialogue any time those positions come out.

The NBA began the Global Inclusion Council. It’s made up of 19 senior leaders — league and team representatives, such as New York Knicks general manager Steve Mills and Charlotte Hornets chief operating officer Fred Whitfield, Tatum and Stuart. The council is creating benchmarks and a series of processes to measure, evaluate and share how teams can create a diverse and inclusive environment.

Stuart: We are also looking at other organizations outside of sports that are particularly effective at placing minorities and woman in [positions of] executive leadership.

Tatum: That is what a culture of diversity and inclusion encourages. Think outside of the box. Open your mind to who the best possible candidate is regardless of race, regardless of gender.

The Undefeated: I wish you could hear the voices of a lot of different aspiring black GMs and presidents that I’ve talked to. To be honest, there is a lot of pain in their voice and frustration. A lot of them lack hope. Being black [yourselves], is there is a part of you that kind of stings when you hear the frustration, the statistics and what these guys are thinking?

Tatum: I want to make sure that the organization and the collective teams are always taking into consideration the best pool of candidates. Of course, I want to see anybody get that opportunity. If you’re a minority, you get the same opportunity as anybody else to get that job. I definitely understand it.

[NBA commissioner Adam Silver] is very focused on that and it is something we hold very near and dear to our culture as a league, given the history that we’ve had as a league in making sure that it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is or what your gender is. If you can do the job, you will get the opportunity to do that job.

Stuart: I certainly understand the feelings that are out there. But certainly from my point, working for the organization for a bit and having seen what success looks like, I have a lot of confidence in where we are headed.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.