Wolves pass over qualified Black for head coach

Courtesy of Timberwolves David Vanterpool

Once again the “passover” of not hiring a Black coach took place in Minneapolis when the Minnesota Timberwolves last week fired Ryan Saunders and hired Chris Finch within a 24-hour period.

Team President Gersson Rosas drew criticism for passing over Associate Head Coach David Vanterpool, who is Black. Vanterpool also interviewed along with Saunders and Finch for the Wolves HC job a couple of years ago.     

There are only seven Black head coaches in the NBA. Vanterpool has almost a decade of pro coaching experience. When the Wolves hired him in 2019, he was given the title of “associate head coach,” a title that usually means the coach is being primed for one day assuming the HC position.

“Giving Vanterpool a chance to be interim head coach could have been a pathway to a full-time head coaching gig in Minnesota or elsewhere,” wrote Marc Spears in his Feb. 23 piece for The Undefeated.

Rosas, who is Latino, told reporters last week that the continued pandemic made it difficult for him to conduct an extensive coaching search and he instead relied on the 2019 interview process he’d conducted as a basis for his decision to hire Finch, then a Toronto assistant coach.

As much as Rosas’ quickie coaching hire merits criticism, this columnist is glad that Vanterpool didn’t get promoted, even as I remain a stanch proponent of hiring Black coaches.  The Wolves are terrible and hold the NBA’s worst record this season. 

Typically and with few exceptions, Blacks are given such bad jobs like they are some kind of magic Negroes. And even if they do turn things around, too often they aren’t allowed to reap the fruits of their labors.

Mark Jackson and Dwane Casey are two examples—they coached Golden State and Toronto respectively into top contenders. Both got fired, however, and their White successors took their teams to the NBA championship in their first season on the job.

Casey (2005-07) is among three Blacks the Wolves hired as head coaches in its long history, along with Sidney Lowe (1993-94) and Sam Mitchell (2015-16). All three were hired under somewhat dire circumstances, especially Mitchell, who was promoted to interim coach after the late Flip Saunders suddenly stepped down due to illness and subsequent death. 

All three Black coaches eventually got the Ziggy in favor of a White coach.

“It’s typical of the Black coaching experience in the NBA,” a Black NBA HC told Spears. “They use your skill set during the difficult times, but when it’s time to reward you…they always seem to find a reason not to and then expect you to continue to be the good soldier.”

“Holy crap!” said former WNBA coach Pokey Chatman in an MSR phone interview last week on the Vanterpool situation. She got fired from her duel HC-GM role in Indiana (2016-19), and until Dallas hired Vickie Johnson in December, the league with a majority of its players Black had no Black female coaches. 

“I’m more concerned with the short lease that Black coaches are getting when they are hired than about the lack of hiring Black coaches,” added Justin Brantley, a college recruiting and sports management specialist.

Submitted photo Justin Brantley

I’ve often said it before and nothing has changed—Black players don’t stand up for Black coaches, either to be hired or to be retained. No Black player stood up for Lowe, Casey or Mitchell during their tenures, but they eagerly tap-danced for the incoming White coach.

Current Wolves player Karl-Anthony Towns said he was happy with the hiring of Finch but added, “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing work he’s [Vanterpool’s] done.”

“I’m always open to coaching. I can be more selective now,” said Chatman. But for countless other Black men and women coaches who have been paying their dues, they are also subject to experience the passover effect.