Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Last—er, Latest—Dog and Pony Show

Their robes were black, their heads were white,
the schoolhouse doors were closed so tight.
Nine judges all set down their names
to end the years and years of shame.
David Arkin and Earl Robinson, "Black and White" 

Coincidental Pioneer: Bill Berry [right],
the first African-American coach
in Chicago Bulls history.

That other Jerry Reinsdorf team, the Chicago Bulls, up and committed a Chicago White Sox today, hiring Fred Hoiberg away from Iowa State University.

That means the past two hires made by Reinsdorf''s teams, Hoiberg and Robin Ventura of the White Sox, are guys who had neither competition for the job nor professional coaching experience. 

The Bulls and White Sox—especially the Bulls—are no Sacramento Kings or Tampa Bay Rays. They have the wherewithal to, you know, conduct coaching searches, fly several candidates in for interviews, otherwise avoid the notion they're being run by Freemasons or Scientologists.

The inevitability of Tom Thibodeau's firing and Hoiberg's hiring prompted some digging. How often have the Bulls conducted an actual coaching search? And in a league where more than three-quarters of players are African-American, how many coaches in team history have been black?

The first 10 years of Bulls history was marked by both competition from the ABA and the so-called quota system employed by some, if not most, NBA teams to limit African-Americans on the roster or lineup, so the Bulls get a pass with regard to a black coach at least through the ABA-NBA merger. (If you find the idea of institutional racism as late as the 1970s to be a liberal straw man, I'll dig up my notes from long talks with Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker, Bob Love and Clifford Ray and share their thoughts on the differential treatment dealt them by Chicago's first coaching legend, Dick Motta.)

For the first 10 years after the merger, history is a little sketchy on coaching candidates—DePaul's Ray Meyer was once a shoo-in for Bulls coach, I know that much—and let's face it, the Bulls were downright messy, on and off the court.

But beginning in the mid-1980s, the dawn of the Michael Jordan era, records are pretty clear. And when it comes to minority interviewing and hiring, the Bulls have an embarrassing track record.

When Doug Collins was hired in 1986, competing candidates were Jimmy Rodgers (Reinsdorf's choice, and a local guy from Oak Park) and Phil Jackson (who I believe legend tells it showed up for his interview in a Hawaiian shirt and/or straw hat and was dressed down by, of all people, the decidedly undapper Jerry Krause).

When Jackson succeeded Collins after the 1988-89 season in what was then a shocking turn of events—the Bulls had just come off the most thrilling upset in their history, "The Shot" over the Cleveland Cavaliers—Jackson was the first and only choice.

Post "Last Dance," sixth title, and lockout, Tim Floyd succeeded Jackson. Floyd came from Iowa State and had no professional coaching experience of any kind. If that sounds eerily familiar, well, rest assured that the Fred Hoiberg Era has no chance of being anything near the unmitigated disaster of the Tim Floyd Experience.

Vinny Del Negro was hired in 2008, the team's third choice behind Mike D'Antoni (who spurned Chicago for the New York Knicks, reportedly because the Bulls wouldn't budge on salary) and Doug Collins Mach 2 (Reinsdorf's preference). I don't think I'm speaking out of school almost a decade since when I say the Collins hiring was so close and so foregone as a backup plan that I was assigned features on Collins to write for the Bulls publications that summer. Once D'Antoni and Collins passed, among the secondary candidates considered were very possibly the first (and, sadly, potentially only) serious African-American head coaching candidates in Bulls history: Chuck Person and Duane Casey. Neither, then or now, inspired.

Two years later, after Del Negro's arrogant mediocrity was sent packing, the Bulls hired Tom Thibodeau. Thibs was a hot candidate, already first contacted by New Orleans that summer, so Chicago never got to much of an interview schedule. Kevin McHale's name shows up in searches, but it was Thibs's job to lose.

Oddly, even then Thibodeau's hiring profile consisted of all the stuff you hear now as reason given for his dismissal last week: "workaholic" and "a guy who finds is difficult to personally relate to players."

And now in 2015, 15 years after the uncontested, slam-dunk hiring of Floyd out of Ames, comes Hoiberg.

But what about Bill Cartwright (2001-03)? Well, Mr. Bill is Chicago's one and only non-interim African-American head coach. But even Cartwright wasn't a first choice, at the time a Bulls assistant held over from the Jackson Era who took over for Floyd mid-season. Just prior to Cartwright was Bill Berry, another Floyd assistant, who as an interim choice post-Floyd went 0-2 and is the true first black Bulls coach. Rounding out the proud history of black head coaches in Chicago is twice-interim choice Pete Myers, who spun an 0-3 record keeping the seat warm after both Cartwright and his replacement, Scott Skiles, were fired.

The Bulls have played almost 4,000 games in their history, and just 156 of them—that's 4%—have been helmed by a black coach.

Maybe picking a Scotty Robertson or Stan Albeck or Kevin Loughery back in the day was par for the course. These days, where almost half of NBA coaches are African-American, reflecting the makeup of team rosters as well as ever, the Bulls didn't bother to talk to anyone but Hoiberg. Whether Hoiberg proves to be the right choice, the method in getting him to Chicago was decidedly wrong.

We have enough quotas and rules in this world, and for all anyone knows, Hoiberg is the next Steve Kerr and a year from now all will laud Gar Forman's clever rookie hire. But it's odd that the Bulls paid lip service to diversity hiring and just rubber-stamped Hoiberg at a time when that is less and less expected, or appropriate.

As a fan, hope springs eternal, and Hoiberg's uptempo offense—while perhaps not a great match for his inherited Bulls personnel—should be fun to watch. But to have not vetted several candidates, even when the first choice was and likely would be Hoiberg, is a shame for the league and an embarrassment for the Bulls.

Snatching Kerr?
A trivial note, perhaps, but back when the Bulls backed into Del Negro as coach, he came with an endorsement from his employer, Phoenix Suns GM...Steve Kerr (Del Negro was Kerr's assistant). Like Hoiberg did with the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to coaching at ISU, Kerr got his start off the court in the NBA as an executive, so perhaps back in 2008 Kerr was unwilling to consider coaching. But given John Paxson's longtime admiration, what if the Bulls had focused instead on Kerr becoming their head coach instead of his minion, Del Negro? Even a year ago, if the Bulls had so soured on Thibodeau that a firing was inevitable, couldn't they have gotten in the ring to lure Kerr from the Knicks or Warriors?