Something profound is happening with the Suns.
Since Steve Mills and the Knicks fired David Fizdale on Dec. 6, Phoenix became home to the only African American general manager-head coach duo in the NBA. Both came into their positions recently, but opened up last week to The Undefeated about the unique situation.
“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,” James Jones said. “Not just coaches and players, but also to management. So I’m prideful.”
For Monty Williams, the opportunity is more about what comes after him. It’s about creating chances for people on his staff and in the next generation, whom he hopes will be granted better opportunities down the line.
“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],” Williams said. “Those guys may not get the opportunity at 38 that I got if I’m just doing the normal NBA thing.”
The Pelicans hired Williams in 2010 after his time as a coaching intern in San Antonio and assistant in Portland. At that time, Eddie Jordan, Doc Rivers, Mike Brown, Mike Woodson, Nate McMillan, Alvin Gentry and Lionel Hollins were the only African American head coaches in the league. These days, there are only five African-American head coaches among Monty’s peers. Gentry, Rivers and McMillan are the only ones who make both the 2010 and 2019 list.
There were (and always have been) even fewer people of color in front offices. Jones’ rise to NBA general manager is often discussed in the context of his inexperience, but at some point, the man deserves more credit. Sure, Robert Sarver hasn’t earned much in the way of benefit of the doubt when it comes to decision-making, so Sarver hiring Jones was panned more because of Sarver’s past failures than Jones’ shortcomings as a candidate.
But all Jones has done since is build a playoff contender around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. When you talk about creating chances for others in the long run, Jones’ situation is even more unique. As a recent former player, Jones holds a rare position in the league.
Many players-turned-executives have been lost to the transition toward analytics and progressive front office ideologies this decade. Examples of that include former Magic general manager Otis Smith, or Joe Dumars, the man who built the Pistons into a champion. NBA legend Elgin Baylor was pushed out of the Clippers’ front office by Donald Sterling in a sign of the downfall Sterling would ultimately face. Today there are only six African-American general managers running NBA franchises.
Said 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.”
Still, in a community like that of Phoenix, which as of the 2010 Census was 42.5 percent Hispanic/Latino, people of color being represented in positions of power is huge. The executives behind the scenes for the Suns are not nearly as diverse, but that’s a conversation for a different day. Jones and Williams speaking about their views on race and identity starts an important discussion.
The same is true for Booker.
In an interview with The Athletic last week, Booker and his mother, Veronica Gutierrez, discussed the importance of his Hispanic heritage as well. Lest you think it’s just something that gets milked because Booker plays so close to the border, people don’t give interviews like this to national publications just to drum up intrigue.
When you wonder why Booker continues to be happy in this community and as part of the Suns’ organization, keep values like these in mind.
“When I was a kid, I was always on the go, either outside playing basketball or something, so when it was time when my mom wanted to go to the other side of Michigan to hang with my Mexican side of the family, it wasn’t really a priority for me,” Booker said.
“But getting to the age that I’m at now, understanding how important that is, that’s a part of me, something that I’m growing to realize.”
Maybe this type of stuff doesn’t feel important. Maybe some fans just want to enjoy sports apart from who the players are as people. But in reality, the people under the jersey are who makes the team what it is more than what kind of players they are.
More importantly, the three most important people in the organization care about this part of their identity and telling their story.