Monty Williams tends to circle back to a few men in particular when he looks back on the professional opportunities that led to him becoming an NBA head coach.
First there was Gregg Popovich, the legendary Spurs coach who saw something in Williams that he had seen in so many players before him, which prompted Pop to invite Williams to intern with the Spurs after he retired from playing. Williams helped out on the Spurs’ championship team in 2005 as a coaching intern, where he also met RC Buford and Brett Brown, two people who’d play a big part in his return to coaching many years later.
That year, Williams would be pried away into a real assistant coaching job in Portland by Nate McMillan. The two grew close over several years together building the Trail Blazers into a consistent playoff team, and in 2009, when McMillan ruptured his Achilles’ tendon while on the court with his team during practice, he chose Williams to take the reins while he underwent surgery. That interim experience as a head coach was enlightening for Williams, and his admirers around the NBA, and ultimately led to him getting a shot as head coach of the Hornets (the youngest one in the NBA at the time).
Williams helped put together two different playoff teams in New Orleans, first led by Chris Paul and then a young Anthony Davis. But when his team was swept by the Warriors in 2015, Williams was let go from his first lead gig, fairly successful and with a long career still ahead. That’s when tragedy struck in the form of the car accident that stole the life of Williams’ wife, Ingrid. It forced Williams to step away from coaching for a bit to be with his family and mourn the loss of his partner.
When Williams returned, it was Spurs general manager RC Buford who would extend a hand. Buford gave Williams a job in the front office as a way to ease back into the NBA. One year in that role led Williams back to Brett Brown, who offered him a seat on his bench to help take the young Sixers over the hump, a challenge which led Williams back to the head coaching seat in Phoenix.
Many coaches — heck, most successful people — have stories like these. There is always someone who lent a hand, an ear or a voice. So long as the recipient is willing to take it in, these people can become mentors and confidantes that help us get where we want to go.
But the NBA sometimes can go the other way, too. Jobs go to people like Ryan Saunders, a completely unproven and so far unsuccessful son of a franchise legend. Or they go to Luke Walton, who steered the greatest team ever assembled while his more experienced mentor was away, then flamed out in Los Angeles, was accused of sexual assault, and still got another job with the Kings.
My intention is not to call those coaches out for any reason other than that it is important to be precise when we challenge norms in big institutions like the NBA. This week, Steve Nash was asked about the idea that he jumped the line when he was named Nets head coach, having never served since retiring from his Hall of Fame playing career as anything more than a team advisor.
“I have benefitted from white privilege. Our society has a lot of ground to make up. ... I’m not sure this is an example that purely fits that conversation.”
Whether you agree with Nash or not, this was something he needed to speak to because it’s clear there were more experienced coaches — many of them Black — who could have been in line for the Brooklyn job had the organization not zeroed in on Nash. That includes Jacque Vaughn, who revamped the Nets’ offense on the fly and led the severely depleted roster to a 5-3 record in the Bubble and a Game 1 win over Toronto in the playoffs.
The list also includes — or will soon — other former players like Mark Bryant and Willie Green. The Suns’ staff has its own trace of nepotism in the form of Billy Donovan Jr., but for the most part, Williams has been diligent about giving opportunities to those who come from non-traditional backgrounds and are seeking to move up in the NBA ranks. Green catapulted from player development in Golden State all the way to the lead assistant gig with the Suns because Williams saw something in him, just as McMillan did in Williams all those years ago.
Add the newly hired Brian Randle to the mix and we now see a staff with three Black former pro basketball players in addition to Williams at the top and James Jones manning the controls as General Manager. That’s five Black men who know what it’s like to be a pro (Randle was in top overseas leagues before returning to the NBA as a coach). Darko Rajakovic is in a unique position as well, trying to break in as a Serbian-born former G League head coach.
It’s been my understanding since Bryant and Rajakovic were hired that they ultimately hope to be NBA head coaches. Williams knew that when he hired them, too. The same is clearly true for Green, a rising star who’s just 39. They are what Williams was a decade ago — young, Black and talented but caught in the churn of a league that tends to value them less than their white counterparts.
We can highlight how these problems manifest in the NBA without simply disparaging Nash, Walton or Saunders. But rest assured that Williams understands the mechanisms at play in this league and how rare it is that he — as a Black head coach — not only got a job once but found his way into a second chance. Rather than count his blessings and protect himself, he’s passing down his wisdom to another group of talented coaches on his Suns staff who could one day get the same opportunities he did.