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Coaches still earning stripes of another color

So are blacks good enough or smart enough to coach in the NBA?

The answer, of course, is, "That's a stupid question!"

The question is raised, though, based on the results of our very unscientific survery of ESPN.com basketball experts. How could it be we get all the way down to No. 13 before the name of the first black coach appears on our list?

Hello! Lenny Wilkens, anyone? Not only does Wilkens have more wins than anyone who ever has coached in professional basketball, but at least three times he has revived franchises with his coaching -- in Seattle when he won his only championship during the 1970s, later in the 1980s with the Cleveland Cavaliers and then in Atlanta in the mid-1990s when he averaged 50 wins over five seasons with a very flawed team. His backcourt was Steve Smith and Mookie Blaylock, and he had at different times as starters Christian Laettner and Stacey Augmon. He may well have been coach of the decade.

We know racism existed in the recent past in all sports. The canard, from quarterbacks to coaches, was that blacks weren't intelligent enough to be in the decision-making positions. The disgusting myth was that blacks had the physical tools but not the mental skills. It has been loudly refuted in the NFL, and no sport has been a pioneer in race relations like the NBA.

Sure, the league got a late start in admitting blacks in the 1950s. And then it ran something of a quota system in the 1960s when teams quietly allowed only a certain number of black players per team. That vanished for good with the coming of the ABA and the explosion of basketball talent.

Though the opportunities for black coaches remained limited, Wilkens was a pioneer, breaking through as a player/coach in Seattle in the late 1960s. But it wasn't an easy barrier to break. The hardest barriers to overcome, of course, are the ones people say don't exist.

There were many reasons, of course, and some exist today, though mostly in a subtle way.

How does one get to be ranked among the coaching elite?

One way is to win. Yet it has been rare when blacks have been offered positions with the top teams in the major media markets. Magic Johnson got a brief try in Los Angeles in a transition period, and Don Chaney appears now to be a lame duck coach in New York. But rarely have blacks been given opportunities in these markets. Willis Reed and Stu Jackson were the only other black coaches for the Knicks, Reed in a transitional period after the great Knicks run of the early 1970s and Jackson for just more than one season a decade ago.

The Lakers have never had a black coach other than Johnson's 16 games. Bill Cartwright, starting his first full season, is the Chicago Bulls' first black coach.

Also, the NBA never has had substantial black ownership. The fact is, owners often like to hang around with their coaches, and, well, it has always been easier to take a white guy to the country club. That's not as prevalent these days, but for many years it was a denying factor.

Another factor is the network of former coaches. The best way to keep yourself employed is to convince everyone you're irreplaceable, or at least make sure your industry requires your profile. The prototypical NBA coach, for years, was the learned X and O guy (the utility infielder or backup catcher in baseball, the backup quarterback in football) -- the guy who studied the game, held the clipboard and spent years making up plays. The notion that was perpetuated was that you didn't know the game by playing it, but by studying it.

Like Red Auerbach, or Dick Motta. Bill Fitch, Jack Ramsay, Cotton Fitzsimmons and John MacLeod and passed down to Mike Fratello and Brian Hill and Del Harris. Which is not to say many of these men were not qualified. Some were brilliant coaches. But they continued to pass around the jobs in a vicious recycling process that denied admittance to those not in the club.

There also was the apprenticeship notion, that one couldn't coach without "paying your dues." That meant going to a college program or sitting on the bench somewhere. It's what all those guys did, so it must be the way. But those guys had to do it that way because they never knew what it was like to be in a big game making a big shot and being the star. NBA superstars didn't always feel it was necessary to start again at the bottom. It's why Julius Erving never received consideration. But could Michael Jordan coach today? Sure. Doc Rivers, not quite on that level, proved to be a top coach in his first year. He's one of the best in the NBA and didn't have to spend five years scouting first. He only happened to be on great teams, participate in All-Star games and play with some of the greatest players ever. How could that prepare someone for coaching?

Then came years of utility players, like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Larry Brown, who headed my own list. All are great coaches and among the best the game has seen. But it also doesn't mean you had to average 6.8 points to run a team.

Admittedly, that has been changing. Larry Bird demonstrated great players can have success. Isiah Thomas has gotten a chance and so has Byron Scott, who was a starter on several Lakers championship teams. The guy I think is one of the best coaching prospects for the next decade is starting work on the bench this season in Sacramento, Terry Porter. B.J. Armstrong is working in administration for the Bulls and could become an elite coach if he chooses to go in that direction.

They'll get their chances. Right now, Nate McMillan in Seattle looks like he'll be a great coach, and Scott already has been to the Finals. Alvin Gentry took a job with the Clippers that seemingly no one wanted and has had the long woeful franchise on the course to credibility.

The larger question, which will expose whether this hidden racism still does exist, is whether these qualified men, like their predecessors, get a chance to coach again after leaving a team, as all coaches do, if they quit or are fired. And will they be considered if a job comes up with a great player in a major market?

The ability is there. It just requires opportunity. And then perhaps we'll all notice.

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, writes a weekly column for ESPN.com.