When the Minnesota Timberwolves hired Tim Connelly to be the president of basketball operations, I was reminded of how the Wolves brought in Chris Finch. Granted, the process of the Connelly hire was far more conventional than the path to hiring Finch. The long and short of it is the Wolves forewent a formal offseason coaching search and hired a coach from another staff midseason. Usually, when a coach or general manager is fired, the immediate replacement is promoted from within until a formal search can be conducted — as we saw with Sachin Gupta. David Vanterpool, a black man, who was the Associate Head Coach when the Wolves hired Finch, was denied the interim title and the opportunity to coach the team for the final stretch of the season.
Though the two hires were executed in vastly different ways, the end result was the same: The Wolves hired a white person instead of a person of color. I want to be upfront from the top, this is no knock against Connelly. He has more than earned his stripes with an impressive run in Denver. It’s hard to piece together an argument on paper that Gupta is better at the job than Connelly. But, honestly, that line of thinking isn’t really an appropriate way to talk about the situation. This isn’t a basketball argument. It’s not analytics. There’s no formula that says X white executive is much better than Y executive of color, therefore it was an equitable hire. These things just don’t work like that.
What I’m talking about here are the structures of institutional racism that prevent people of color from rising to the highest ranks in sports time and time again.
Gupta kept a steady course in his time as the lead decision-maker in Minnesota. He didn’t make any moves at the deadline, signaling some sense that this team was good enough to make the playoffs and that any move that wasn’t a clear improvement probably wasn’t worth executing. Gupta brought in Greg Monroe, who instantly became a fan favorite, even if it was only for a brief moment. Really, he just kept things moving right along, which was the right call.
The Wolves seem to recognize that, as they’ve maintained their party line that Gupta is still a part of their plans. All the reporting seems to indicate that he is on board with the Connelly hire. But with Connelly bringing Matt Lloyd over from the Orlando Magic to assume the senior VP of basketball operations position, I can’t help but wonder about Gupta’s place in the front office. I don’t know the inner workings of the Wolves’ front office. Even Jon Krawczynski reported on The Athletic that it is unclear who the No. 2 is in Minnesota. Krawczynski also notes that Connelly “built an inclusive front office environment where everyone had a voice.” Regardless, Lloyd represents another voice in the front office that takes a share of the decision-making power away from Gupta, diluting his influence. It may not technically be a demotion, but it certainly seems like one from the outside looking in.
Just two years ago, the Wolves were a shining example of what organizational equity can look like. Gersson Rosas had made it a priority to diversify his staff. Unfortunately, Rosas had other problems that prevented him from seeing out his vision. His domineering leadership and inter-office affair led to his dismissal, leaving his work to diversify the staff feeling hollow. It’s a shame that what seemed like an overwhelmingly positive direction for the Wolves was nothing but a facade built by Rosas. The team he assembled still exists on the court, but his staff is slowly deteriorating.
I should be clear that I don’t expect much from the NBA in terms of actual, concrete anti-racism work. It is a professional basketball league, not a social justice organization. The bar for “acceptable practices” is not that high because this is a multi-billion dollar industry. The bottom line financially will always come before the morally and racially conscious bottom line. But, time and time again, Adam Silver’s NBA has seemingly made it clear that, at least optically, they have no problem being seen as one of the most progressive leagues in the sports world.
Look back at the bubble, when a whole slate of games was postponed because the Milwaukee Bucks chose to boycott a game after Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake. This led the players, coaches, executives, and ownership to work together to create a social justice initiative focused on voting accessibility.
A more recent example is Steve Kerr’s pre-game press conference, during which he begged Republicans in Congress to address gun violence following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex. The NBA opted not to fine Kerr, allowing him to express his political beliefs and ignore any basketball-related questioning. Sometimes non-action speaks volumes about an organization’s values.
If the NBA truly cares about being a progressive league, then allowing players and coaches to speak openly on the mic, plastering Black Lives Matter on their courts, and organizing voting initiatives isn’t enough. If the league truly wishes to reflect those progressive values, it will take an organizational commitment to including and promoting people of color. That does not appear to be a priority right now.
Detractors of this sentiment will quickly point out that over half of the league’s head coaches are black. To that, I say, yes, that’s true. Moreover, that ratio is unambiguously a good thing. Coaching demographics should reflect the league’s demographics, so the more black coaches, the better. To point to the number of black coaches as the rebut to institutional racism is to miss the point entirely. A quick look around the league’s front offices shows a glaring lack of melanin. However, Minnesota’s Connelly hire opens the door for Calvin Booth to take over in Denver, joining the likes of James Jones (Phoenix Suns) and Masai Ujiri (Toronto Raptors).
The hardest part about talking about institutional racism, let alone combating it, is that so many opt not to believe it’s real. To many, racism looks like large, overt gestures or expressions of hate. This is true. We live in a country where black people were just murdered in cold blood while shopping at the grocery store. Beyond the vilest and most putrid acts of racism, there is a network of more nuanced and covert structures that uphold the values of white supremacy. It’s a twisted sickness in the American psyche that so many would choose to believe that Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez aren’t active participants in the white supremacist, capitalistic machine that is America. They would rather assume that the two are simply doing what they believe is best for the organization rather than acting in a way to preserve the structures of institutional racism that have enabled them to amass such wealth and notoriety. In reality, I do not know their intentions, nor do I care to try to psychoanalyze them.
However, what I do know is that the larger structures of racism can only be broken by those who benefit the most. By no means am I saying that Lore or Rodriguez or Glen Taylor are racists because they didn’t promote Gupta. That’s ridiculous. The crux of all this is that they have achieved great success and benefit from the systems that have been built to oppress. They had an opportunity to choose a more equitable approach, but they didn’t, and I feel disappointed. That’s what this is about. If the NBA and the Minnesota Timberwolves really believe in the advancement of equity in their organization, promoting Gupta — or at least not demoting him — would have been a step in the right direction.
Perhaps Gupta sticks around and develops a strong working relationship with Lloyd and Connelly. Maybe the team that Lore and ARod have put together will be able to turn the Timberwolves into a top-tier basketball organization. But Connelly’s success doesn’t erase the fact that the Wolves have taken a step away from being a model for diversity, equity, and anti-racism for the NBA.