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On Pro Basketball: Once in the Vanguard of Diversity, Knicks Build a Future That Echoes the Past

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“Douglas told me years later that when Ned Irish, who owned the Knicks, came out of a meeting in the commissioner’s office to tell them the league voted against accepting the Rens, my father wanted to quit right there,” said Joe Lapchick’s son Richard. “Douglas said he told him he shouldn’t because he might have an impact down the road.”

By 1950, Lapchick had drafted and signed Nat Clifton, a former Rens player better known as Sweetwater and one of the three African-Americans who simultaneously integrated the N.B.A.

All these decades later, the Knicks of James L. Dolan, their habitually embattled owner, have — unwittingly, in all probability — embraced their activist roots. In the process, they may rinse away the aftertaste of the Phil Jackson era.

With the promotion of Steve Mills to team president from general manager last month and the hiring of Scott Perry to replace Mills, the Knicks have the only African-American president-and-general-manager tandem in the league. While 80 percent of the league’s players are of color, the most prized executive positions in basketball have been stubbornly and overwhelmingly white.

The Knicks did not stop there. Mills and Perry added Gerald Madkins as assistant general manager, Craig Robinson as vice president for player development and Harold Ellis as director of player personnel. All are black.

Richard Lapchick, a human rights activist and watchdog on racial and gender hiring practices in the sports industry, is not easily impressed. His report cards on race and gender for the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida have for years statistically laid bare the challenges that minorities have faced climbing the coaching and administrative ladders in professional and big-time college sports.

Photo

General Manager Scott Perry, left, and the team president Steve Mills broke another color barrier last month by becoming the league’s first African-American president-and-general-manager tandem.

Credit
Justin Gilliland/The New York Times

For the record, the N.B.A. in 2016-17 received its customary A for overall racial hiring but an F in the areas of C.E.O.s/team presidents and general managers, with neither able to climb above 10 percent.

In a telephone interview last week, Lapchick told me that the Knicks’ transition to a minority-powered front office did not surprise him. He has known Mills since the early 1990s, and worked with him on the league’s diversity training strategies.

“Steve’s always believed the best people available should get the job, but hiring practices have also been a huge issue for him,” Lapchick said. “So it makes sense to me that the team he’s putting together would look the way it looks.”

There is the way it looks and the way it might appear. It is no secret that the Knicks’ brand around the league, and especially within the subset of high-leverage superstars, became toxic last season after comments by Jackson, then the team president, about LeBron James’s “posse” and by his public hectoring of Carmelo Anthony.

The heartbreaking and violent removal of Charles Oakley, a treasured former Knick, from his seat at Madison Square Garden after a scuffle with arena security guards did not help the social perception of the team. Nor did his continuing feud with Dolan.

To his credit, Dolan cannot be accused of having bypassed black candidates for front-office and coaching jobs through the years. That several were treated shabbily — Don Chaney’s being escorted from the building one night after he showed up to coach comes to mind — is obfuscated by Dolan’s general rap for equal-opportunity mistreatment of employees.

The front-office remake will no doubt help a reputational reset, even with the mercurial Dolan still at the helm. But let’s not surrender to skepticism, or consider these changes merely a calculated marketing pitch to future free agents. The Knicks were badly in need of veteran administrative league insiders — or what Jackson, despite being a Hall of Fame coach, was not.

Most pertinent in the assemblage of a new Knicks management team is the point about very slow executive progress for minorities, even in the league widely recognized as the most enlightened. And not to be overlooked, Lapchick said, is that “in a market like New York, people are more likely to embrace change than in some other places.”

That rings familiar to what was said in the fall of 1979, when the Knicks crossed another racial threshold. Coming out of training camp, Coach Red Holzman cut his remaining white players and began the season with the first all-black Knicks team — which was soon to play Detroit in the first N.B.A. game without a white player.

For a column about those Knicks that I wrote for The New York Post, Sonny Werblin, then the president of the Garden, said: “Perhaps in some cities it might be a factor. I would think in a city like Boston it would be. Not here. New York is too sophisticated for that.”

Not always, though. Richard Lapchick told me that his activist leanings emerged in his early childhood, most specifically when he awoke one morning at his family’s home in Yonkers to find his father’s effigy hanging from a tree in the front yard.

Not everyone apparently celebrated the signing of Sweetwater Clifton, but give credit where it is due: The Knicks have come a long way in the 67 years since that first significant step on a road still being paved.

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