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Published: Wednesday, 6/20/2001

In the NBA, black coaches get 2nd chance

It was business as usual in the NBA yesterday. The Cleveland Cavaliers hired John Lucas to be the 13th coach in franchise history.

Lucas is a classic coaching retread. He's had two previous NBA jobs, posting a 136-171 career record with San Antonio and Philadelphia. He's been an assistant with Denver the past four seasons.

Lucas is one of nine black head coaches currently in the NBA. Of that group, five have been head coaches previously.

Lucas and Alvin Gentry of the Clippers each are coaching their third different team. Lenny Wilkens of the Toronto Raptors, the NBA's all-time winningest coach, is coaching his fifth team.

Lucas' hiring is a classic example of how the NBA is light-years ahead of the NFL and Major League Baseball in terms of affirmativeaction hiring.

The NBA has had more black head coaches in its history than the NFL and baseball, combined.

In Lucas' case, a black man who is a former drug addict was hired to coach again despite not having the greatest track record.

Coaching retreads know no color. However, minority candidates have been known to be held to a higher standard.

To become a head coach in the NFL, or a baseball manager, candidates must seemingly be able to walk on water. As a result, it's a profession that's had its share of good hires, bad hires, great hires and terrible hires.

Coaching is all about perceptions and deceptions.

That's why Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner is considered one of baseball's brightest minds despite never having a winning season in the big leagues. The perception is that Garner makes more out of less.

And it's why Cito Gaston can't get hired for another manager's job despite winning two World Series titles. The deception is that Gaston benefited from great talent.

Garner is white; Gaston is black.

In the history of pro sports, it's been easier for white coaches and managers to get re-hired than it has been for their black and Hispanic counterparts.

That's what makes Lucas' hiring by the Cavaliers so intriguing.

Lucas wasn't Cleveland's No. 1 choice. The Cavs wanted white Dallas assistant Del Harris, another retread, but Harris, one of the highest-paid assistants in the NBA, elected to remain with the Mavericks.

Lucas was considered the top remaining candidate from a talent pool that included other white and black candidates.

Ironically, Lucas' troubled past was viewed as a plus rather than a hindrance.

Instead of being eliminated from consideration because he was a former abuser of cocaine, Lucas developed a reputation for being a player's coach who used his personal problems to help him connect with players, particularly those players with drug and personal problems.

Perceptions and deceptions.

The biggest difference between coaching in the NBA and other pro sports, however, is that retreads like Lucas receive the benefit of the doubt.

John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at jharris@theblade.com.

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