It was all hugs and smiles last week at the press conference where New York Knicks General Manager Isiah Thomas introduced the team’s new $10 million per year head coach, Larry Brown.
Generally the media joined in the fun, hailing the return of Brown, a Brooklyn native who grew up on Long Island idolizing the Knicks. Fueling the sense of nostalgia was the July 25 passing of Sidney “Sonny” Hertzberg, 82. The former guard was the captain of the Knicks in the team’s inaugural 1946-1947 season, at a time when Jewish players were still a dominant force on the court. Brown, 64, is old enough to have caught the tail end of that era, as a scrappy guard for Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels in the early 1960s and then as a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team in 1964. He also logged time with several different teams in the now-defunct American Basketball Association before launching his coaching career in the early 1970s.
These days, however, the only place to find Jews in the National Basketball Association is behind the bench or in the front office — a sad reality reinforced by the hoopla surrounding Brown’s new coaching gig.
On second glance, however, the Brown-Thomas press conference at least underscored the degree to which other decades-old basketball stereotypes no longer hold water.
Thomas, a former All-Star point guard for the Detroit Pistons who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, is one of 11 black general managers in the 30-team NBA (and the third-straight one to work with Brown). The league currently has 12 black coaches.
At the same time that the NBA’s coaching and front-office ranks are becoming increasingly integrated, an infusion of 76 foreign players from 34 countries is shattering heavily ingrained notions about race and playing ability.
White men can’t jump? Someone forgot to tell Manu Ginobili as he led Argentina last summer to the Olympic gold medal and then, along with Tim Duncan, helped the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA title in June. Ginobili at times seemed like the flashiest and most athletic player on the court, while Duncan, who is black, is widely considered to be the league’s best — and one of its most cerebral — players.
The moral: If the Houston Rockets can start a 7 foot 7 inch player from China, then the Knicks should be able to find at least one modern-day Sonny Hertzberg (from Israel, perhaps) to suit up for Brown.