In the NBA, for the most part, the players literally look down on their coach. Only six of the 30 head coaches were considered forwards in their playing days and just one, Kevin McHale, was ever listed as a center. Five teams are still looking for a head coach; it’s a good bet most will hire a former guard. Why is a big man on the sideline so rare?
Patrick Ewing wants to become an NBA head coach. The former New York Knicks center has been an assistant with three different teams over nine seasons. With no desirable coaching offer on the table last season, he worked as a TV analyst. “It’s just disappointing, but I’m just hoping and waiting somebody gives me a look,” Ewing told CSNNW.com recently. “I just need an opportunity. All it takes is one team.”
Is there a big man bias in the league?* After a season in Washington, Ewing spent three years as an assistant in Houston, where he mentored Yao Ming. He was in Orlando for five seasons; his first, in 2007-08, was when Dwight Howard became a dominant center. Perhaps Yao and Howard become great players without Ewing’s help, but their success boosts Ewing’s resume. Is his 7-foot frame working against him?
While the raw data suggests it is, there could be other factors at play. Maybe more guards than big men want to get into coaching. It’s no secret that many really tall guys are steered towards basketball because of their size as opposed to a passion for the game. But that doesn’t apply to Ewing, who clearly wants a shot. Consider Mark Jackson, who just finished his second season as the Golden State head coach. The Warriors gave Jackson the job even though he had no coaching experience. Jeff Hornaceck was recently named the Suns’ head coach after just two seasons as an assistant. When Orlando fired Stan Van Gundy after last season, the organization went with Jacque Vaughn even though he had less experience than Ewing.
If front offices think former centers, as players, didn’t have to use skill and guile as much as brute force and therefore, as coaches, wouldn’t be good strategists, there’s no proof of that. There simply haven’t been enough big men head coaches to prove anything.
*Looking at other pro sports, if there’s any bias in baseball, it’s in favor of catchers. Twelve of the 30 MLB managers are former catchers, far more than any other position. In the NFL, head coaches’ former positions are split evenly between offense and defense, though only seven reached the NFL as players. There are eight former quarterbacks and nine former defensive backs.