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2 New NBA Coaching Hires Create Unwanted Controversy For A Progressive League

Chauncey Billups, left, poses with Portland General Manager Neil Olshey after Billups was announced as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers at the team's practice facility on June 29, 2021.
Craig Mitchelldyer
Chauncey Billups, left, poses with Portland General Manager Neil Olshey after Billups was announced as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers at the team's practice facility on June 29, 2021.

The NBA has long been considered the most progressive of the major professional sports leagues – teams and especially players have taken the lead with their activism and focus on social issues.

But coaching hires this week have critics wondering whether the NBA has taken a step back.

A difficult moment

As new Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups sat down for his introductory press conference on Tuesday, it was a difficult moment.

Billups is a highly-respected former player and seemed to be a good fit for a team that prides itself on hiring high character people. During his playing career, which included an NBA title with Detroit in 2004, Billups was honored with several character-based awards, including the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award and the NBA Sportsmanship Award.

But a story recently emerged about Billups when he was an NBA rookie in 1997.

He was accused of rape.

Billups always maintained he and his accuser had consensual sex. He was never charged with a crime. In 2000, he and a teammate who was also accused, reached a financial settlement with the woman who made the allegations.

So, it was difficult, as Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey went right to the issue.

"We took the allegations very seriously and we treated them with the gravity that they deserved," Olshey said, adding "even though other NBA organizations, business partners, TV networks, regional networks, have all enthusiastically in the past and present offered Chauncey high profile positions with their organizations, we wanted to make sure we had our own thorough process, because some things are just bigger than basketball."

Olshey said the team commissioned an independent investigation that found Billups' claim was right – nothing non-consensual happened in the 1997 incident.

Healthy but tough conversations

For his part, Billups seemed open and thoughtful when he addressed the media.

"There's not a day that goes by," he said, "that I don't think about how every decision we make could have a profound impact on a person's life. Every decision has consequences, and that's led to some really, really healthy but tough conversations I've had to have with my wife...who was my girlfriend at the time in 1997...and my daughters, about what actually happened. And about what they may have to read about me in the news and the media."

Billups said the experience has shaped his life in many ways.

"My decision making, obviously," he said, "who I allow to be in my life, the friendships and relationships I have and how I go about them. It's impacted every decision that I make. It really has. And it's shaped me in some unbelievable ways."

From transparent to opaque

But then, as reporter's questions began, the team no longer could easily control the message. And the seeming transparency turned opaque.

Olshey was asked for details about the independent investigation. Who did you hire to conduct it? Who did they talk to? What specifically did they tell you that led you to the conclusion you got to?

"That's proprietary," Olshey responded. "So you're just going to have to take our word that we hired an experienced firm, that ran an investigation, that gave us the results we've already discussed."

After that, a reporter asked Billups about his earlier statement that the incident helped shape him in unbelievable ways. Could you elaborate on that, the reporter asked, and how it helped shape you?

But before Billups could speak, the press conference moderator stepped in.

"We appreciate your question," the team PR person said, "We've addressed this. It's been asked and answered so...happy to move on to the next question."

Problematic and triggering

"It was frustrating to watch that," said Dia Miller, who writes for the team's fan site, Blazer's Edge. "To know that people wanted answers, people wanted transparency and that's not what we were given."

Before the press conference, Miller had written a story about her reaction to Billups' hire – as a longtime Blazers fan, but also as a woman and a victim of abuse.

Miller noted the Dallas Mavericks also made a recent controversial hiring – they chose as their new head coach Hall-of-Fame player Jason Kidd. In 2001, he pleaded guilty to spousal abuse.

"While there are differences between the allegations and the outcome of Kidd's case and Billups' case," Miller wrote, "the feelings surrounding them are similar – and both are problematic and triggering for those who have dealt with the sensitive issues of abuse, domestic violence and rape."

For Miller and other Portland fans, team management made the situation tougher by floating Becky Hammon's name as one of the top coaching candidates. Since 2014, Hammon has been an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs and, in Portland, she was poised to make history as the first female NBA head coach. She made it to the "ownership level" in the interview process, Olshey said, adding, "that's an endorsement as far as how far she's come and how close she is."

But ultimately, the Blazers chose the less-experienced Billups, who's currently finishing up his first year of coaching, as an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers, who're still playing in the Western Conference finals.

When it comes to Billups, Miller has mixed feelings.

"I believe in second chances," she said. "I believe in growth and I believe in people becoming better people. And so there's a part of me that wants to believe that this is somebody that can represent our team. But at the same time, having been a victim of abuse and what that has done to me going forward and how that's traumatized me and the way that has shaped my reactions, that I don't have any control over....whether he did this or not, now...he's connected with that. And there's nothing that anyone can really do about that. And it's not necessarily even fair."

Miller counts herself as one of the fans struggling with the hiring decision.

There are similar struggles in Dallas over the Kidd hiring.

He takes over a Mavericks team that, in 2018, went through a scandal that revealed a long-running pattern of workplace and sexual harassment of female employees.

At the time, team owner Mark Cuban tearfully vowed to be better.

Kidd has his introductory press conference, with team officials, on July 15th.

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Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on