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How Long Does It Take NBA Coaches To Win Their First Title?

Rookie head coaches Blatt and Kerr eye a championship

Jonathan Zalman
June 05, 2015
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

After what has now become an annual waiting tradition, the 2015 NBA Finals are finally in full swing. This year’s championship series is a match-up between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, who hail from Oakland, California.

Both teams are lethal. The sharp-shooting Warriors are led by baby-faced long-range assassin Stephen Curry, who was voted as MVP of the NBA this year. The Warriors also boast an excellent defense, and finished with the best record in the league while playing in the highly-competitive Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Cavs follow the lead of LeBron James, who, despite his incessant milking of the spotlight, has taken a banged-up Cavs squad on his back to the peak—nearly. If the Cavs win the championship, James will be lauded more than ever, perhaps even deified, as the man who brought a title trophy back to Cleveland where there’s not been one in over five decades.

But this NBA Finals match-up carries with it further intrigue: a battle between rookie head coaches, the first, according to the New York Times, since 1947 when the NBA began to function as a professional league. On Thursday, the Times ran an excellent article about them, which detailed each coach’s ties to the Middle East:

…Cleveland’s Blatt—an American-Israeli who served in the Israeli Defense Forces and is on a first-name basis with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—against Golden State’s Kerr, who was born in Lebanon and spent much of his youth in the Middle East, where his father, a respected academic, was killed by the group Islamic Jihad in 1984.

In fact, last June, Kerr interviewed Blatt, who was being considered for an assistant coaching role on Kerr’s staff:

Mark Bartelstein — whose company represents the two, Steve Kerr and David Blatt — had suggested to Kerr that he consider Blatt for an assistant’s position on his coaching staff with the Golden State Warriors. That is how Blatt, returning to the United States from Israel for his father’s funeral last June, found himself sitting opposite Kerr in a quiet spot at Los Angeles International Airport, talking about the game and, Blatt said, “about life in general.”

“The way that I look at it is, especially when I look back to our conversation, is that we both got exactly what we wanted,” Blatt told the AP. “We wanted to be part of a successful team that competes for the championship of the NBA. And it’s happened—only we’re on different sides.”

In the league’s 68 year history, which includes games played under the Basketball Association of America (BAA), 30 coaches have won the NBA championship. Of them, just six coaches won the title in their first year as head coach. The last to do so was Pat Riley with his 1982 Los Angeles Lakers. Riley’s predecessor, Paul Westhead, also took the Lakers to a championship in his first year, though he did so as interim coach.

Before that, one must look back the 1947 championship series—the first between rookie head coaches—when Edward Gottlieb’s Philadelphia Warriors (now the Golden State Warriors), followed by Buddy Jeannette who in 1948 took the Baltimore Bullets to the top in his first year at the helm. So too did John Kundla in 1949 with the Minneapolis Lakers (now in Los Angeles), and George Senesky with the 1956 Philadelphia Warriors.

Illustration by Esther Werdiger. Additional reporting by Jas Chana.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.