The Blazers announced Chauncey Billups as their new head coach on Tuesday afternoon, and with it the organization sent an even more important message: The NBA’s glass ceiling is alive, well, and thriving.
Billups, with a single year of assistant coaching experience to his name, was given the job over Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, who’s spent the last seven years working under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio — learning from one of the greatest basketball minds in the history of the sport. Another near-miss for Hammon, whose inclusion in hiring processes is beginning to feel more and more like a calculated PR move by teams, rather than actually being considered a serious candidate.
Hiring Billups is perhaps the most brazen and stark reminder of the mountains women have to overcome to break into NBA coaching circles, rather than their male counterparts. Especially considering the Blazers needed to immediately go into overdrive to defend Billups, who in 1997 was credibly accused of sexual assault when he was a rookie with the Celtics.
Public backlash began a week ago, when discussion of the assault allegations against Billups resurfaced. In 1997 a woman alleged that Billups, along with former teammate Ron Mercer and another man assaulted her. Criminal charges were not filed, however medical reports supported her claims. Billups and Mercer would go on to settle a civil suit with their accuser in 2000.
When Jason Quick of The Athletic asked about the incident at Billups’ introductory press conference, the Blazers shut down the conversation entirely — claiming it was “asked an answered,” despite not being asked, or answered.
The complete lack of transparency, and having Blazers PR step in to shut down a reporter asking a legitimate question of interest to fans and the community is reprehensible. People who put their time, effort and money into supporting a team deserve to better understand the process of putting someone in a position of power, especially someone who has a sexual assault allegation in his past.
However, when asked directly, GM Neil Olshey’s response was quite literally “take our word for it.”
I asked Neil Olshey for more details about the investigation. “That’s proprietary, Sean. You’re just going to have to take our word that we hired an experienced firm that led us to the results we already discussed.”
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) June 29, 2021
No Neil, nobody should take your word for it. You, as the general manager of a team have a responsibility to the bare minimum, which in this case would be to explain how the organization reached the decision, and which outside firm looked into the allegations. By speaking around the issue there’s no other conclusion to be reached than the Blazers have something to hide, and that makes this so, so much worse than it already is.
We have to start speaking more about how those in positions of power in sports want to control the message and dodge scrutiny at all costs. If most general managers and owners had their way there would be no independent media to question them. No post-game press conferences. No occasions to ever answer for questionable decisions. The only media coming from an organization would be the sanitized, company-line towing team website, churning out articles about how everything is perfect and rosey, like the dog sipping tea in his burning kitchen.
There are almost no occasions in life where, when scrutinized, you should “take someone’s work for it,” especially someone in a position of authority.
The incident in Billups’ past is deeply concerning, and people have a right to be concerned. The coach said the incident “shaped him,” and there was an actual opportunity for Billups to show his work. How did the allegations change his perspective? In what ways did settling a sexual assault case mould him over the past 21 years? By stopping Billups from answering, and cloistering him away from scrutiny the Blazers made a questionable decision feel duplicitous. Now they owe answers, real answers to fans and the city about why they felt the need to tell a reporter “take our word for it” when it comes to a sexual assault allegation.
Let’s face it: Men have benefitted from having the world “take their word for it” for decades, which helped lead to the entire Me Too movement as a whole.
And still, in the background of this dumpster fire, remains Becky Hammon. The other candidate. The one with the pedigree, and the player endorsements, working for an organization with more sustained success than any other in professional basketball. Once again passed over, once again for a man whose resume isn’t as strong as hers. This time with the sting of her competition needing an entire support structure, independent investigation and PR team behind him.
Why did Neil Olshey and the Blazers hire Billups knowing his baggage and the public response looming on the horizon over Becky Hammon? It’s difficult to come up with a decent justification. I guess you’re going to have to take their word for it.