Barbara Barker Newsday sports writer Barbara Barker

Barbara Barker is an award-winning sports features writer and columnist who has covered sports in New York for 20 years. If it’s interesting and different, she writes about it. She has profiled everyone from LeBron James to Eli Manning to the promoter of underground MMA fights in the Bronx. The NBA is her first love as her first gig at Newsday was as a Knicks beat writer. She covered the team’s last appearance in the NBA Finals when she was six months pregnant. Show More

When the Knicks hired Scott Perry as general manager last week and elevated Steve Mills to president, the team became the first NBA franchise to have two African-Americans serving in those top management spots.

This fact, as noted by Perry and Mills, is a bit shocking considering that 80 percent of the NBA’s players last season were people of color and 74.4 percent were classified as African-American or black, according to statistics published last month by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES).

What isn’t shocking, however, is that Perry would be a part of a trailblazing duo, given that the Knicks’ new GM comes from a long line of accomplished trailblazers, starting with his grandfather who was a civic leader and one of the first African-American dentists in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

“The story our dad used to tell is that my grandfather was living in Montgomery, Alabama, and heard about the University of Michigan,” said Lowell Perry Jr., Scott’s older brother. “He had 25 dollars in his pocket, caught a train to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and worked his way through school.”

Scott Perry’s father, Lowell Perry Sr., in 1957 became the first black coach in the NFL since Fritz Pollard in the 1920s when he was named the receivers coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, after his playing career with the Steelers was cut short because of a serious hip injury. Perry Sr. attended law school at Duquesne while working for the Steelers and later was appointed head of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission by President Gerald Ford.

Perry said in Monday’s introductory Knicks news conference that he understands the importance of being part of the first all African-American president/GM team.

“That’s not something lost on me,” Perry said. “I mentioned in my opening about my dad, his history in the game and that being groundbreaking. At the end of the day, we want to be recognized for the quality of individuals we are and what type of job we’ll do to produce a winner in New York regardless of race. But I also would be remiss not to say I don’t understand the gravity of that and embrace the gravity of that. Hopefully, if we’re successful, it will open the doors for other young, aspiring African-Americans who want to have these jobs.”

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Richard Lapchick, the director of TIDES, said the NBA has long been the industry leader among men’s sports for racial and gender hiring practices. Still, in its report card issued at the end of June, TIDES gave the NBA an “F” for racial diversity in both its president/chief executive officer and GM categories.

Out of 30 teams, the NBA currently has five black presidents of basketball operations, including the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Lakers newcomer and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, the Charlotte Hornets’ Fred Whitfield and the Toronto Raptors’ Masai Ujiri. There are now two black GMs: Del Demps of New Orleans and the Knicks’ Perry. Richard Cho, the Myanmar-born GM of Charlotte, is Asian.

The NBA was the first major sports league to have an African-American GM when Wayne Embry was hired in 1972 to run the Bucks and went on to have a long front office career with the Cavaliers and Raptors. Lapchick said some of the downturn this year is “cyclical” but noted that the league needs to improve on its current “F” grade and not let the numbers get as low as they currently are.

He said he believes that most young people would not see race as a barrier to obtaining a GM job in the NBA, but does believe that having two African-Americans heading up the Knicks could encourage talented young minorities to pursue such a career path.

“The optics are strong when you see an African-American president and general manager on a storied franchise,” Lap chick said. “If the Knicks become more successful in the short term, that will help that.”

@NewsdaySports

Well, yes there is that. And this management team does have a lot on its plate as it attempts what will amount to a total rebuild. Yet, when it comes to challenges, righting the Knicks ship can’t be more challenging than some of the obstacles Perry’s father and grandfather faced.