It wasn’t long after he moved into a position of power in men’s college basketball that Jamion Christian started brainstorming an event like the one he’ll deliver Wednesday.
Now a young, Black head coach at George Washington University, Christian was a younger coach at Mount St. Mary’s when he came up with the idea that will come to fruition Wednesday as “360 Mentoring,” a virtual event which will feature free-to-watch panel discussions throughout the day on topics, among others, such as “Next Up - The Future of Black Head Coaches” and “Battling Stigmas.”
“I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” said Christian, who coached the Siena College men’s basketball team for the 2018-19 season, in which the Saints finished 17-16 after suffering through an 8-24 campaign the previous season.
The “something like this” is to provide a platform for people of color to share their experiences and knowledge to help others in the world of college athletics. Along with Christian, former Siena head coaches Paul Hewitt and Rob Lanier are among the 40-plus panelists involved in the event. All but one of that group of several dozen speakers, Christian said, is a person of color.
“I’ve been in the situation throughout my life where I’m the only Black person in the room,” Christian said Tuesday in a phone interview.
Christian didn’t intend for his symposium to take place during a stretch of time when social protest has been a fixture of life in the United States for weeks. (It also wasn’t supposed to be a virtual event, since his original vision nearly a year ago was to hold the event on his school’s campus prior to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.) But Christian also sees the timing as fitting for the event his coaching staff is producing.
“What’s been great about the last few weeks,” Christian said, “is seeing the understanding of what being anti-racist is — and understanding those ideals — grow.”
Big-name coaches such as Florida State University’s Leonard Hamilton, Texas’ Shaka Smart and High Point’s Tubby Smith — who won a national championship at Kentucky — are among panelists participating in Wednesday’s event, which can be found at gw360.coachesclinic.com.
Former Siena coaches Hewitt and Lanier are both speaking during Wednesday’s “Battling Stigmas” discussion.
After coaching at Siena, Hewitt — now a scout with the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers — led Georgia Tech to a NCAA championship game and also coached at George Mason. Christian said Hewitt has served as a mentor to him for years.
“Even before I was at Siena,” Christian said. “He’s such a smart guy and he’s so caring. He’s been a tremendous mentor to a lot of people in this business.”
In recent years, Christian said he’s become closer with Lanier, who is now the head coach at Georgia State after spending more than a decade working as an assistant coach following his Siena tenure. While at Mount St. Mary’s, Christian said Lanier was the first person to reach out to him to see if he’d be interested in pursuing the Siena job after Jimmy Patsos resigned following the 2017-18 season.
“I wouldn’t have been at Siena without him,” Christian said of Lanier. “When the Siena job opened up, he called me to see if I was interested in it, and said he’d try to help connect me with the right people.”
At that time, back in 2018, Christian said he didn’t know Lanier well. It stuck with him that Lanier, who is 13 years older than the 38-year-old Christian, sought to help him. Christian has been a Division I head coach since the 2012-13 season and regularly shows up on young-coaches-to-watch lists, but forming connections and relationships are crucial for any coach looking to move up.
That, Christian said, goes extra for a person of color.
“People look at me and my position, and assume it’s been easy,” Christian said. “But it’s navigating in a world that doesn’t want you to navigate.”
According to data provided in “The 2019 Complete Racial and Gender Report Card” released last week from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, only 23.6% of head coaches in men’s basketball at the Division I level were Black, while 53.2% of the players were Black during the 2018-19 season. (Note: That data does not include the programs from historically Black colleges and universities.)
From Wednesday’s event, Christian said he hopes those who participate find inspiration from the day’s message. An optimist, anyway, Christian said he’s found inspiration in recent weeks from seeing the way people from a wide variety of backgrounds have supported protests in support of social justice and racial equality
“That gives me an extreme amount of hope that we can finally expose the systemic racism that’s involved in just about every layer of life, so that it can actually be fair,” Christian said. “So I’m extremely optimistic about that because I think we’ve hit a threshold where people really want that.”