On Tuesday, the Charlotte Hornets named James Borrego its new head coach – a relatively nondescript hire as far as the NBA is concerned, but a meaningful one for aspiring Latino coaches everywhere.
The 40-year-old Albuquerque native joins a select group of Latinos to ever ascend to the NBA head coaching ranks, following the likes of Dick Versace, head coach of the Indiana Pacers from 1988 to 1990, and Earl Watson, who coached the Phoenix Suns from 2015 to 2017.
But while Versace and Watson both stepped into interim positions within their organizations before staying on full-time, Borrego was an external hire – and a highly sought after one at that – representing another milestone for Latino basketball coaches. Borrego had recently been linked to head coaching vacancies in New York, Phoenix, and Milwaukee, and reportedly turned down the opportunity to coach at the University of New Mexico in 2017.
Raised by his mother, Lydia, in a single-parent household in New Mexico, Borrego made the move from playing to coaching shortly after college. He’s spent most of his career with the San Antonio Spurs, beginning as an assistant video coordinator in 2003 before making his way up to assistant coach, working alongside future Hall of Famer Gregg Popovich. In between stints in San Antonio, Borrego also worked as an assistant coach in New Orleans and Orlando, assuming interim head coaching duties for the Magic after the firing of then-head coach Jacque Vaughn.
Popovich has spoken fondly of Borrego’s contributions through the years: “He basically made us smarter… Now when one of our film guys screws something up, we’ve got J.B.’s number on speed dial.”
While assistant coaches can only do so much to distinguish themselves from their peers, the Hornets quickly grew fond of Borrego, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski: “Borrego made a strong impression in his interview with Mitch Kupchak, the Hornets’ new president of basketball operations and general manager. Kupchak became more intrigued once he started to canvass NBA executives, coaches and players who have worked with Borrego, sources told ESPN.”
In Charlotte, Borrego inherits a team in a challenging position, having missed the playoffs two seasons in a row and with relatively few ways to markedly improve. Local writers have made note of the unique challenges facing the incoming head coach, highlighting the new faces in the front office and potentially new direction for a franchise that may need to get worse before it can get better.
The good news for the Hornets and Borrego: History is on his side. More specifically: The history of basketball minds that have been developed within the Spurs organization. Another longtime Spurs assistant, Mike Budenholzer rose through the same San Antonio ranks as a video coordinator before being hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. Budenholzer went on to win the NBA Coach of the Year Award in 2015 and led the Hawks to its best record in team history.
Former assistant coach Brett Brown left the organization at the same time as Budenholzer to become the head coach of the then-struggling Philadelphia 76ers, leading them to a 52-win season in 2017-18. Other great minds, like Warriors coach Steve Kerr, are also considered disciples of Popovich, whose coaching tree continues to grow with the Borrego’s hiring.
Coaching requires patience, both in the day-to-day sense, as well as in the long run when it comes to career opportunities. Not every assistant gets a shot to become the head coach of one of the league’s 30 teams, and that’s without going into the minimal representation Latino coaches have had over the years. Borrego is already making history by stepping into his new seat; he’ll soon have the chance to add to it.