SN Magazine: Sweet agony for Raptors

April 23, 2012, 3:30 PM

Author’s note: Dwane Casey’s first season at the helm of the Toronto Raptors wasn’t pretty. His team was young and unproven, but through the many moments of darkness you could see the light. The players—specifically DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson—were buying into their new coach’s philosophy. Being around the team you could feel the franchise turning a corner. I followed the Raptors throughout the 2011-12 season for this story for the May 7, 2012 issue of Sportsnet magazine, and nearly two years later, Casey’s words are almost prophetic. Turns out “Pound the rock” WAS more than a catchy slogan after all.

AS THE DREARY FEBRUARY SNOW falls outside Boston’s TD Garden, inside the Celtics are going to work on the Toronto Raptors. With his team already up 25 points in the dying minutes of the third quarter, Celtics guard Ray Allen slithers through a pair of screens set by teammates Jermaine O’Neal and Brandon Bass and calmly sinks an open three from the wing—his second of the game—putting Boston up 77-49.

Dwane Casey has seen enough. Just one third into his first season as the head coach of the Raptors and less than a year removed from winning a championship as the defensive guru of the Dallas Mavericks, Casey calls a timeout, but it’s too late. The Raps go on to lose 100-64. It’s the only time in his 40-plus years in basketball that Casey can remember taking such a beating. In the Raptors locker room, his message to his team is simple: “For the rest of your basketball career, remember how this feels tonight.”

For the 54-year-old steely-eyed coach, the loss was a splash of cold water in the face, the sudden realization of the long road ahead and the challenges of turning essentially the same roster that ranked dead last in team defence a season earlier into a defence-oriented group. “I didn’t sleep much that night,” Casey says.

In late March, two months and 29 games later, Casey’s concerns from that Boston game are still fresh in his mind. “Boston beat us like we stole something,” he says, contorting his body into a seat in the upper deck of an otherwise empty Air Canada Centre. “I just didn’t see the fight that night, and I didn’t know if we could ever get it back again. I didn’t know our mental toughness and hadn’t been through it with them before. Now that I know our guys, I have a better understanding of what we are about, and I trust them to bounce back.”

The previous night, Casey had watched what has become a much more typical effort from his Raptors, losing a closely contested duel with the powerhouse Miami Heat. Despite being comically overmatched in terms of talent, the young Raps hung in with Miami, overcoming a 16-2 first-quarter deficit to tie the game heading into the final frame before withering under the Heat’s shutdown defence. “I’m not satisfied because we didn’t get the win,” says Casey, “but it makes me feel good because I see the big picture, and I see growth and that’s what I want my guys to understand. There will come a moment when we’re going to be judged on wins and losses.”

That moment was never going to come this season. GM Bryan Colangelo and Raptors ownership gave Casey the ball back in June, knowing that it needed more than a little air before it would bounce. It’s been four years since the Raptors have seen the post-season, and without playoff basketball on the horizon the fairweather fans of Toronto have been staying away in droves after years of top-10 attendance levels. The hope in bringing in Casey was that the young, impressionable Raps would adopt his identity—resilient, tough and accountable. If anything, the Raptors exceeded expectations, and had it not been for an early-season injury to Andrea Bargnani, may have even challenged for a post-season spot in the lacklustre Eastern Conference. That the team responded so quickly to what Casey preached—ranking as high as fifth defensively early on before finally settling around the middle of the pack—has been a surprise and should go a long way in guiding Colangelo through the most important off-season in franchise history. Forget rebuilding; the Raps are starting from scratch. It won’t be a quick fix, but in Casey, the biggest cornerstone is already in place.

HE REMEMBERS THE RIDE like it was yesterday, the two-hour round trip south down Hwy. 294 in Kentucky from Morganfield to Princeton, home of the University of Kentucky Research and Education Center. It was 1973, early in his senior year of high school, and a 17-year-old Casey sat behind the wheel of a big, black Buick. The car belonged to former U.S. senator and Kentucky governor, Earle C. Clements, who was riding shotgun on his way to a speaking engagement at the university. Casey, whose grandmother worked as a domestic servant for the then-retired governor, had been driving Clements to engagements like this more and more frequently of late, and had come to genuinely enjoy the time spent with the man nearly 60 years his senior.

Looking back on that trip, Casey can clearly recall discussing the recent racial integration of universities and athletic programs in the state. Clements spoke of Greg and Dwight Smith, the first two African-Americans to play basketball at the University of Western Kentucky, and how he knew their father. They also talked about integration at the University of Kentucky, where only a few years earlier, in 1970, the storied program welcomed Tom Payne, its first African-American basketball player. It was a topic particularly close to Casey’s heart. Today, the memories of growing up in a segregated Kentucky are as vivid as ever—watching the Ku Klux Klan show up in full regalia when civil rights activist Dick Gregory came to his hometown, waiting outside in the car for food behind a whites-only restaurant, and his first years at Morganfield Dunbar, an all-black elementary school. When Casey was in the fourth grade, school segregation was abolished, and he began making the daily trip across town to the former all-white school. “Every day I had to fight,” Casey says. “The first couple of months were tough; I had to establish who I was.”

And so it was particularly rewarding when, in 1975, as a freshman, Casey became just the fifth African-American player to suit up for the Kentucky Wildcats. His team won the NIT championship that season, and by 1978, with Casey as a senior point guard and team captain, the Wildcats upset the favoured Duke Blue Devils in the national title game. “Even at that time there was a faction in Kentucky who felt like we had too many African-Americans,” he says. “At that time, all I wanted to do was play basketball; I didn’t know if they were white, purple or green. But looking back over history, I see that now Kentucky is primarily an all-African American team, top to bottom, and people don’t think twice about it. That was a big change for a lot of people. It feels good to be a part of that.”

Casey learned years later from former University of Kentucky president Dr. Otis A. Singletary that, even before the ride to Princeton, it was Governor Clements who had phoned to recommend Casey’s admission to Kentucky. “It lets me know that I was carrying myself the right way,” Casey says. “As you get older, as a father, you hope your kids can make that kind of impression on somebody who will say, ‘Hey, here’s a guy that you want, a guy of character, got his head tied on right, a good student, a good basketball player,’ whatever it is.”

All of that is precisely what the Raptors saw in Casey, what made them want to bring him aboard last summer. Around 1:30 a.m. on June 12, just hours after winning the 2011 title, as Mavs owner Mark Cuban was buying the players and coaching staff novelty-sized bottles of champagne at a club in South Beach, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle snuck outside and, like Clements before him, placed a phone call on Casey’s behalf—this time to Bryan Colangelo. Carlisle stressed that of all the candidates the Raptors were considering in the wake of Jay Triano’s firing, Casey was the man for the job. And considering Casey had already interviewed twice with both the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors during the playoffs, the Raptors had to act fast. Colangelo and Casey met the following morning. “I was very impressed with Dwane’s presence,” says Colangelo when looking back on the meeting. “He had been through a lot and fought through difficult times, and you have to admire anyone who gets here the hard way. I really felt that he would be the right leader for our young team.”

IT’S DAY 3 OF TRAINING CAMP under Casey, and if you’re wearing a jersey, the Raptors practice court is a grueling place to be. DeMar DeRozan takes a dribble and ricochets off the heavily padded arm of assistant coach Eric Hughes on his way to the hoop; at an adjacent basket, second-year forwards Ed Davis and James Johnson are locked in a heated game of one-on-one; Amir Johnson alternately swishes 18-footers across the gym, then lifts kettle bells in the weight room, where Andrea Bargnani and José Calderón go through a series of elaborate exercises. Very little is expected of this group-Toronto’s de facto core-and the Raptors coaching staff know they have their work cut out for them in bringing them up to standard.

That might help to explain the 1,300-lb. boulder Casey had the team place inside the entranceway of the Raptors locker room when he first got to Toronto. It serves as a tangible reminder of Casey’s philosophy, “Pound the Rock,” from writer Jacob Riis’s story of a stonecutter unable to penetrate a stubborn slab. He chisels away at it a hundred times without leaving a mark. But on the 101st hit, the stone splits in two. Pound the rock and good things will happen.

As the practice session wraps up—the first of two scheduled for the day—an exasperated Amir Johnson and new Raptor Gary Forbes, an undrafted Brooklyn native with a chip on his shoulder, drag their bodies into an elevator headed down to the locker room. There’s an awkward silence until Johnson lets out a big groan. “Man, I’m tired,” he says. Forbes doesn’t miss a beat. “You can sleep when you’re dead,” he deadpans.

It’s a fighter’s mentality shared by many of the players Colangelo brought in on one-year deals to help facilitate the transition this season, but perhaps none more so than Jamaal Magloire, the bruising, physical Toronto-born centre and 11-year veteran whose locker, by design, sits immediately next to the team’s training area, forcing the younger Raptors to walk by. More than once this season, Magloire let his presence be known from the bench, jawing with opposing players, pointing at himself as if to say, “Remember, you have to go through me first.” Which is exactly what Casey wants. “That’s the type of mentality we want to bring in,” the coach says. “You add those around your skilled players, and that’s the kind of toughness we need going forward.”

But the season was already off to a rough start thanks to the lockout, during which Casey was restricted from talking to his new players for six months. Instead he watched hours upon hours of tape from the previous campaign, coming to grips with the glaring weaknesses on defence. When an abbreviated training camp finally began on Dec. 5, just two weeks before pre-season games were scheduled, Casey and his staff devoted more than 80 percent of their time to the defensive end of the floor, mainly teaching fundamentals—footwork, rotations, stance.

Casey learned the importance of going back to the basics while coaching in Japan under the legendary Pete Newell in 1989. There, Casey would travel by bus from city to city and listen intently, notebook in hand, as Newell talked basketball into the wee hours of the morning.

Casey fell in love with coaching as a graduate assistant under Joe B. Hall at Kentucky, who persuaded him to give it a try instead of taking a hospital administration job out of college. In addition to Newell and Hall, Casey worked with a murderers’ row of highly respected coaches. There was Clem Haskins at Western Kentucky, who taught Casey the difference between coaching players at the collegiate and NBA levels. He picked up his defensive principles from Eddie Sutton at Kentucky and watched George Karl’s creativity first-hand with the Gary Payton-led Seattle SuperSonics teams of the early ’90s. While learning from the greats, he also brought his own life experiences into his coaching, priding himself on his ability to communicate with players regardless of their background. Through it all he took notes with the same diligence that made him a first-team all-academic player in college. His wife, Brenda, wants him to throw them out, but he can’t part with the boxes and boxes of notebooks sitting in storage—course materials in what he calls his “master’s degree in coaching.”

THERE ARE SEVEN SECONDS left in the game, and after blowing an 18-point lead, the Los Angeles Lakers are down 92-91 in front of a packed house at the ACC on a Sunday afternoon in February. Lakers forward Metta World Peace inbounds the ball in front of the Raptors bench. Everyone knows it’s going to Kobe Bryant, who’s double-teamed by DeRozan and James Johnson. As Bryant gets the ball, Casey is screaming instructions from the sideline, standing in a perfect defensive stance, arms outstretched as if he’s the Raptors’ sixth defender. You’d be hard-pressed to find a coach in the history of the franchise as animated in games as Casey. That can be partly attributed to a lack of practice time due to the lockout and the reality that, in his mind, every play is a teaching moment. But he’s also trying to instill an attention to detail and a standard of performance that has to be met on a constant basis.

Not that it makes a difference on this day. Bryant fakes to his right, leaving both Raptors in his wake, takes a step toward the corner and nails a turnaround jumper with 4.2 seconds remaining. The Raptors never recover. “You could just feel that game melting away,” Casey says. “That was stereotypical of our season. We take three steps forward and one step back, or two steps back.”

This season, the Raptors lead the NBA in games decided by two possessions or less. “People will look at that from a negative perspective,” says Raptors TV analyst Jack Armstrong, “but based on the talent level here, I look at it and say you’re that much closer to winning.” Casey concedes there’s still plenty of work to be done, but notes it’s still “ground zero” in the program. “To be in some of these games with some of these teams we’re playing,” he says, “my hat is off to these guys. We’re playing against multiple all-stars, and our guys are just trying to get their feet wet in this league.” Especially true as the season winds down and the Raptors trot out a series of Development League call-ups, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with the likes of Justin Dentmon, Ben Uzoh and Alan Anderson. With six games left in the season and that group playing nearly 80 minutes combined, the Raptors held off the surging Boston Celtics at home, 84-79, without Calderón or Bargnani in the lineup. For Casey it was sweet revenge after the early-season embarrasment in Boston. More importantly, it vindicated his work through the campaign; his guys were playing hard and had adopted his defensive identity.

Which, Colangelo says, has pleasantly surprised the organization. “We were more competitive than anybody anticipated,” he says. “We learned that our personnel can play better defence than we originally thought. More importantly, defence can be taught.”

And the rest of the NBA is already taking notice. “It used to be that you never really thought you were going to have much of a problem scoring in [Toronto],” said Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. “You’re in for a fight every single night when you play them. [Casey] has done as good of a job as anybody in the league this year.”

YES, THERE ARE MORE THAN A FEW HICCUPS along the way, but it’s too easy to write this season off as another failure based on wins and losses. It’s the sobering reality of where the Raptors are right now—what Colangelo calls “Year 2 since we officially began to reconstruct our team.” It’s a remaking that comes as a result of a series of swings and misses in recent years: trading the draft rights to Roy Hibbert for Jermaine O’Neal in 2008; the $53-million Hedo Türkoglu signing in ’09—the franchise’s biggest off-season acquisition to that point; letting Chris Bosh defect to Miami without significant compensation. Those moves would set any franchise back, but can be particularly devastating for some more than others.

In NBA circles they call it “negative recruiting,” the fine art of using everything at your disposal to dissuade a free agent from signing with a particular team. And with regards to Toronto, opposing GMs are always quick to point out the presence of the Canadian Shield—not the 8,000,000 square kilometres of Precambrian rock, but the notion that players are somehow doing themselves a disservice when they cross the 49th parallel and suit up for the NBA’s lone Canadian franchise. Whether it’s concerns over the weather, taxes, the metric system or a lack of U.S. exposure, there is a league-wide myth that makes it harder to attract big-name free agents. “It just baffles me,” says former Raptor and current NBA analyst Jalen Rose. “Toronto really gets a bad rap because it’s the only team in Canada, so that makes it an anomaly. That means from a personnel standpoint, it’s very important not to miss: not to miss on trades, on signings, on the draft.”

It’s what makes this off-season the most crucial in franchise history. Aside from an upcoming lottery pick, Colangelo has nearly $18 million in cap space at his disposal. He and Casey have had a season to evaluate the current roster and how individuals fit into the coach’s system, and they’ve liked what they’ve seen: José Calderón quietly had one of his strongest seasons as a pro, essentially playing his way into the Raptors’ future plans; DeRozan showed himself again to be a capable scorer, if likely miscast as a primary option; Casey admires Amir Johnson’s hustle, and can see sophomore forward James Johnson one day becoming a defensive anchor; Bargnani responded to Casey’s demands better than anybody, becoming far more vocal and active on defence and finally showing fans that he is a piece you can build around, which has been in doubt since he was selected first overall by Colangelo in 2006. For the first few weeks of the season Bargnani looked like an all-star, averaging an efficient 23.5 points to go along with nearly seven boards, before a calf injury forced him to sit out 26 games. It was a huge blow. The Raptors were 7-7 with him in the lineup and struggled mightily to maintain an offensive punch in his absence. On April 13, the team shut him down for good as his calf continued to give him problems, but he proved his worth, and his $10-million salary next season is starting to look like a bargain.

This summer, Casey wants Colangelo to add physical, aggressive, defence-minded guys and veteran leadership to complement his skilled players. One of those pieces is already in place. Jonas Valanciunas, the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft, has been stowed away in his native Lithuania. Optimistic Raptors fans picture him like Ivan Drago, strapped into all sorts of wires and beeping machines while uttering phrases like “I will crush him” and “If he dies, he dies.” Which might not be too far off.

At just 19, the six-foot-11 centre has decimated competition overseas, helping the Lithuanian national team to three international gold medals in three different age groups in the past four years. He was named MVP each time, which helps explain why earlier this year Colangelo’s peers collectively voted Valanciunas the best player outside the NBA. More importantly, he’s the type of player Casey craves. “His game is playing aggressively under the basket: running the floor, setting picks, blocking shots,” explains Maurizio Gherardini, the Raptors’ vice-president of international scouting. “He fits perfectly with the principles Casey is trying to instill.” And, by total coincidence, Valanciunas’s coach this past season in Lithuania, Aleksandar Džikic, was an assistant under Casey in Minnesota a few years back during Casey’s first stint as a head man, and teaches the same defensive principles. “There will always be a transition [coming from Europe],” says Gherardini, “but there are a lot of factors in making that transition as smooth as possible.”

Which is great, says Casey, but, just as they’ve been since his meeting with Colangelo after winning the championship about a year ago, his eyes are firmly set on the big picture. “We’re not trying to just win a game. We want to get better. We want to build something for the future, a foundation. And if it’s anything less than that then we shouldn’t be in the business.

“We’re not going to be satisfied until we’re fighting for the fifth or sixth spot in the playoffs, fighting for seeding.”

Heading into this season, the party line was about changing the culture, and Casey succeeded. Given all Colangelo has to work with this summer, the roster should be improved next season, but it will still take time before the Raptors are relevant again, let alone where their coach wants them to be. With tempered expectations after Bosh’s departure, Colangelo was afforded a fair bit of slack, but that will disappear quickly, especially if the team doesn’t start creeping toward .500 and into playoff contention by next year. “Is it pie in the sky? I don’t think so,” Casey says. “We have some good pieces, we have cap flexibility, and the approach of defence first is a playoff mentality. ‘Pound the Rock’ is more than a catchy slogan.”

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