Roy Rana has faced his share of challenges over his unique basketball coaching career.
Competing to be the head coach of the men’s senior national team is just one more long shot.
The Ryerson University bench boss, senior national team assistant and decorated age-group head coach is in the mix as part of a somewhat mysterious search to fill the position recently held by Jay Triano.
Did Triano get fired? It’s a fair question. Not officially is the answer.
But that the head coaching position is open with just six months to go before the FIBA World Cup tips off in China on Aug. 31 was confirmed by Rowan Barrett to Sportsnet after he was elevated to men’s team general manager recently.
Interviews are on-going with a decision expected in early April. All three of the coaches during the World Cup qualifying process – Rana, Gord Herbert and Triano – are under consideration according to Barrett.
But the process is not clear cut.
According to multiple sources, some high profile international candidates are being or have been considered. David Blatt, an American who coached the Russian national team as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers, was first choice but may have pulled out due to back problems. Former Italian national team head coach and San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina is also being interviewed.
A complicating factor? Financial challenges at Canada Basketball mean that the money being offered for the role is minimal or perhaps not even more than an honorarium covering expenses.
That Rana is on the short list marks another step in an unlikely career.
Two decades ago he was coaching troubled high schoolers with drills cribbed from a book. Rana has since become one of the most decorated coaches Canada has ever produced. If given a chance he’ll take it, and – based on track record – run with it.
"This is never something I’ve targeted. I never dreamt I would be a national team coach at any level, forget about the senior team level," Rana said earlier this week. "It’s been a combination of incredible opportunities that have arisen and being successful when those opportunities have come and then getting the next opportunity."
Guiding Canada to its first World Championship appearance since 2010 with an eye toward qualifying for the Olympics for just the second time 30 years next year in Japan would be one more challenge for Rana, whose is used to overcoming them.
At Eastern Commerce High School in downtown Toronto the challenge was to continue a tradition that had preceded him by decades even as the basketball landscape in Toronto was shifting by the day.
The result was four consecutive provincial championships and five in nine years.
At Ryerson it was building a winning program at a school that had never won at anything.
Nine years on and the Rams are a perennial USports powerhouse and have finished on the podium three straight years at the Final 8 among five overall appearances.
As an age-group coach with Canada Basketball, Rana needed to infuse a group of teenagers with the belief that their U-19 entry could be the ones to upset Team USA and pulled it off, earning Canada its first World Championship gold medal at any level in 2017.
He’s been the coach of the World team at the Nike Hoop summit for eight years and has coached every Canadian player in the NBA at the moment and several who are on the way.
Getting Canada over the hump in World Cup qualifying may have been his biggest challenge yet.
With one week’s notice last September he had been given a task where failure was not an option. Rana had coached Canada in one of the first three windows, Gord Herbert – a former national team player who has had a long career coaching in Europe — helmed the second and Triano the third. Canada was in strong position at 5-1; now it was Rana’s job to bring it home.
The catch? The team would be drawn from an ever-shifting pool of what ended up being 36 players, ranging from NBA stars with multi-million dollar contracts to G-Leaguers to European pros to kids who would be pulled out of their USports practices as last-minute replacements.
The games would be played out on two continents with some preposterous travel. And oh, by the way: do the job well and chances are most of the players wouldn’t be able to play on the team that would eventually play in China as roster is expected to be populated by a heavy dose of Canada’s NBA players.
"This was as difficult a team building challenge as I’ve ever had," said Rana. "Everyone was coming in with the mindset of, ‘what is this, what is it going to be, can I trust it?’ So the most important thing was to build that trust in the organization, in the coaching staff and build it very quickly among teams that were constantly changing and shifting.’"
Under Rana’s watch Canada went 5-1 to finish 10-2 and win their group, qualifying easily.
His efforts were noted.
"I was so impressed with Canada because they faced the same challenges we did which was an ever-evolving roster, guys who maybe aren’t going to be part of the World Cup and a coach who may not be the head coach and I was like ‘this guy [Rana] is doing an unbelievable job," said ESPN commentator and long-time NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy, who coached the US national team through the qualifying process. "Technically they are very sound in what they run, the defense they play. They play with a connectedness that is greater than the amount of time they get to practice. It’s impressive."
Almost as interesting as who is being considered for the head coaching role at such a critical moment is who isn’t being interviewed.
Dave Smart, who won his 13th championship in 19 seasons with the Carleton Ravens and who is the head coach of Canada’s under-18 team and a long-time Triano assistant, didn’t get a call.
Similarly Scott Morrison, the only Canadian to win G-league coach-of-the-year and an assistant to Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics, in addition to assistant coach roles with age-group national teams, hasn’t either.
Meanwhile, a number of Canadian coaches are not impressed that Triano has been put in a situation where he has to effectively re-apply for his own job.
"I know he was under the impression last summer that he was the head coach and hadn’t heard anything differently until recently," said one source. "The way this has played out is disrespectful. He’s either your coach or he’s not."
Whoever ends up with the job will be benefitting from the heavy lifting Rana did as he helped Canada over the hump under some adverse conditions, with rosters assembled on the fly with almost unprecedented travel schedules.
When Canada clinched their spot in China with a win on the road in San Paulo, Brazil, some players were putting in a 50-hour return trip.
When Canada beat Brazil in Montreal in September, the five NBA players in the game left to prepare for training camp; everyone else spent the next 24 hours travelling from Montreal to Chile, where they won in a blowout.
Rana said his focus over the last three windows was culture, rather than Xs-and-Os.
"This is a players program, we need to honour players," he said. "Our roles may be different, but our value is the same."
He started the process off with a video he assembled of Canada’s greatest sports moment – from Donovan Bailey’s gold medal in Atlanta to George Chuvalo standing in against Muhammed Ali.
The message: This is your time to make history.
In Montreal in September he had the three players on the roster with NBA championship rings – Joel Anthony, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph – address the team about the need for selflessness in the pursuit of excellence.
Everything was framed around one question: "What did it take to be the best in the world?"
Rana had a presentation put together where the number of international caps earned by each player in camp was high-lighted; one way to capture the contributions of the likes of Brady Heslip (83 caps) compared with Tristan Thompson (34).
"I really tried to share with our guys that this was our opportunity now, to create something really special and inspiring," says Rana. "And if we’re trying to be the best in the world, what is that going to take? Commitment, sacrifice, togetherness, cohesion on the court. All of those things contribute to that. That drove the process every day."
The results played out on the floor as Canada finished with a 10-2 record – tied with Team USA; the best offensive and defensive marks among all teams and a competition-leading point differential of +282.
"It was great coaching because what he has to do is sell them on playing that way, even though they’re not going to directly benefit," said Van Gundy of Rana’s contribution. "And until you’re in that position, you don’t understand just how hard that is … to get those guys to commit and play well and do what they need to do — I’m absolutely in awe of what he was able to do."
Having helped Canada get this far, the question is will Rana get an opportunity to go further, and if not him, then who?