On Sunday in Los Angeles, Dwane Casey will arrive at a summit after 39 years spent climbing. Not that he’ll necessarily acknowledge it as such. Earning the right to be one of the head coaches at the NBA All-Star Game is the kind of shiny bauble that Casey would never claim to be distracted by — not substantive enough. The 60-year-old from small-town Kentucky who took summer jobs in tobacco fields and coal mines growing up has used his passion for basketball to build a career for himself that would have been unimaginable when he was dribbling a basketball around town.
Casey has been in the NBA for 23 years, but had to wait 11 years for his first head-coaching job in Minnesota, where he was fired midway through his second season in 2006–07. After three years as an assistant in Dallas he was hired by then-Raptors president Bryan Colangelo for the 2011–12 season. He’s made good with Raptors. He holds every coaching mark the franchise has, and has meticulously built what he proudly calls a “a program” based on tireless attention to detail. “It may sound boring” is how he often describes his commitment to the little things, but 302 wins later and riding the wave of the best regular season the franchise has ever had, it’s clear Casey might be on to something.
But he won’t be striding the sidelines at the Staples Center alone. The all-star nod is a recognition he shares with his staff — Nick Nurse, who takes care of the Raptors’ increasingly potent offence; Rex Kalamian, 49, who oversees their No. 3–ranked defense; and Jama Mahlalela, who is in charge of “quality control.” Casey’s staff runs deeper than three — the primary assistant coaches are supported by several additional coaches, data analysts and video coordinators who will also make the trip, although they won’t be on the bench. Also, as an added twist, Casey and his crew will be coaching against a couple guys named Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who are playing for Team Stephen while the Raptors coaching staff will be calling the shots for Team LeBron.
CASEY: I already told Kyle and DeMar to get ready for the traps, every time they touch the ball I’m going to make sure we trap their butts.
LOWRY: Hmmm, he’s been talking more [trash] than us. I ain’t listening. Let him talk. Let him talk.
DEROZAN: I can’t wait for Sunday, every time I score I’m going to stare at the coaches for sure. All of them, every single one of them. I’m saying all types of stuff. Every time I score, I’m telling them “I told you all I’m a scorer.” I’m letting them have it.
LOWRY: I can’t wait. I can’t wait. I can’t wait. I don’t gotta hear any of their voices. I can’t wait.
DEROZAN: I know his whole game plan, I’m telling them, “Ain’t nothing working tonight.”
The Raptors staff is unusual in that it has been together for three full seasons while Mahlalela and Nurse are in their sixth and fifth season with Casey, respectively, a remarkable run of continuity in a league where staffs turn over almost annually. The staff is also unusual because the four men don’t have much of a collective history together prior to working as a group in Toronto. Kalamian was an assistant to Casey in Minnesota before spending six seasons working for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but Nurse didn’t know Casey before he was hired by him, and Mahlalela had never coached at a professional level before Casey promoted him from an off-court role with the Raptors.
CASEY: Rex I’ve known for years, since before he was my assistant in Minnesota.
KALAMIAN: The good thing about Coach Casey is he hasn’t altered his approach very much…. I would say from our first job together in Minnesota which is like 13 years ago now, he’s been wildly consistent his approach.
CASEY: [But] I hired Nick out of the G-League — it was kind of random. I was talking to [former Raptors scout] Dave Pendgergraft and he said a guy you ought to look at it Nick Nurse. I said “Who’s that? Who’s Nick Nurse?”
Nurse, a 50-year-old from Carroll, Iowa, was in his fifth season coaching in the G-League (then known as the D-League) after a career that began straight out of college as a player-coach with the now-defunct Derby Storm of the BBL — the British Basketball League. He was guiding the Rio Grande Vipers to the 2013 league title, riding a high-octane three-point-heavy offence when his phone rang.
CASEY: I called him. He was in the championship round in the D-League and I said, “We may have a position open — would you be willing to talk to us after your season was over?”
NURSE: They wanted to talk to me about some offensive stuff and that’s how it started. It was kind of a cold call. It was kind of cool.
CASEY: It was a bit random, but he has an excellent basketball mind, knows the game. I checked him out — nothing but positive reviews.
Mahlalela, 37, is the youngest assistant coach on the staff. He played high school basketball in Toronto at Oakwood Collegiate before suiting up at the University of British Columbia. He was hired by the Raptors to work in community relations in 2006, but former Raptors head coach Jay Triano gave him an opportunity to work out players as well. He then left for two years to work for the NBA in their Hong Kong office before being hired back by Colangelo to work in player development — an off-court role for the 2011–12 season.
MAHLALELA: For one season I was all player development, all working off the court with the players, helping them with what they needed, working with their families — this was during Coach Casey’s first season. And that summer we were sitting in Coach’s office and he was talking about his staff for the following year and he was talking about what he wanted. “I want people who are energetic, great with players, who love what they do, who are passionate about everything they do each and every moment,” and he stopped mid-sentence, looked at me and said: “Would you be interested?”
CASEY: I did, I said that. Jama was here, he was around. His personality is infectious, he relates well to the players, his energy level…
MAHLALELA: He was listing all these qualities he was looking for and I think it kind of occurred to him that hey, “You bring these qualities to work every day.” It was a monumental moment for me. For so long I’d been working on the outside, looking in, and wondering: “Could I ever, could I ever, could I ever….” It was an amazing moment.
Casey lives in Seattle in the off-season and has developed a close relationship with Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and has attended portions of several training camps. Watching how Carroll delegates authority to his assistant coaches and gives them specific roles has informed how he has constructed his Raptors staff.
CASEY: We have an offensive coordinator [Nurse] and a defensive coordinator [Kalamian], and it works. It gives us a coach that specializes in each area of basketball, and Jama keeps me organized as far as practice plans, time, length of drills, whatever. He’s more of the quality-control guy.
MAHLALELA: That’s my title. Quality Control. It’s on a piece of paper somewhere.
CASEY: One thing [delegating] does is guys aren’t hearing my voice all the time. Even though it’s one message going in, I’m not in front of every drill doing every play during every practice and walkthrough.
That’s the same approach we had in Dallas [where Casey worked for Rick Carlisle before coming to Toronto]. Believe me, it keeps everything fresh.
KALAMIAN: He gives me so much freedom defensively to be able to make changes and input different ideas and I’m very thankful for it…. It’s really cool because it puts a lot of responsibility in my hands. This summer we looked at our numbers defensively and he challenged me to come up with a few things that we needed to change. What could we do different to get our pick-and-roll coverage better? What could we do to get our three-point percentage down? I looked at a lot of film and came up with a few ideas that he was on board with.
NURSE: It’s a big deal. What’s happening here, what’s going into game plans, what’s happening on the court, what’s happening late in games, and it’s a big deal and for him to put as much trust as he does in us is really helpful. It’s really fun, but it’s really helpful.
In the bad times it is quite a bit of pressure for an assistant coach, but I always say that even in the bad times I’d rather it that way than some of these guys that are sitting around and I’m not sure what they’re doing, where the head coach is doing everything.
CASEY: The key thing is trust. You have to trust and believe everyone’s heart is synchronized and going the right way and everyone understands their role and no one’s ego gets in the way. One thing that tears a staff up is ego and “mine” and “my idea.” No. It’s ours. It’s all of ours. And at the end of the day it stops with me because if it doesn’t work it’s my fault. It doesn’t matter whose idea it was.
I don’t care if it’s the janitor’s idea — if it helps us win a game, we’re going to go with it.
Casey’s work habits are legendary. Those that travel with the Raptors on the team charter say they’ve never seen him take a nap — his laptop is open the length of the flight, breaking down film, looking for what could have been done better in the game before and learning the tendencies of the opponent to come. That drive has remained constant.
KALAMIAN: He’s still a workaholic, still a guy who is very well prepared for what’s going to happen. He’s still a guy who watches an insane amount of film on the other team and is prepared for the other team’s offence and defence.
MAHLALELA: He’s prepared for everything. I will spend a week on one team when it’s my scout, and he knows stuff I didn’t. I’m like “How did you know that?”, but he just knows stuff. He prepares, he watches film, he’s seen it before, he’s prepared for everything.
NURSE: I’ve learned a lot about preparation from him, the seriousness of attention to detail. He’s been around the league a long time and he’s seen it all. That’s the biggest thing. We have to prepare the players and can’t leave any stone unturned. We have to know everything the other team is doing and really work hard and grind it out.
KALAMIAN: One of the great things about what we’ve been doing this year is how he’s been able to change his philosophy on how he wants to do certain things offensively and defensively and do them a little differently than he has in the past. To me that’s a sign of a well-coached team and a coach that believes in his ability to coach different ways.
There isn’t a coach in the NBA who isn’t a master of the technical side of the game, but interpersonal skills can vary widely. There are salesmen and autocrats; teachers and generals. Some are sincere in their relationships; some view each player as a mere puzzle piece and every dissenting voice as a threat. Casey stands out from the crowd in large measure because he’s a nice guy in a field where being nice is way down the list of job requirements. Even on bad days he’s cordial and approachable, and almost never curt or short. Rude or cutting? Never.
LOWRY: He’s a nice guy. You can’t explain it better than that. He’s genuinely a nice guy, that old-style southern gentleman. He’s just a nice f—ing man — does that make sense?
At first, it’s like, “What’s going on?” It takes a while [to] just be like: “That’s it, that’s really him. That’s what he does. He really is nice.”
That’s the best way I can explain it. He doesn’t have any animosity, he doesn’t hate anybody, he’s never mad. He [only] gets mad on the court, when he’s working.
DEROZAN: Case, outside of basketball, is one of them great individuals — he’s a helluva guy. He’s a great person. With that, everything else that comes with it is golden. But first and foremost he’s a helluva dude. I want to see a guy like Casey have it all.
MAHLALELA: He’s unbelievably consistent as a person. It’s skill; it’s a talent. It’s a human quality that most people don’t have. He can come and be consistent in his message and his delivery each and every day…. He knows how to balance situations. He knows when not to fight, when to fight, when to let things go. He sees it all, he’s aware of everything that’s happening, but he knows how to keep the ship moving. He doesn’t let it get off course.
Casey loves to play up his “country” roots, often with a knowing wink suggesting “city” folks underestimate him at their peril. But his upbringing comes out most often when he drops one old-school saying or another. On a bad shooting night his team “Couldn’t hit the side of the barn with a bass fiddle”; an opponent coming to town off a bad loss will likely have “a burr under their saddle” or be “madder than a wet hen.” After nearly blowing a late lead against Miami Tuesday he said his team was unprepared for the fight — “Like you’re going down a dark alley, [and] here comes a group of guys with baseball bats, and you say, ‘Oh, hey, where’s the baseball game?’”
And in Casey’s world there is always more than one way to skin a cat.
NURSE: Kyle and DeMar love those sayings. They love them.
DEROZAN: It’s always classic. I wish I would have started a book of notes my first year with Case and jot down everything he said because there’s some funny-ass punchlines. He’ll say something and you’ll find us all looking around because it takes a few minutes for it to resonate. It’s crazy how he comes out with them.
NURSE: Some of them are so good everybody freezes. We have no idea what it means and there’s like five seconds of silence and everybody is kind of looking down and usually everyone starts laughing.
My favourite one of all time is “Just because there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there ain’t a fire in the fireplace.” [laughs] What does that mean?
The NBA season is a grind, even with charter travel and five-star hotels. There isn’t a coach or player in the league who wouldn’t love a few days off by the middle of February, but for the Raptors staff being on the sidelines for the All-Star Game is an experience worth missing a little beach time.
KALAMIAN: It’s going to be really, really exciting for me because I get back Los Angeles, where I was born and raised, in front of family and friends…. This is my 24th year in the NBA and I’m lucky enough to be in this position again — this is my third time now. A lot of guys go through their whole career and don’t even get one opportunity.
NURSE: It’s awesome, man — it’s awesome. I’m not sure it’s hit me yet that we’re doing it. You get so kind of engulfed in the day-to-day, but when we get there and ready to go it will be pretty special.
MAHLALELA: When I was playing at Oakwood this wouldn’t even have been a dream, and now I’m doing it. It’s amazing.
Casey has routinely downplayed the All-Star Game honour, pointing out that he’s been there twice before as an assistant to George Karl with the Seattle Supersonics. “I’d rather be on the beach somewhere,” he said in January. But his staff is happy to see him get the recognition they see as well-earned.
MAHLALELA: We’re proud of him. I think he’s that guy that’s worked so hard, been through the NBA rigmarole and toil and now he’s in a place where he’s being recognized as a really good coach. This is one of those recognition pieces — hopefully there will be more to come later on. But we’re proud of what he’s done and we’re proud to be a part of it.
KALAMIAN: It shows consistency breeds success, and that’s what we’ve been able to be here. The consistency of our ownership, of our management — our head coach has allowed the staff and players to be consistent…. We’ve been able to build it over a number of years here. It’s an honour for us and it brings notoriety to a staff that works very hard and is very well prepared for a lot of things throughout the season.
NURSE: I hope it means a lot to him, right? I’m really happy for him; he deserves it…. I’m proud to represent the Raptors organization. I’m sure he is, too.
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