Raptors 905 coach Jama Mahlalela continues blazing path for Canadians

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse comments on winning without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup.

TORONTO – Jama Mahlalela has always been able to get people to follow his lead.

As a senior at Toronto’s Oakwood Collegiate in 1998-99 he was not only a key member of the school’s highly regarded basketball program, he was student council president. There was a looming labour dispute between the teachers and the province and Mahlalela felt it important that the students make a statement of support for the school’s staff.

He huddled with the class representatives and came up with a plan: he would lead a walkout.

Coincidentally he had a coach from the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds coming to see his game that afternoon. They came expecting to look at a 6-foot-3, hard-working wing, instead they saw Mahlalela leading hundreds of teenagers out of school.

“I organized it with all the classes and we agreed that at 2:20 in the afternoon we would all get up and walk out in support of our teachers,” he said, laughing, in the hallways of Scotiabank Arena recently.

More impressive? He led them back in.

“That was key,” he said. “Because if we just walked out it would be, ‘Aw, these kids just cut school,’ but the fact we walked back in was significant.

“But [my coach] was like, ‘What is going on?’ We had a game that afternoon and he’s watching this student uprising thing in the middle of the day, it was pretty funny.”

Getting people to follow his lead will take on a new meaning beginning Monday.

Mahlalela is the newest head coach of Raptors 905 – the Toronto Raptors G-League team, based in Mississauga – and he has never been a head coach before, unless you count a brief stint as player-coach of his middle school team. And he’s never played professionally either, although as a T-birds captain he helped UBC to a Canada West title in 2003. And he’s Canadian, by way of Swaziland.

It’s not your average biography for an NBA assistant coach or a head coach in the development league, where the 905 are the only Canadian team.

But Mahlalela has always been willing to step to the front and generate support for a cause.

“To be a leader you have to empower other people,” he said. “… Leadership to me is not yelling and screaming and hollering, it’s learning about people, it’s finding their strengths and putting the puzzle pieces together. That’s leadership in sports to me.”

Mahlalela’s elevation to a head coaching job is the latest step in his rise within the Raptors organization that has both been slow and steady and seemingly rapid all at once; it’s also another milestone for Canadian coaching.

The story of Canada’s increasing presence in the NBA has been an ongoing one for nearly a decade now. The presence of the Raptors in Canada’s biggest city; the galvanizing effect of Vince Carter on a generation of young players and Steve Nash’s example of what is possible – along with a growing minor basketball infrastructure – have all made Canada one of the deepest wells of talent the NBA has. There are more Canadians on NBA rosters (13, including those on two-way contracts) than from any other country outside of the U.S. and the prospective 2019 draft class may be the deepest yet.

But Mahlalela represents another trend, although one that is predictably developing a little more slowly: the rise of Canadian coaches.

In 2002-03 Jay Triano made history when he was the first Canadian to earn an assistant coaching role as the former national team star joined Lenny Wilken’s staff. Triano lasted through three head coaches with the Raptors and made his mark again when he became the first Canadian head coach in league history, taking over from Sam Mitchell early in the 2008-09 season, running an NBA bench for 229 games over three seasons.

He then went on to earn lead assistant roles in Portland and Phoenix, was an interim head coach with the Suns last year and is marking his 17th year in the NBA as an associate head coach with the Charlotte Hornets, who are in Toronto for a Monday night matchup with the 3-0 Raptors.

Joining Triano on the bench in Charlotte is former 905 assistant coach Nate Mitchell, while Scott Morrison of Morrell, P.E.I. is in his second year as an assistant to Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics. Add in the profile USports coaches Dave Smart (Carleton Ravens) and Roy Rana (Ryerson Rams) have earned for their own programs and their roles with Canada Basketball and the standard for Canadian coaching might be at an all-time high.

“I think Jay started the trend,” said Mahlalela. “He opened the door for all of us and then I think was No. 2 — I was the second Canadian NBA assistant coach and now we have Scott and Nate and that number is going to keep ticking every single year, I think.”

Mahlalela wants to do his part to help the Canadian coaching tree sink its roots. Given a wide latitude to build his staff, four of his six assistant coaching positions are held by Canadians:

• Charles Kissi took over a labouring Brock University program in 2013 and elevated it to championship contender in short order.

• Trevor Pridie, an assistant coach at University of the Fraser Valley who developed a relationship with Nurse during Raptors training camp visits to Vancouver and who got on the club’s radar with video and analytics research projects he’d send along on spec.

• Charles Dube-Brais, who coached for the since-folded Quebec Kebs in the now defunct American Basketball Association and has since coached at the professional level in France and China.

• Arsalan Jamil, a former USports player at Ryerson, an engineering graduate and most recently Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s executive assistant.

As well the 905 has two mentor coach positions being filled by Canadians – former Canadian Olympian Tamara Tatham and Justin Alliman, a skills development coach based in Mississauga.

“I’m looking for the best coaches, but I’m looking across the board, where a lot of time the talent pool is only drawn from the U.S.,” Mahlalela said. “So let’s open the doors [to Canadians] let’s find a way to get their foot in and let them grow.”

A network matters but so does evidence that it can be done.

“I don’t know if we’re role models,” said Morrison, who was a head coach at Lakehead University before he turned an internship program with the Celtics into a budding NBA career.

“But maybe someone out there is looking and saying, ‘Hey maybe I can make it’ and they’ll see us and go for it.”

Mahlalela got his start with the Raptors doing community relations – running camps and clinics – in 2006. At the time he’d just graduated from teacher’s college and had been an assistant coach at the University of Toronto and chose the Raptors position over a teaching job at Oakwood.

When Triano was made head coach in 2008 he included Mahlalela in skills development, his first on-court role. He then left the Raptors to lead the NBA’s outreach program in Asia, based in Hong Kong, before former Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo hired him to work in off-court player development – working with the players and their families to make sure their needs are covered in the city for the 2012-13 season.

After that year Casey, looking for a young and energetic voice for his coaching staff, offered him a job.

“We were sitting in [Casey’s] office and he was talking about what he wanted for his staff — ‘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?’”

Mahlalela’s been on the bench of his hometown NBA team ever since, bringing what has become his trademark blast of energy and sincerity.

“He’s a very personable, high-energy guy,” said fourth-year Raptors wing Norm Powell. “I remember my draft day workout I came in and I was wondering ‘Who is this guy?’ He was running around yelling, ‘Let’s go, work,’ clapping his hands. He fuelled me a little bit in that workout and he’s done that ever since I’ve been here. He’s been the coach I go to, he’s always worked closely with me, he’s a very intelligent guy and he’s worked his way up the ranks of the Raptors organization and he really cares about his players.”

He became the first Canadian to coach at the NBA all-star game last February but four months later was in limbo after Casey was fired. Married with two toddlers, he had just bought a new house and was suddenly out of a job.

“You’re left wondering what’s going to happen and where are we going to be and wondering, ‘Am I going to go back to being a teacher at my old high school?’” he said. “You’re not sure.”

When the Raptors hired Nurse it boded well for Mahlalela. The two men had become close in five years as assistant coaches under Casey. The question was whether he would join Nurse’s staff or take the head coaching role with the 905, vacated when Jerry Stackhouse left for the Memphis Grizzlies.

It was judged that becoming a head coach was his next step in his development and his hiring was made official in July.

“When I was first entering the ranks being a Canadian was a different thing and you felt like you owed a thank you for being let in the door,” Mahlalela said.

“And now it’s: Who are the best people? Who are the best coaches, not Canadian coaches, but the best coaches?

“That’s where a lot of us are trying to get to.”

He’s on a path that only a few Canadians have been on before and – as he’s been doing since high school – hopeful that others will follow.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.