His NBA career can only be measured in weeks, not years, but already Sacramento Kings assistant coach Roy Rana has had his share of “pinch me” moments — times when the kid who grew up at Bloor and Lansdowne, taught at Jane and Finch and made his mark in coaching on the east side of downtown Toronto can’t quite believe where he’s landed.
Just the other night he was working the same sidelines as Pat Riley and Red Holzman under the famous theatre-style lighting at Madison Square Garden.
Last month he was in his ancestral home, visiting the Taj Mahal as part of the NBA’s first exhibition game in India. And on Wednesday night he’ll be courtside at Scotiabank Arena coaching for the second time in his career.
It will be the first time as an assistant coach, he jokes – he made his sideline debut at what was then the Air Canada Centre when he was the head coach at Eastern Commerce High School against West Hill.
His record? 1-0.
But perhaps the most surreal moment of Rana’s improbable journey from a high school teacher working with the troubled kids at Westview Secondary to assistant coach and chief of staff under Luke Walton with the Kings happened Tuesday afternoon.
The Kings had two days in Toronto and wanted a proper facility to run a full-scale practice on the road.
“Leave it with me,” Rana said. “I know a guy.”
And so there was the former Canadian national team head coach at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre with Drake bumping at full volume, doing what he’s done on that campus for the past 10 years and where he built the nondescript program into a U Sports powerhouse. The difference was there was $115-million worth of NBA players going through their paces.
“We did a moment of mindfulness before practice and my thought was how much gratitude I have for how much this place has given me,” said Rana. “So it’s special to share it with all our guys, to get a chance to share it with our team, [and for] our guys to show them where I’ve come from.”
It’s been quite a journey. Rana is one of four Canadians on NBA coaching staffs this season, joining Jay Triano and Nathanial Mitchell (Charlotte) and Scott Morrison (Boston). Jama Mahlalela – formerly as assistant coach with Dwane Casey in Toronto – is the head coach for Raptors 905 in the G-League.
But Rana is the first U Sports head coach to graduate directly to the NBA and the first high school head coach from Toronto’s vibrant grassroots hoops scene to make it to the big leagues.
Having his NBA team practice at Ryerson in the heart of downtown was the definition of full circle.
“It was nice to be able to come practice here,” said Walton, who had never met Rana before being introduced this summer on the recommendation of a mutual friend.
“You can tell he has a lot of pride in this city and coming back here. He’s been on cloud nine. We’ve been teasing him a little bit, but I’m happy for him.”
Rana’s happy his path might light a way for others. It didn’t happen overnight.
He earned his stripes as the only head coach of Canadian age group team to medal internationally twice – a bronze at the under-16 worlds in 2011 and gold with the under-19s in 2017. He has coached the World Team at the Nike Hoop Summit since 2011. He steadily fostered relationships and has been a summer league guest with the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks over the years, but making it on to an NBA bench –- the most exclusive coaching club on the planet — is a massive hurdle to climb.
“What’s been really cool is the grassroots support I’ve got – my guys from Jane and Finch or inner-city Toronto,” Rana said. “A lot of people from diverse backgrounds who never thought they’d have access to something like this – that’s been really cool that maybe someone from those communities thinks they might be able to do this now. It’s nice to inspire the grassroots scene because I’m a product of it.”
Even now that he’s in the league, Rana’s path is a little different. It’s believed his chief of staff title is an NBA first for an assistant coach.
In addition to his typical duties – preparing and presenting scouting reports on upcoming opponents, contributing to strategic planning and in-game adjustments and doing skill development with individual players – Rana’s role was developed to help Walton efficiently work through the growing amount of information available to an NBA head coach.
Rana works as a pivot point with the Kings’s high performance and sports science team, their player development group and their analytics department on behalf of Walton, helping synthesize all the relevant information to help Sacramento’s head coach make good basketball decisions.
Says Walton, who was hired by the Kings this past summer after being fired following two seasons as a head coach with the Los Angeles Lakers:
“As a head coach there are all these different departments now – analytics, sport science – there are so many different groups that are helping get to where we want to get to and at times in LA I found it was taking away from me being able to coach.
“So I wanted someone who had been a head coach who could help organize and bring me the essentials out of those different meetings and groups so we could talk basketball about it and Roy has been great at taking on that responsibility.”
Rana’s had someone to help him make his transition to NBA life easier, too.
Former Toronto Raptor and Canadian national team stalwart Cory Joseph was signed as a free agent by the Kings in the off-season to provide the young roster some veteran stability. Rana’s arrival has been a bonus.
His relationship with Rana stretches back nearly two decades, but it’s flipped now.
“He’s my rookie,” jokes Joseph, who is suddenly in his ninth NBA season. “He took care of me when I was a kid and I’m taking care of him now.”
It’s not like Rana’s alone at sea in the NBA, however.
At every turn, it seems, there’s someone from the Canadian basketball scene to connect with. Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets broke the Kings’ hearts just last week; Rana caught up with Triano and Mitchell when Charlotte made its trip to Sacramento.
At Madison Square Garden there was time to catch up with RJ Barrett and Ignas Brazdeikis of the Knicks and walking out of his hotel elevator the other day he bumped into Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the promising rookie with the New Orleans Pelicans.
“It’s cool to feel like you know someone everywhere you go and people are noticing across the NBA,” says Rana. “Being Canadian is not a secret any more. We’re growing in numbers and starting to be more prevalent at the highest levels. Canada is still a hot conversation at the NBA.”
But home is home. A visit to Toronto only emphasize how far Rana has come.
“When they play the anthem and the ball goes up, it will be a very special moment,” he says. “It’s pretty crazy that I’m here when you think about it, but it doesn’t feel like it.
“Sometimes you feel like ‘wow, I can’t believe I’m in the NBA’ but for the most part I totally feel like I belong.”