||04-24-2012 09:14 AM
SN: State of the Raptors
Long article, here's a good chunck of it...
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."
In DeMar DeRozan (pictured), Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon, the Raptors know they ahve a core, but it's aching for off-season additions. (Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)
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."