A few years ago, I visited the home of Pete Conacher, a scion of hockey’s first family.
We were there to talk about his NHL career, but he turned the conversation onto what was, for him, a more interesting topic – the contemporary Leafs.
More precisely, the problems with the Leafs. His first target: coaching.
“Why do they have so many coaches these days? What do they all do?” Conacher, a charming and vivacious man who speaks in italics, marvelled. “I had one coach. And you know how he used to coach me? Every once in a while, he’d put an arm around my shoulder and say, ‘Pete, you’ve got to try a little harder’.”
Like any cultish profession, coaching has become prey to the Godfather effect since Conacher played in the ’50s and ’60s. Modern coaches absorb their behavioural cues from popular culture. Through their careers, they begin to slide into a variety of filmic stereotypes – the screamer, the speech-giver, the micro-manager, the obsessive. Usually, all those things at once.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey stands out in this regard. His work philosophies are drawn from his upbringing, rather than 100 viewings of Hoosiers.
After three years on the job in Toronto, Casey was re-signed on Tuesday. The new deal pays him $11.25-million (U.S.) over three years ($3.5-million/$3.75-million/$4-million). The third year is a team option.
Casey is 57 years old. After 35 years on the job, he’s finally been pushed into an elite group – the men who will never want for head-coaching work in the NBA.
This is a business and it has rules, but there are guys you can’t help but root for. I’ve covered two coaches like that in my career – Dwane Casey and Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. They are men, in the most profound and holistic sense. They’re real.
Very few people in sports are real (and how could they be, given the way they see a slanted, heroic version of themselves reflected back in every newspaper article, every TV interview, every chance fanboy interaction at an airport).
Most players and coaches end up inhabiting a role. Toronto is lucky enough to have at least two guys who are playing themselves.
Casey is still a working-class Kentucky farmboy. He’s still the guy who watched the Ku Klux Klan parade through town as a youngster. He still remembers – wryly, rather than bitterly – that the man who raised him, his grandfather, Urey, was the night-cleaner of a motel he was not permitted to enter during daylight hours.
It’s both reductive and impossible to pigeonhole Casey on coaching style – he emphasizes defence. That’s the most you can say.
He is that more classic type, generally – the up-by-your-bootstraps striver. He has that gentle, conservative streak that typifies institutional high-achievers.
“Sometimes it sounds corny, some of the things I say … It’s real stuff. It’s real life, more than just basketball,” Casey said. “I want guys to have their shoes tied before we go out to practice. Like I tell them, ‘You don’t go to a construction site with your boots untied’.”
How many guys can honestly reach back to the building trades to frame their life-lessons? Casey is the sort of coach Pete Conacher would recognize and approve.
He’s a grease board tactician and a compulsive viewer of game tape, but his defining feature is a variety of hardcourt shamanism.
Casey (like Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos) is a collector of aphorisms. He’s memorized the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. He prizes symbology.
As you enter the Raptors dressing room, there is a 600-kilogram, waist-high slab of rock leaned up against a wall. Players are expected to strike it as they enter and exit, in keeping with the wisdom of homespun 19th-century philosopher Jacob Riis. Riis observed that a rock is split by one blow, but as a result of many previous ones. Once the Raptors’ rock is cracked in half, I’ll start going to whatever church Dwane Casey attends.
Casey probably should have ended this year unemployed. His team was built to fail. There is no way he would have survived that failure. Instead, they continued striking blows.
As the momentum shifted in their favour, Casey tried to imagine some new way to motivate his players. During the All-Star break in mid-February, he sat down and wrote out a contract. It was entitled “I’m All In.”
The succinct text: “I commit to the team for the these last 30 games for our 2013/14 playoff push.”
Kyle Lowry was the first to sign. In a perfect Casey touch, every staff member on the road – trainers, PR aides – added their names as well.
“I’m not a writer,” Casey demurs.
When it’s put to him that anyone who writes is a writer, Casey shakes his head sadly.
“No, no. I’m not. I’m just a coach.”
There is a word that doesn’t belong in that sentence – “just.”