Roy Rana constantly feels like a coach in need of coaching.
The first time he felt it was in an inner-city gymnasium teeming with teenagers who could dunk. All he had to offer them were a few offensive plays he had cribbed from a book.
Rana, the head coach of the Ryerson University Rams men's team, still feels it more than 16 years later, despite a string of successes. He led Canada's junior national team to its first world championship medal last summer and has received a job offer from the National Basketball Association but his most high-profile gig yet is this weekend, coaching the world's top high school players - including three Canadians - at the 14th annual Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore.
He will be one of only a handful of North Americans ever chosen to helm the World Select Team, which will battle the top high school seniors in the United States on Saturday. Alumni include NBA stars Dirk Nowitski, Tony Parker, John Wall and Kevin Garnett.
People close to Rana say an insatiable desire to improve is what propels the 42-year-old father of two. It's why he shouldered the blame after his high school team lost a provincial title by one point. Why he crisscrosses North America pressing legendary coaches for their secrets. Why he lists among his weaknesses the inability to enjoy success.
"As far as accolades, I'm pretty uncomfortable with that," Rana said. "I'm not quite sure how to deal with that. Because I'm not quite sure I've totally escaped being who I was when I started. I'm just a guy who picked up a book and started coaching."
Rana lives in the west-end Toronto neighbourhood where he grew up, the youngest of four siblings born to parents with Indian roots. He adored basketball as a kid, sneaking out of his bedroom at night to watch Los Angeles Lakers games with the volume on mute. But knowing his average athleticism wouldn't extend his hoops career beyond high school, he wondered if coaching might fit.
Rana's first opportunity came on Day 1 of his first job as a teacher, which was also his father's profession, guiding wayward youth in one of Toronto's most troubled neighbourhoods. He became the junior boys basketball coach at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, and guided the team to a winning record. He gleaned what he could from the how-to book, Basketball: Concepts and Techniques, by Bob Cousy, and was blessed with talented players.
But success became addictive. During an exhibition game, he recognized the referee, Lou Sialtsis, revered head coach of Toronto high school powerhouse Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute. Rana asked if they could talk after the game.
It was more like a grilling, Sialtsis says now. "It wasn't just him saying, 'what do you do?' No, he didn't stop there. He said, 'Well why do you do that? What benefit does it have? Why does that fit into your overall scheme?' "
Sialtsis was pleasantly surprised the next season when he noted that Rana had taken his advice. There were slick new uniforms to generate pride, the winnable exhibition-game schedule to build the team's confidence. In 2000, when he needed someone to take his place at Eastern Commerce, Sialtsis recommended that Rana apply.
Eastern Commerce already had a legendary basketball program and had produced future NBA star Jamaal Magloire, but over the next nine years Rana would become one of the most successful high school basketball coaches in Canadian history. Under his watch, Eastern won nine city championships, four provincial titles, and sent more than 40 graduates to National Collegiate Athletic Association schools. Eleven have played on Canada's national team. "He's a perfectionist," said Kevin Jeffers, an assistant coach under Rana for eight years at Eastern Commerce.
It wasn't an easy transition. Not everyone was ready to listen to the pudgy, balding newcomer. Basketball players at Eastern expected to be pampered. Everyone had NCAA Division 1 dreams. Once, Rana's tires were slashed in the school parking lot. He juggled a lot of egos, but his players respected him and he still stays in contact with some of them. Rana's BlackBerry is filled with the contacts of players he coached years ago.
That communication, people say, is one of Rana's greatest assets as a coach. While he has an superb knowledge of Xs and Os, his greatest strength may be connecting with difficult-to-reach youth and holding them accountable. He wasn't afraid to bench his best player, as he did one year at city championships. He created a deep bench and made sure everyone felt important. He solicited community members to get involved with the team.
Rana's roots helped; he worked with youth at city shelters before he became a teacher. But he also fine-tuned his tactics by watching coaches such as Syracuse University's Jim Boeheim and the Toronto Raptors' Jay Triano. Rana says the turning point in his coaching career came in 2004, during a weekend he spent at Michigan State University observing Tom Izzo. Rana said he was blown away by the huge emphasis on character and discipline at Izzo's practices, down to the tucked-in shirts and 60-second breaks. He also seized the chance to ask Izzo to share some secrets from his play book.
"Roy's just picking his brain as much as he can. I'm just sitting there, thinking, 'Man, leave the guy alone!' " Jeffers recalled.
Rana has gone on to coach provincial and national junior teams, scouted for the senior men's national team, and won numerous coaching honours. The NBA offered a job developing the game in India, which he declined because he didn't want to uproot his son and daughter, ages 7 and 5. Around the same time, he was offered his first full-time coaching job as head coach of Ryerson's men's team. This September will mark his third season trying to turn the team around.
Asked if his ambition is to coach in the NCAA or beyond, Rana said he doesn't think that far ahead. Even now, it's tough to ditch that inner voice that whispers he's "faking it," he said. "I'm proud that I've gotten here. It's a dream of mine to be a full-time basketball guy, because that's been my obsession for a large part of my life."