Long before he became an NBA coach, Dwane Casey worked deep underground in a Kentucky coal mine, navigating the dark and cramped tunnels wearing a hardhat and headlamp, cleaning coal from the railway tracks so the cars could rumble through.
He was coming off his freshman season at the University of Kentucky in 1975, trying to make a few bucks in the summer.
“I met men down there who had never worked a day above ground, they spent a lifetime down in those coal mines, and many of them paid for it with their health,” said Casey, during a wide-ranging interview about life and basketball. “They were always saying, ‘Son, you don’t want to work your whole life down here, so work hard in college.’ It was quite a lesson for me.”
Hard work has been a common theme woven through the life of 57-year-old Casey. He will enter the NBA playoffs on Saturday for the first time as a head coach, after turning a Toronto Raptors team that appeared to be rebuilding into Atlantic Division champions and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their surprising season – which began badly on the court, touching off the inevitable talk-radio chat about canning Casey – has instead made him a legitimate contender for coach-of-the-year honours.
This is a squad, after all, without a gold-plated star in a star-driven league. But it boasts a team-first ethic that, following a transformative trade with Sacramento, helped Toronto roll to the best record in the franchise’s two-decade history – and its first postseason appearance since 2008, facing the Brooklyn Nets. And the Raptors are clearly a reflection of their coach who, dapper and gentlemanly as he is, has never forgotten his modest roots and the sweat ethic that brought him success.
Young Casey was raised in the small farming town of Morganfield, Ky., by a grandfather who toiled as a janitor and dry cleaner and a grandmother who was a housemaid. Dwane took odd jobs, from coal mines to tobacco fields, and even as a driver for a former Kentucky governor.
“I remember going with my grandmother to the houses she cleaned when I was little, and I would have to stay down in the basement while she cleaned, and then we walked back home together,” said Casey, whose parents moved to Indianapolis to find work while he remained with his grandparents. “It was a wholesome upbringing, I was brought up well. They were disciplinarians and preached education. We were poor and lived modestly, but we always had food on the table.”
It was also a tumultuous racial era, and Casey moved from a segregated school to an integrated one, in a town harbouring the unsettling presence of the Ku Klux Klan. He bounced a basketball everywhere he went and worked on his game until dark each night, and his hoops prowess offered opportunity. The former Kentucky governor for whom he drove, Earle Clements, called the university president to suggest the basketball coach might be interested in this talented youngster. Vanderbilt, Indiana and Louisville recruited him, too, but Casey chose Kentucky, wanting to follow a childhood friend who had played there years earlier, one he sometimes watched play on television.
In so doing, Casey became just the fifth African-American to suit up for the Kentucky Wildcats, a team that, until the late 1960s, had been defiantly all-white. During his freshman year, the Wildcats won the National Invitational Tournament, which today is an event for teams who don’t make the NCAA tournament, but was prestigious back then.
“We were young and scrappy, and we played really hard all the time,” said Casey, a point guard. “Our team here in Toronto this year reminds me a lot of that team.”
Casey worked for Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall during some of his summers, something that wouldn’t be allowed by today’s NCAA rules but was permitted in the 1970s.
“I would work on coach Hall’s tobacco farm, cutting tobacco, putting it on sticks, and hanging it in the barn,” Casey said. “I had to find work. I knew I wasn’t getting money from home.”