The team won an NCAA title in 1978, with Casey as the captain and senior starting point guard, upsetting the favoured Duke Blue Devils in the final. That Kentucky team was experienced, smart and adaptable. Casey compared them to the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, a team for which he was an assistant coach and the defensive guru during a memorable championship campaign. During that postseason, his defences stifled the likes of stars such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant en route to the prize.
“With all the championship teams I was with, the mantra was always defence, we never talked about offence, never spent much time on it,” said the 6-foot-2 coach, who speaks politely and analytically. “We spent most of our time on defensive fundamentals and shell drills almost every day. It became monotonous, but then in the games it felt easy. I’ve seen defence win championships and that really rubbed off on me.”
Casey has kept countless notebooks full of coaching lessons learned from the many mentors he’s had, from years as a graduate assistant under Hall at Kentucky, to Rick Carlisle in Dallas, and George Karl with the Seattle Supersonics. He also learned under legendary U.S. college and Olympic coach Pete Newell, when together they coached an inspired 1998 Japanese national team to its first appearance at a FIBA world championship in more than 30 years.
His first stint as an NBA head coach was short-lived with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Reflecting back on that now – three years into his second head coach’s gig, in Toronto – he can see where he went wrong in Minnesota.
“We should have just stuck with my principles defensively and been who I was,” Casey said. “I tried to listen to way too many voices in my first stint as a head coach. The second time around, I know what I want and how I want to do it. Defence wins in this league, so stick with it, never veer too far from that.”
When he took over the Raptors in the 2011-12 season, he was inheriting the NBA’s worst defence. He could see some talent on film, but knew good defensive principles weren’t in place. Casey knew changing the focus from offensive to decidedly defensive would be a grind.
“We didn’t have a LeBron or a Kobe or a [Michael] Jordan,” he said, adjusting the Raptors cap he says he wears daily as a sign of consistency to his players. “Our guys were young and I knew it would take time and hard work to become a playoff team. We weren’t going to out-run or out-score anybody. I knew it would take a couple of years and I wanted to find something that signified how hard and monotonous it would be for us.”
The story is legend now: Casey asked that a 1,300-pound boulder be placed inside the locker-room entrance to teach them about the “Pound the Rock” motto, used by many teams. It’s based on a piece of writing by Jacob Riis about New York’s poor in the 1800s. It features a stonecutter, who hammers away at a rock 100 times without a crack. But on the 101st blow, it splits in two, not as a result of that one strike, but of all that came before it.
“The concept had a great point to it, and it was understood by us,” said DeMar DeRozan, who has been a Raptor since 2009. “A lot has changed since then, and it’s very evident. The whole culture has changed for the better … It just takes the right chemistry, the right group of guys doing what it takes to win. You don’t need superstars and this, that and the other – whatever people say you need. We’re proof of that.”