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Jay Triano puts business knowledge into play

Not a day goes by that Jay Triano, former head coach of the Toronto Raptors and now with the Portland Trail Blazers, doesn’t put his business acumen to good use.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Years of running, jumping, dribbling and shooting might have helped Jay Triano get his start in basketball, but the secret of his sustained success in the sport may well have come down to his diligence off the court.

Though he was kept busy re-writing the record book by setting or equalling 11 school marks in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a member of the Simon Fraser Clan in Burnaby, B.C., where he also turned out for the football team his senior year, the Tillsonburg, Ont., native was equally driven outside the gym, earning himself a business administration degree with a minor in learning disabilities.

Three decades later, after a three-year playing stint in Mexico and Turkey and a long coaching career that led to him becoming the first Canadian-born head coach in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors and two spells as the head coach of the Canadian men's national team, not a day goes by that Mr. Triano, now 55, doesn't put his business acumen to good use.

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"I think when I started coaching I went back and I thought of everything I did in business and the signs of a successful business are very similar to what successful teams are," Mr. Triano says from his home in Portland, Ore., where he is preparing for the new NBA season as an assistant coach with the Portland Trail Blazers.

"There has to be delegation of roles, open communication, hierarchy, everything. It just seemed to make so much sense and I think a lot of the business world looks at sports teams and looks at leaders in sports on how to be effective teams in the business sense."

Though he admits that the business of sports in Portland is very different to that in Toronto – "It seems a bit more local, a bit more regional here," he says – his time north of the border gave him an eye-opening view into how corporations work. From the time Mr. Triano started as an assistant coach with the Raptors in 2002, team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which also counts the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs among its sports properties, has continually grown. The empire is estimated to be worth upward of $2.25-billion by Forbes magazine. MLSE added Toronto FC of Major League Soccer in 2007 before completing an extensive downtown condominium development next to the Raptors' home court at the Air Canada Centre, containing a sports bar, a retail outlet and a high-end restaurant.

Through much of that growth period, Mr. Triano interacted with some of the biggest players involved with MLSE at the time, and he was able to derive inspiration from movers such as chairman Larry Tanenbaum, former chief executive officer Richard Peddie and former chief operating officer Tom Anselmi.

"In leadership there's varying degrees in who and how you lead people. As a coach and as a head coach, I was always watching how Larry interacted and led his group of employees, and the same with Tom," Mr. Triano says.

"I remember learning from Richard Peddie when he was sitting in his office and talking about his different strategies of leading and how it correlated to basketball and me being a coach and trying to find ways to build a team and motivate a team and bring a team together and maximize our potential, and I think that's what businesses are and I think that's what teams are."

Given the high stakes and outlandish money involved in professional sports these days, long hours of preparation are vital to having any hope of success. Travel, nutrition, rest and recuperation are all part and parcel of the game of basketball for players, but for the coaching staff, meticulous and painstaking attention to detail are an added level of concern. Thanks to his business background, Mr. Triano feels he has an added advantage when it comes to giving his team an edge.

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"One of the big things was I did a lot of statistical analysis on why companies and corporations were successful when I was working on my degree, and right now, the game of basketball especially, the analytics in the game is crazy," he says. "I have to think that my love for numbers and breaking down numbers and stuff like that, and how much it's factoring into the NBA now, is a big part of my business background."

Part of his job as a coach is obviously to motivate his players, but given the different personalities on any given team, or in any business, it's not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution. However, given his players' rise to the apex of professional basketball, Mr. Triano finds competitive spirit is nearly always a unifying factor, so whether his charges were shooting from half court after practice for $100 wagers – since outlawed as a salary-cap violation in the last collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association – or playing a simple game of tag while dribbling the ball, he found it often helped create a good team foundation.

"When you do stuff like that – you start forming your team and you try to build the best learning environment and they're laughing, they're happy and they're warming up – now you've created a great working environment," Mr. Triano says.

"So again, every one of these things that I'm saying has a direct relationship to how you want your businesses to run, too, if you were in business."

Though he freely acknowledges that coaching is in his blood and there was really no consideration at all to putting his business degree to more traditional uses, Mr. Triano hasn't always been able to run the sidelines. Despite a solid relationship with former Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo, Mr. Triano was relieved of his head-coaching duties in 2011 following a 22-60 season, and reassigned as the vice-president of pro scouting. But even though he was denied the chance to urge the team's players to greater heights, he still found his background beneficial in his new role.

"Just having people that you work with, people that work under you and how you deal with those relationships and how you manage people and manage responsibilities in as far as charts and graphs and organizing reports that had to be sent in," Mr. Triano says. "Again, I had no idea what I was going to do when I was deciding to take my business degree, but it sure paid off."

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