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Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey smiles as he looks on against the New York Knicks in the second half of their NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York, March 23.

Adam Hunger/Reuters

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."

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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."

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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."

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.

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"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."

Casey's first two seasons in Toronto were tough. There was the NBA lockout-shortened season that ended with a 23-43 record and some disheartening lopsided losses. The Raptors spent roughly 80 per cent of their practice time on defence, mainly teaching fundamentals such as footwork, stance and rotations. In 2012-13, the team was 34-48 and general manager Bryan Colangelo lost his job. New GM Masai Ujiri took the post as Casey entered a contract year, with no talk from the team about renewing him.

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Just over a month into their 2013-14 season, Casey walked into his team's locker room to a lot of concerned faces during a road trip to Los Angeles, just after Ujiri had a made a seven-player trade that shipped its biggest-name player, Rudy Gay, to the Sacramento Kings. Was the team being stripped down, or would the trade actually help? Casey himself didn't know. But he wasn't throwing in the towel.

"One thing players understand is consistency, and trading a player can really upset the apple cart, so I saw a lot of sad faces," Casey said. "The only thing we as coaches could do was keep developing players as we had been doing. Nobody knew which way we were going to go, but we sure didn't know we were going to become a playoff team. We got John Salmons and Chuck Hayes, who were veterans, and young Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, who are basketball junkies, and they really wanted to fit in. We found that they all really wanted to please."

The Eastern Conference was uncharacteristically weak this season, and Casey's team capitalized. After the trade, the Raptors had the best success rate in the East. They improved on many fronts: an all-star season for DeRozan, a dramatic turnaround for point guard Kyle Lowry, and a coming out for Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas once opportunity knocked with the departure of Gay.

"I think they've finally got what Casey has been preaching all along," said Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel while in town recently to play the Raptors. "It's a matter of growing up and staying within a system and letting a coach put his imprint on a team, and having the system play out. You're seeing the rewards of that now."

Casey says he's a night owl, usually watching film until 3 a.m., as he knows there is still defensive tuning to do for the postseason and further steps needed to develop the Raptors into a perennial playoff team. He and wife Brenda have two small kids – six-year-old Justine and two-year-old Zachary. He calls them "the human alarm clocks" as they typically wake him by 7 a.m., and he cherishes the early morning time he spends with them.

"I'll never forget my daughter was three years old when we had the parade in the streets of Dallas," Casey said. "So when we first got here to Toronto, she said, 'Daddy, are we going to have a gold trophy parade here too?' and I said, 'Sweetie, that's going to take time, you don't just win that trophy every year.'"

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As the playoffs begin, Casey has warned his young, inexperienced squad that "it's a totally different thing." He will draw on a lifetime of lessons in diligence as he navigates the postseason and, after that, the lingering question of his own future in Toronto.

"I look back and see what life could have been if I hadn't applied myself in basketball, and I'm really thankful for every experience I've had," Casey said. "There's not a moment I don't appreciate my life."

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