LeBron James sank to the floor and wept, overcome by the moment. The city of Cleveland shook with joy. Long-suffering Cavaliers fans across the country finally reveled in their team’s first NBA championship.
Dwane Casey wants this for Toronto.
The former Kentucky Wildcat now is the head coach of the NBA’s Raptors, a team that has improved each of the last three seasons, setting franchise records wins and advancing further in the playoffs each year. The Cavs had to fight off Toronto to reach the championship round, meaning the Raptors were the best team in the Eastern Conference who didn’t have a superstar called LBJ.
“We had a great season for our franchise,” Casey said on a recent edition the Big Blue Insider radio show. “We took another step toward our ultimate goal of getting to the championship round. We needed a couple more games to get there but we ran into a very good Cleveland team. We’re growing and developing and going in the right direction.”
The Raptors are a team built much like last year’s NBA champs, the Golden State Warriors, who’ve changed the way professional basketball is being played. Instead of attacking the rim, Step Curry and Klay Thompson make it “bombs away” from the three-point arc, thus opening lanes to the basket.
In Toronto, the triggermen are guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and they were icy cold in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, tossing up enough bricks to build the fanciest barbecue pit in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won both by an average of 20 and talking heads tossed shovels of dirt on the Canadians.
Then things moved back north and the Raptors heated up. And while DeRozan and Lowry were burying jumpers, another ex-Wildcat was doing work inside: Patrick Patterson.
“Patrick has been a huge piece of what we’re doing here in Toronto,” Casey said. “He’s such a team player and plays with tremendous energy,” which comes in handy when you’re a sixth man. In his praise for Patterson, Casey invoked the name of another ex-UK star, now in the basketball Hall of Fame as the first great NBA sixth man.
“He’s really a starter for our team,” Casey said, “but he’s so valuable for us coming off the bench, he’s like a second starter for us. He’s like the Frank Ramsey, the sixth man for us that we need. He’s been a big plus for us.”
Former UK center (and Toronto native) Jamal Magloire is the Raptors’ operations director, combining with Patterson and Casey to make Toronto a pocket of blue in the Great White North. “I can’t say enough great things about Pat,” said Casey. “Plus, if there’s a tie, he’s going to get the nod because he’s from Kentucky.”
Casey began his coaching career at Western Kentucky before moving to his alma mater. After he was nicked in the UK scandal in the ‘80s, he spent five years coaching in Japan, leading his team to its first World Championship appearance in 31 years.
Then it was back to the states and the NBA. He spent 11 seasons as an assistant in Seattle, a year-and-a-half as the head coach in Minnesota and another three seasons in Dallas, where he was part of the staff for the Mavericks the year they won their first and only NBA championship, in 2011. Nine days later, he was hired as the Raptors’ new head man.
Toronto owns the ninth and 27th picks in the first round of Thursday’s NBA Draft. General Manager Masai Ujiri, whom Casey credits for building the team’s young but talented roster, will make the picks. Casey wouldn’t speak specifically about which players the Raptors covet, but he did acknowledge the job being done at his alma mater when it comes to cranking out pro prospects.
“I know Coach Cal has done a great job with his young guys,” he said. “That’s always going to be a given, that you’re going to have an influx of Kentucky players, coming through the draft.”
Toronto would be a nice, no-pressure spot for either Tyler Ulis or Skal Labissiere to land; the Raptors have proven guards in the backcourt and young but veteran front-liners, not to mention a head coach who will never forget his Kentucky roots. But Dwane Casey now is a seasoned NBA man, in his 19th year, and he’d love to be a part of a team that does what the Cavaliers just accomplished: bring home the city’s first NBA title.
Casey won a national championship ring as a Wildcat (he was a reserve guard on UK’s ’78 title team) and an NBA ring as an assistant. Toronto hasn’t seen a big trophy of any kind since the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993; the Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967.
That’s what they hand out for winning at hockey – still Canada’s game. But basketball is getting there.
“Love of basketball has grown in this country,” he said. “We’re all spoiled by basketball in Kentucky. They’re beginning to get it (here), at the high school level, AAU, little league. Basketball is off the charts here.”
Of course, the fact that the number one fan of the Raptors happens to be Drake doesn’t hurt, either. The rapper, according to Casey, is at every home game he can attend, sitting just a few feet from the head coach.
“I get in his way,” Casey said. “He cusses out the officials for me. I don’t have to say a word. He understands the game well enough to get on the refs. He’s a great fan, a great ambassador for our team.”
A local, he’s also the team’s top recruiter. “When we go out and talk to free agents, they all know who Drake is,” said Casey. “They may not know my name but they know who Drake is.”
If he can someday deliver Canada’s first NBA title, everyone in North America will know who Dwane Casey is: a Morganfield, Kentucky native who’s now one of 30 NBA head coaches on the planet. And his team is getting better every year.