TORONTO — Even now, all these years later, Dwane Casey can smell the juice of the tobacco plants.
“You hang them high up in the barn, up in the loft, to dry out,” recalls Casey, the 58-year-old coach of the Toronto Raptors. “When you’re hanging them up, the juice is dropping down on you. The juice is sticky and by the end of the day it’s all over you.”
Such was his upbringing in rural Kentucky, four decades ago, a time that seems entirely foreign to anyone who did not live through the changes with him. Work was his answer to everything — he was a high school basketball star who worked in the gyms, classrooms and tobacco fields, on the farm baling hay for two pennies a bale, in the mines shoveling coal.
“After you came out of the mine everything was black,” Casey says. “You were coughing the black stuff out of your lungs. You don’t even feel it down there while you’re breathing it in. But in the afternoon you would spit it up and it would come up black. That’s why they call it black lung, for the people who work down there for years.”
He is not the type to brag to his players in Toronto about the real meaning of work. But the virtues are there for anyone to see: In his proud upright posture, the command of his whispery voice and contained emotions, the ambition to envision and respond to every detail in advance. So many experiences which might have weakened others have strengthened him.
“I never will forget, when I was young, we couldn’t go and sit in the restaurants,” Casey says of his childhood amid the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “We had to go in the back door, order, and then get the food to go. We couldn’t sit down. Thank God we are blessed that my kids will never see those times and never understand them and never have to feel them.”
Over the games and weeks to come, the pressures of the NBA postseason may be overwhelming. The Raptors, winners of a single playoff series in their previous 20 seasons, figure to be especially vulnerable. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and their teammates will be seeking to change the narratives of their careers while rising above the established failures of their franchise.
And yet there has been no myth or random luck attached to their third successive divisional title, their breakthrough 55-win season — the first time Toronto has ever won 50 or more games — and the No. 2 seed that has come with it. They have been building steadily toward this throughout Casey’s five seasons in Toronto. With each year they’ve won more often than the year before. This is who Casey is. This is how progress comes.
“Working in the coal mines, growing up in Kentucky helped me become ready for this,” says Casey from his small Air Canada Centre office near the Raptors’ lockerroom. “The hard work. The people that you meet. The people that you become friends with, and getting to know different types of people. It’s almost like these were life lessons to prepare you for coaching.”
‘It was a nightmare’
Casey was 30 when his career in basketball appeared to be finished.
It was 1988. Casey, who was an assistant coach at Kentucky, his alma mater, had been recruiting the future NBA forward Chris Mills from Los Angeles. A videotape of Mills needed to be mailed back to his father in California. “I was out on the road,” recalls Casey. “So I called our student intern and she put it in the Emery envelope, sealed it and sent it off.”
Casey was scouting at the Dapper Dan high school tournament in Pittsburgh when news broke that the envelope had been opened accidentally in transit and that employees of Emery Worldwide were claiming to have seen $1,000 in cash addressed to the recruit’s father.
“I had never put $1,000 (in the envelope) in my life, first of all,” says Casey. “I did tell her to send back the package. I never touched it to mail it back. All of the records showed that I was out of town when the package left the office.”
The scandal festered. Head coach Eddie Sutton resigned after the following season, amid an NCAA investigation that would result in three years of probation for Kentucky. Initially Casey was banned from NCAA coaching for five years. He sued Emery for $5.9 million, and when the suit was settled for an amount that a friend describes as being well into seven figures, the ban on Casey was lifted.
“But it was too late,” says Casey. “The perception was there. In college basketball, perception is reality. It was a nightmare.”
Unable to find work in the NCAA, Casey moved in 1989 to Japan. He had become friendly years earlier with a Japanese coach who had visited the Kentucky program to study basketball. Now he, in turn, was inviting Casey to coach a team in the Japanese league as well as to help train the national teams of Japan.
Years later Casey would recognizing the blessing of his setback. In Japan he was going to learn how to coach the universal truths of basketball in the simplest and most profound way. Showing, he would find, is better than telling. “It helped me tremendously as far as having to teach the fundamentals,” he says.
A new world of opportunity was going to be realized while he was still young enough to renew his career. During his exile, Casey was going to visit the pro summer league in Los Angeles. The agent Warren LeGarie was going to connect him to George Karl, coach of the Seattle SuperSonics. By 1996, Casey, in his second year with Karl, would be coaching in the NBA Finals against Michael Jordan’s Bulls. In 11 seasons he would work for three head coaches in Seattle while learning to express his values from an entirely new point of view.
“There is more coaching involved in the NBA on a daily basis, so many more decisions that you make in an NBA game vs. being in a college game, it’s not even close,” Casey says. “At Kentucky we ran the same offensive system for 40 years — the same plays, the same play calls, and nothing changed. Whereas in the NBA you have to have a wrinkle or an adjustment almost on every possession.”
He was going to have to work his way up in the NBA. But then, working hard was never going to be a problem.
The power to move on
Casey’s response to the Kentucky scandal was consistent with the story of his life. This dynamic reminds his boss of Nelson Mandela.
“The biggest strength of that man was the power to forgive, after everything he went through,” says Raptors president Masai Ujiri of Mandela. “I’m not comparing Dwane Casey to Nelson Mandela. But Casey has no animosity there. He lived his life and moved on. Because of that, I am so happy for Casey — because clearly he took the fall. And clearly Dwane Casey is a great man with a good heart. In my humble opinion, he has taken the high road, and this is not an easy trait to have.”
This power to move on, to set aside the grudge, to focus on the fundamentals of who you are and who you want to be — these are at the root of his coaching. He asks of his players that which he has demanded of himself.
“He is a phenomenal human being,” Ujiri says of Casey. “There is nobody else better as a human being. He is so true to himself, and so good to other people. Even during tough conversations, I have never worried about him. Because I know Dwane Casey is going to come back tomorrow to try to be better, and I feel the same way. I try to be better, and so I try to be like him that way.”
When Ujiri was hired to lead the Raptors in 2013, the obvious move would have been to bring in a new coaching staff. Casey had already been fired as head coach of Minnesota midway through his second season amid a 20-20 start in 2006-07. (The Timberwolves have yet to make the playoffs since.) From that experience, Casey learned to trust in his own values and instincts. He was not going to be wishy-washy. He was going to invest in his own principles, and Ujiri was wise to believe in him: After suffering through a 57-91 record in the two years before Ujiri’s arrival, Casey’s Raptors have gone 152-103 in the three years since.
“What are the things that make you better? What are the things that you don’t do so well?” Ujiri says. “We all have weaknesses. We can complain in this business, and me in my position: Why didn’t we do this, why didn’t we score here, why didn’t we substitute there or blah, blah, blah, blah. But as a person there is not one day that you were thinking you don’t feel comfortable around that guy. Zero. Not one day. It is truly a gift, and it is very rare. Because coaching is a tough job. And he is a great man.”
For all of their growth, the Raptors are still lacking their version of LeBron James, whose top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers stand in the way. If that transcendent star can be acquired or developed in Toronto, could Ujiri imagine Casey winning an NBA title someday? As an assistant with Dallas, Casey’s defensive principles helped transform the offensive-minded Mavericks into 2010-11 champions. Could he build on that success as a head coach?
“I think so,” Ujiri says. “In my heart I do think so. We all have the things that we all have to work on, and things we have to get better at. He definitely has the leadership attributes that you want, and he is dying to do it. That is part of it. You live your life dying to win. And that’s what he does. Dwane Casey dies to win.”
Sports aspect over social aspect
“My mom and dad moved to Indianapolis to get a better job, because the jobs were very scarce in my county,” says Casey. “So they went to Indianapolis and started living there. I stayed and lived with my grandparents.”
Casey was the oldest of five children. His grandmother was a domestic maid who cleaned houses in Morganfield (current population 3,556) in western Kentucky. His grandfather worked two dry cleaning jobs.
“It wasn’t abnormal in the black South at that time,” says Casey of staying behind at a young age while the rest of his family moved away. “Obviously, from the outside, it looks dysfunctional. But for me it was very functional. I thought I had a very solid upbringing with mature parents and grandparents. So I had the best of both worlds between my grandparents and my parents.”
He was raised to view adaptation and compromise as strengths. Casey would seek out opportunities wherever they could be found. “I remember when he was in sixth grade, he went to every teacher and he said, ‘I want to work hard on my studies and make straight A’s if I can. I will do extra work, stay after school, do any paper you want,”’ his childhood friend Jerry McKamey says. “He told his teachers he wanted to play basketball at the University of Kentucky and he needed his academics to be strong.”
Casey was among three players who were sent onto Kentucky by Ernie Simpson, their coach from Union County High School. “I think I got the job when I was 24,” says Simpson, who is 70 now. “I went over to the junior high school, and Dwane was painting the school’s classrooms and hallways. He talked to me like he was already a young adult. My wife asked me if I’d found a player or two and I said, ‘I don’t know — but I found me a leader.”’
Casey was going into fourth grade when he was moved from an all-black school into a school of white students as part of a federally-mandated program of integration. “The first month I was in a fight almost every day,” Casey says. “Because I got called the N-word. Today some of those same guys are my buddies. As we went through school, they became my best friends. I don’t know if they were taught at home to be like that, or what the situation was.”
He does not remember feeling insecure or threatened, he insists, in spite of his memories. “I saw a few of the Ku Klux Klan — they had rallies in downtown Morganfield,” Casey says. “Dick Gregory was going through the South to promote civil rights, and he spoke in downtown Morganfield, on the courthouse steps, when they were trying to integrate the schools. When he was speaking, the Klan was driving around the courthouse in the back of a truck. They didn’t do anything. They didn’t say anything. But just the visual of them going around the courthouse, I remember that vividly. And I remember they had fountains for whites and coloreds at the county courthouse.”
He went to Kentucky on the recommendation of the former governor, Earle C. Clements, whose house was cleaned by Casey’s grandmother. When Casey was in high school, he served occasionally as the governor’s driver. “He was close with Dr. (Otis) Singletary,” says Casey of the longtime Kentucky president. “So he said, ‘They’ve got this boy down here in Union County, he’s a good basketball player. You’ve got to come down and look at him.’ They sent the coaches down to see me play, and that was my first connection with the University of Kentucky.”
Casey had been eight years old when the all-white team of Kentucky was upset in the 1966 NCAA final by the all-black team of Texas Western. “When I was being recruited, everybody was saying, ‘Why are you going to Kentucky? They don’t like black people. Why are you going there?”’ Casey says. “I was thinking about it being a championship program, with games on television and that type of thing. I was looking more at the sports aspect of it than the social.”
Kentucky was going to win the 1978 NCAA title on a spectacular 41-point performance by Jack Givens. Casey, the backup point guard, was named captain as a senior the following year. “I had kind of thought about transferring somewhere else to where I could play more,” Casey says. “But then, my junior year, I realized, OK: I am not going to be an NBA player.”
Over his last two years as a player, Casey made numerous appearances at community events, city meetings and high school graduations. He was learning to connect with all kinds of people as he made speeches, shook hands and listened attentively. Even then, without foresight, he was preparing for this job he has now.
“Here’s what made it scary,” says McKamey, now a successful businessman in Nashville. “You were 450 feet under the ground and the roof of the mine was only five feet tall. There was always the fear of the roof falling in on you. People died when we worked in the mine – it happened. The roof would fall in on people and it was very scary.”
This was the summer after Casey’s freshman year at Kentucky. The mine was in Union County.
“They always said any time you saw a rat, it was safe,” says Casey. “Somehow rats have a sense of whether there is a faulty roof. When you saw a rat, even though I hated rats, it was a good thing. Because it would mean the roof was safe and it wasn’t about to cave in or anything. That was why some of the old miners would leave food out for the rats.”
McKamey and Casey spent the summer together in the mine. Their job was to shovel coal away from the apparatus that delivered the coal above ground. McKamey’s father also worked there.
“My father worried about myself and Dwane both,” McKamey says. “The machinery was very dangerous. Dwane is 6-foot-3, and we would shovel on our knees frequently. It’s a continuous 59 degrees under ground, but we sweated the same as if we were outside in the hot sun.”
“We had to go in the morning until 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” Casey says. “As soon as I got through, I would go right to the gym. That first shower would get all the coal off me and then I’d go work out. When I went to play basketball in the afternoon and lift weights, I would have the black around my eyelids. They looked like I had mascara on.”
Casey remembers clearing $10,000 from that summer of 1976. He spent the money on a car.
“More than anything else it put the fear of failure in you,” Casey says. “Not to say that was a bad way of life. But you didn’t want to go back to that. There are so many lessons to learn growing up in the small town, working the coal mines, all of those hard labor jobs. It developed you as a person for how hard you had to work. And it developed a motivation, at an early age, of not wanting to have to do that to make a living.”
That view was reinforced two summers later by Joe B. Hall, Casey’s coach at Kentucky, who invited Casey and other players to work on his tobacco farm.
“It was probably a dangerous job,” Casey says. “You’re going down a row and cutting the tobacco with these machetes. The machete was so sharp, and then you take that tobacco leaf and you put it on a spike. One misstep and that spike goes through your hand.”
Rick Robey and other Kentucky players would join Hall out in the field over the years. Casey does not look back on the episode as a team-building exercise by his coach. “No, he was just trying to get cheap and easy labor,” says Casey, laughing. “It was a good way for us to legally make some money. And we definitely earned it. Coach Hall was out there cutting it too, so I wasn’t going to let him outwork me.”
Give respect, get respect
“If somebody is a great guy, a great person, you can’t do nothing but have the utmost respect for him,” says DeRozan, the Raptors’ leading scorer. “And that’s what we have for Casey.”
DeRozan, 26, has become a two-time All-Star at shooting guard while playing for Casey. The impact on 30-year-old Lowry has been even more pronounced: He has escaped his negative reputation as a hardheaded teammate while earning a place in the last two All-Star games, most recently as a starter on his home floor in Toronto. Lowry and his teammates have grown to respect the enduring focus of their coach.
“We actually seen him on the plane one night, fighting sleep to watch film,” DeRozan says. “He kept nodding off. But he was watching the film. He wasn’t going to stop watching.”
“It was after a game,” Lowry says, and then he does the imitation: Elbow on the table, pen poised high between fingers, his head drifting and then snapping awake, dozing and snapping upright again.
“It was late,” says DeRozan, sticking up for his coach.
“But it was a classic moment,” says Lowry, laughing. “I wish I had it on video. I would put that on Instagram immediately. But he works, man, and you’ve got to respect it.”
Toronto has climbed from No. 23 in defensive efficiency last season to No. 11 this year without a major change in personnel. The gains were made even though small forward DeMarre Carroll, a major free-agent who had been expected to toughen the defense, was sidelined for 60 games by a knee injury. The Raptors have improved by believing in the schemes of their coach, which is akin to believing in themselves.
How much further can that trend be extended? There are going to be moves thrust upon Casey over these next several weeks that cannot be planned out entirely in advance. These are the decisive reactions that are sure to invite criticism. And yet how many NBA coaches are better suited to make them?
“When you treat players with respect and treat them like human beings, you get more out of them than anything else,” Casey says. “That’s all you can ask for in life: To treat people with respect, and get the respect back.”
From rural Kentucky to one of North America’s most cosmopolitan cities, from a college ban to his sport’s richest stage, the Raptors coach looks 20 years younger than he should. His soft voice carries more authority than you can hear. His demeanor, like his posture, perfect as it is, has been chiseled by a lifetime of disciplined forbearance.
His team, for all of its success, is still the underdog.
There is something very natural to this confluence of urgency, expectation and common sense. To see him working these playoffs will be to affirm how far he has come, to appreciate the distance — and to recognize, suddenly, that Dwane Casey is not so far away from home.