The Raptors stand 17-34 but Casey’s mandate to install a new defensive-oriented mindset has taken root. The Raptors have lowered their points allowed to 95.26, down almost 10 points from last season.
Raptors.com writer Mike Ulmer spoke to the 54-year-old Casey about the agony of losing, the mechanics of improving players and what it was like to see the Ku Klux Klan as a seven-year-old in his tiny Morgantown, Ky. hometown.
Mike Ulmer: What have you learned here that you didn’t know in your last head coaching job in Minnesota?
Dwane Casey: I think the one thing I’ve learned here is patience with younger players. We had Kevin Garnett in Minnesota. He was a star and he was set in his ways. He had been in the same system since his rookie year. You had to tweak lot things because he was a creature of habit. Here we were able to mold a defensive philosophy the way we wanted to.
MU: What’s your biggest disappointment so far?
DC: That we haven’t won more games but again that wasn’t the total goal coming in. Our main goal was to change the culture to make us a more defensive-minded team. We have taken steps toward that. We haven’t totally gotten there but we are on track. My disappointment would be not winning more games and not getting a balance between offence and defence.
MU: Who helps you keep your eye on the prize?
DC: Bryan (GM Bryan Colangelo) has been great. For our team I have to make sure I stay up. He has a knack of seeing when I am down and reminding me that it’s a young team.
MU: What were the losses where Bryan pumped you up?
DC: The Lakers loss (94-92, Feb. 12) was a tough one. He pumped me up after that one. Maybe New York (Valentine’s Day), the last-second shot by Lin, those two were the hardest. It hits you in the gut because you feel like you’ve got things under control. After the game I’m down, I’m hurt but as soon as the game is over I get a good night’s sleep and I am ready to go again.
MU: The one thing I think fans don’t quite understand, and this sounds off, but losing is more bad than winning is good.
DC: Winning is a gratifying but right after I win a game I am worried about winning the next one. As a coach I think that way. It’s kind of unfortunate because when you do win there’s not a lot of satisfaction. In Dallas, we won 50 or 60 games a year but still it wasn’t as strong as the hurt when we lost.
MU: Coaches are really fatalistic, aren’t they?
DC: They have to be because NBA players have to have an edge. They always have to play with a chip on their shoulder. The NBA is such a pat on the back league; so many people are patting you on the back that it’s easy to get complacent. As a coach, we’re probably the only person in a player’s life to say ‘you’re not doing this right or as a team we’re not getting this done.’ That’s why NBA coaches are always the bad guys. Agents, friends, family, whatever, they are telling the player, not only in the NBA but in college, how great they are.
MU: Do you think some coaches, like some parents, make the mistake of trying to be friends with their players?
DC: No question. You don’t want to be the players’ friends. They don’t respect you as a coach if you get too close. You are going to have to tell him something that runs against what he wants to do and it’s not because you don’t like him but because you know it’s better for the team and him as an individual.
MU: Do you have to blow up a player whose game and attitude is built on a poor foundation?
DC: Rashard Lewis is a player I worked with early in his career in Seattle. We started from scratch. He couldn’t shoot the three so we started working on his three-point shot. He had no post-up game so we worked on that. I don’t’ know if I’ve had players where you just throw their game away but I have had players you mold from scratch.
MU: Are you a tough guy who can be soft or a soft guy who can be tough?
DC: I think I have a balance. I have a good feel for people because I was in college coaching and recruiting. I have empathy for people but as a head coach you need to have the ability to say no. When you hold guys accountable they know what’s right and what’s wrong. It pays off.
MU: Have you watched much hockey?
DC: Not really because this NBA season is so compressed. I’ve seen a few games and I love is the speed, the toughness and the athleticism of the players. You’ve got to be a tough guy to play hockey.
MU: Who other than coaches influenced me the most?
DC: My grandmother Elizabeth Miller probably influenced me more than anybody else. She worked two jobs. She would walk three miles to clean houses every day. She was a domestic servant in Morganfield. When I was in high school she worked for a gentleman named Earl C. Clements. He was the former governor of Kentucky. My grandmother would clean for him but I would drive him if he was going somewhere to speak. I never forget driving him to Princeton, Kentucky and we talked the whole way down and the whole way back. He called the University of Kentucky and recommended me as a player and a person. That really meant a lot to me.
MU: Do you remember the last traces of a segregated south?
DC: I remember integrating schools. I was in the third grade. I went from Morganfield Dunbar to the white school’, so to speak. The first month I had to fight almost every day. The guy I fought the most was named Mike Graham and after that we became best friends. We got to know each. We played sports together. Some of my best friends came through that time.
MU: What was that like? The images are so familiar of the National Guard bringing kids into Southern schools.
DC: The National Guard wasn’t there but there were people protesting us integrating the schools. I remember the closing of the Dunbar School, the sadness of that school closing but I remember the newness of the new school. There were new books and desks whereas at Dunbar everything was old and hand me down.
MU: Are you confident America will heal itself or is this issue that will never heal?
DC: We’ve come such a long way in the United States. You are going to have blips on the radar but from what I remember in the early 1960s to today is like day and night. My kids will never see the integration, the segregation that we saw.
MU: Describe that?
DC: It was going to a restaurant and using the back door, sitting in the car and then getting out to pick out your order.
MU: You did that?
DC: Yes. There were restaurants like that in my town. I remember watching the Ku Klux Klan when (activist) Dick Gregory came around. They were in full gear. I was probably six or seven. I didn’t know anything different but I remember those times.
MU: One last question. One newspaper story wondered whether despite the team’s record you might be the best coach the Raptors have had.
DC: (Laughs) Oh, man. Lenny Wilkins is by far a better coach than I am, a better coach than I will ever be.