Assistant coaches usually live in the background. Putting in hours around the clock to help players improve, their work doesn’t make headlines and is rarely mentioned beneath them. Looking around a Las Vegas gym full of NBA stars representing their country at USA Basketball training camp, Toronto Raptors assistant coach Jesse Mermuys blends into the background. After spending the offseason training with him, DeMar DeRozan wanted to give Mermuys some shine, sending a reporter to him for the lowdown on their summer sessions.
Talking to Mermuys meant tracking his journey to the NBA sidelines. Along the way, it meant learning why members of the Raptors roster respect and value him so much.
There are many assistant coaches you can spot from a mile away. Former professional or college players with the wide shoulders, long legs and sometimes creaky, hitched walks from years of playing reflect how they fell into their position.
Mermuys is not this kind of assistant coach.
Standing less than six-feet tall, Mermuys looks more like a trainer. Smiling easily and often, he can usually be found in Air Canada Centre working with one of the Raptors players putting in extra time after hours. This July, he was the head coach for Toronto’s Las Vegas Summer League submission. After Vegas, he moved to Los Angeles where the bulk of the team’s players are spending the offseason so he would always be available when they wanted to workout.
One of the things he loves about this particular team is that it’s filled with players who have the same level of dedication that he has. While much of Mermuys’ offseason has been spent in the gym with DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross, a typical regular-season day has him splitting his time between working out players and working on game plans with the coaching staff.
“You get there in the morning and I have to have my film ready for my guys,” Mermuys said. “Kyle [Lowry] and DeMar are pretty intense when it comes to watching. They’re very routine guys. Kyle always shoots before anybody gets there so we go up on the court, shoot, I come down[stairs], join the coaches meeting. We meet, talk about what we need to do, who we’re preparing for. Then go up to practice and I’d have like guys after practice to shoot with. Then, typically I go home, spend time with the family, watch film depending on if its my scout or not and then I have to come back and shoot with DeMar usually at night, around 8 p.m.”
Prior to joining head coach Dwane Casey’s staff, Mermuys spent the 2012-2013 season with the Houston Rockets after four years with the Denver Nuggets. In Denver he started as a video coordinator and quickly moved up to becoming an advance scout and an assistant coach. Before making his jump to the NBA, Mermuys was the director of basketball operations for the Arizona Wildcats.
Mermuys: “I love when they have success.”
While his basketball knowledge and scouting skills are a given in his profession, what sets him apart is his ability to connect with people. Building trust by always being available when the text comes from a player who needs someone to get in the gym with him, Mermuys appreciates the role he gets to play in developing young men into adults.
“I love the game of basketball, of course, but what I really love is helping the players and having those successes,” Mermuys said. “That’s what it’s all about for me. I love the relationships. I love when they have success. It’s a special thing. Especially when we’re working extremely hard and making sacrifices of time with our family. It’s very rewarding for sure. Of course, when I’m working with a guy I’m giving him all that I have so there’s no better feeling when a guy has success. It makes me proud and happy.”
It’s hard not to feel motivated in Mermuys’ presence. Whatever the subject matter, he speaks with such enthusiasm you walk away from a conversation with him feeling lighter. Effusive in his praise for all of the coaches he has had the opportunity to learn from, Mermuys will forever be grateful for the opportunity George Karl gave him to jumpstart his NBA career and the time he spent with legendary coach Tim Grgurich while on Karl’s coaching staff.
“It’s so important to me to acknowledge and constantly thank all of the people who have been really influential to me, who have helped me,” Mermuys said. “I had a long road as far as, I had a pretty tough upbringing. From a basketball standpoint, Tim Grgurich and George Karl, really, being able to be in Denver with those two men as my first NBA experience was a priceless opportunity. They’ve had such an impact on my basketball career. They’ve set me up for success.”
The tough upbringing Mermuys mentions isn’t an understatement. After the death of his mother when he was young, Mermuys was raised by his grandmother. Being raised by such a strong role model shaped him into the person he is today and he credits his grandmother for his work ethic and positive disposition.
“The biggest thing is just perseverance and toughness,” he said. “She never was like, ‘Woe is me.’ She just kept going and doing the best she could and when you see someone doing that, going through horrible times and being able to do that, you’d feel bad if you did those things yourself. You just keep moving forward and you do the best you can. That’s all you can do.”
Through the course of the NBA season, having assistants who will be even-keeled is invaluable. Along with his grandmother’s example, the life lessons gleaned from Karl and Grgurich have stuck with Mermuys.
“With coach Karl, he had such an ability to not sweat the small stuff and really make everything about winning,” Mermuys said. “That sounds easy but it’s so not in the NBA when there’s so much going on, there are so many factors at play. Really making everything about winning is a talent and a skill.”
The basketball bug bit Mermuys early. A Magic Johnson fan growing up, he would battle his cousin, a Michael Jordan fan, in one-on-one matches in between arguing over who was better. Today, Mermuys hasn’t lost sight of all that it has taken to get to the league he dreamed of as a young boy.
“I have admiration and respect for anyone who has had success,” he said. “Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, all of those guys, of course, but really in the NBA, if you get there and you are in it, you’re pretty darn good and you’re a hard worker.”
After praising the long hours that veterans DeRozan, Lowry and Amir Johnson put in each day, Mermuys also singled out the time put in by reserves to stay ready. Mentioning Tyler Hansbrough and former Raptor Steve Novak, he wanted people to recognize the hours dedicated to their craft.
Always the coach, Mermuys is a pro at shifting the focus from himself onto others. His path from Tucson, Arizona to the Toronto Raptors has been possible through hard work and dedication, but it’s his passion for the game that propels him forward in his quest to one day become an NBA head coach.
“I just enjoy the game,” Mermuys said. “I love the game of basketball. I love the NBA. I know that the people that are in it are the best in the business and I really just enjoy it all. I went to the USA [training camp in July] to see a bunch of coaches and talk and hang out. Coach Grgurich’s camp, Summer League, you just want to be around it and talk to as many guys as you can and just enjoy the fact that we are in this great league of all of these great professionals and we’re all trying to strive.
“You wouldn’t be in the NBA if you weren’t a hard worker and striving to win and compete and have success. I just love the NBA. I love everything about it. I probably consume it too much and it’s hard to find that balance but when you love something that much it’s hard to limit yourself.”