“First of all, I want to see everybody’s story that they wrote before the game…Back in Kentucky, you make sure when the bear is buried in that land you better poke it - make sure it’s dead.”
The Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey directed that Southern proverb to the doubting media en masse in the aftermath of his team eking out a 86-82 Game 7 win over the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
A little over 28 years ago, almost everyone thought that Casey’s coaching career was DOA.
Casey was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, but is as Kentucky blueblood as any of Rupp’s runts despite the tormented history of the country’s most vaunted college basketball program. He moved to rural Morganfield, Kentucky as a toddler and, before dribbling his way into a becoming Wildcat, worked the hard knock like on tobacco farms and coal mines. Leaving the coal dust in the wind, he won a NIT title during his freshman year in Lexington. As a junior in a reserve role - yet honored as the captain - he was part of the squad that was led by Jack “Goose” Givens and crowned the 1978 NCAA champion.
Immediately upon graduation, he moved down the bench and spent one year as an assistant to head coach Joe B. Hall. He then began serving a five-year apprenticeship at Western Kentucky under fellow bluegrass state native Clem Haskins. Haskins would later guide the University of Minnesota in 1997 to its only Final Four, but soon thereafter fall prey to an academic fraud scandal.
Pulled back to his alma mater as an assistant and top recruiter under new head coach Eddie Sutton, Casey got caught in the crosshairs of big-time college athletics corruption.
In 1988, he was accused of mailing $1,000 in cash by an express mail service, Emery Air Freight, to the father of the highly prized Los Angeles recruit Chris Mills. An NCAA investigation resulted in Sutton’s and Casey’s resignation. Sutton would soon be welcomed back to college basketball’s bright lights as the head coach at his own alma mater, Oklahoma State.
But Casey was hit with a show-cause order that effectively barred him from coaching in college for five years.
Casey maintained his innocence throughout and a few years later in 1991, he was exonerated after filing a $6.9 million defamation law suit against Emery Air Freight that ended with the company settling. The NCAA also rescinded its penalty after the lawsuit revealed that Casey wasn’t involved in sending the package.
But not many people read the subsequent corrections. Casey, as recently as 2011, felt compelled to reach out to the author of an article that clung to the old guilty story line. Fortunately, the reporter was receptive with a graceful acknowledgment of his error by quickly filling in his readers to the actual truth.
Nonetheless, these apologies don’t remove the sting of false accusations and their ramifications that stunted a promising coaching career in the college ranks. The scandal rocked UK, but it was righted a few years later by hiring Rick Pitino, who brought in Bronx-born Jamal Mashburn to revive the program and almost single-handedly took the Fab Five to the brink.
Casey’s path has been a bit more circuitous.
Everyone considered him too hot to touch. He was banished to basketball Siberia, plying his craft as an assistant coach for five years with the Japanese national team and head coach for two professional teams in the Japanese Basketball League. For five years, the brother from another planet was lost in translation requiring Japanese translators to communicate with his players.
In 1994, George Karl brought him back from the land of the rising sun by hiring him as an assistant with the Seattle Super Sonics. Despite two head coaching regime changes of Paul Westphal and Nate McMillan, Casey continued to serve as an assistant for 11 years. Finally, in 2005, he got his first head coaching shot in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves. This was a year removed from their Western Conference Finals appearance in rebuild mode. Yet, he was unceremoniously fired in his second season despite a 20-20 record.
But his biggest regret is not being able to reach a former first round pick before his tragic death. In a 2013 Toronto Star interview, Casey reflected "[W]e had a kid, Eddie Griffin, who had some issues and troubles and ended up dying in a car wreck. I just wasn’t able to reach him as a young man and help him through his troubles.”
After a four-year stint as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, the Raptors tabbed him to rebuild the team after Chris Bosh bolted to South Beach. Soon after getting the position in Toronto, Casey commented about the journey to the New York Times.
“When I look back on the situation at Kentucky, it is in the rearview mirror; life goes on,” he said. “Let bygones be bygones. I don’t live my life every day hoping and wishing and thinking about what would have, could have or should have happened back in Kentucky.”
Under his calming influence, the Raptors have improved every season during his tenure, setting a franchise record of 56 wins this year while winning the Atlantic Division for the third consecutive season.
But just last season, the team lost in the first round to the lower seeded Washington Wizards. Facing elimination against the Pacers this year in the opening round of the playoffs, most assumed they would fold up and head north for another long offseason.
But the Raptors advanced past the Pacers in seven games, getting out of the first round for the first time since Vinsanity in 2001. They won another game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against a more experienced team when they routed the Miami Heat 116-89 (coincidentally under the executive leadership of fellow UK product and Rupp Runt, Pat Riley).
The Raptors got pummeled in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavaliers, losing 115-84. Tonight, we'll see what happens when they get poked.
Most people thought Dwane Casey was buried a long time ago. But he’s still here. Let’s see if the same holds true for the Raptors against Cleveland.