Teams don’t quit on their coach. They quit on each other.
The biggest fraud among the reasons why Dwane Casey was fired as head coach of the Toronto Raptors has to be that his National Basketball Association team quit on him.
The people who say such things simply don’t understand how a team functions, particularly at the end of the season when every joint aches and the fatigue is monumental. Like many, I’d once thought that teams quit on their coach, until one of the best coaches I’ve ever met disabused me of the notion in all but a few cases.
At a Grey Cup game, I asked Wally Buono, who’s been coaching excellent Canadian Football League teams going back to the 1990s, what he was going to say to his B.C. Lions to get them roused for the game.
Buono shook his head and said, “There’s nothing I can tell them now that will make any difference.
“If they haven’t decided amongst themselves whether they want to make the sacrifices I won’t change their mind. Coaches can bring a team about a third or half of the way into a season. By then teams decide amongst themselves if they’ll go for it. From then on, they drive the bus.”
This follows another essential piece of advice I received from a former National Hockey League team trainer about what motivates athletes. As he pithily observed, players look to the left and right of them in the dressing room. If they’re playing worse than those teammates they know they have to pick it up or be ostracized in the room.
If they’re playing as well or better than the guys next to them? Then all’s well. Even if the team is a car wreck, they’re hidden by the numbers. No one in the room can call them out for slacking. It’s called security and no coach can penetrate that protective casing.
What was clear watching the Raptors’ deconstructed in four straight by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers was that, however far the team had come this season, it soon knew it was the end when James stole Game 1. From then on, Casey could’ve stood at half court performing triple salchows and it wouldn’t have convinced his players they had a chance.
They saw that they needed about three guys to successfully cover a motivated James, which (let’s do the math) left two other Cavs wide open for a score. When the Raps applied fewer than three players to control LeBron, he took it to the rack or dropped threes. It was basic and it was brutal. At least it was quick (most executions are).
Faced with the depth of disappointment in the Raptors’ fandom and organization, something had to give. With DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry being paid the gross domestic product of New Brunswick and P.E.I. combined, the back-court tandem wasn’t going to held to blame. And re-arranging the front court of the regular-season champs of the Eastern Conference wasn’t going to keep the wolves at bay.
General manager Masai Ujiri (who just six weeks ago was being hailed as a genius and the model GM for the NBA) wasn’t going to fire himself. So, as happens in pro sports, the coach was forced to walk the plank. No doubt Casey will be hired as soon as he decides he has a good match, and the fans in the new city will shake their heads and say, ‘What were the Raptors doing in letting go of Dwane? The guy’s mint.’
Meanwhile, Ujiri must package a new coach (Jerry Stackhouse?) to look like the answer to all the Raptors lacked in 2018. When, as we wrote last week, all they lacked was James. As do 28 other NBA clubs. With James likely leaving Cleveland and the Eastern Conference this summer, Ujiri would’ve gotten his fix without having to fire Casey.
There’s nothing fair in this. But there’s nothing new, either. In an age where athletes before the age of 25 can make enough money to keep themselves and their families secure for generations, coaches are the random electron looking to bond with the elements of a team. When the heat builds, the bonds start to loosen and the coach is cast off.
Which reminds me of my third most favourite observation about coaches in pro sports. Casey Stengel was a legendary manager of the New York Yankees who won nine World Series as the skipper of the Bronx Bombers. (He also managed the worst team in Major League Baseball history, the 1962 New York Mets, who lost 120 games and finished 60.5 games behind the leader.)
In a bull session with writers, Stengel was asked the secret to managing.
“Managing,” he said, “is keeping the five guys in the dressing room who hate your guts away from the five guys who haven’t made up their minds yet.”
Good luck, Dwane, you’ll land on your feet. Good luck Raps, LeBron should go to Los Angeles. And good luck to the Raptors players in looking across the dressing room next year and seeing a winner sitting opposite.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.
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