Leading up to today, all signs pointed toward Jay Triano returning to coach the Toronto Raptors. At the end of the season, Bryan Colangelo made it clear that the players supported their coach, and then he even endorsed Triano’s return himself, saying that if he wasn’t back as general manager he felt Triano deserved consideration as the head coach.
With Colangelo’s contract sorted for two more seasons to show what he can do, his careful consideration led him to the decision to let Triano go.
It’s a strange feeling when you receive a press release in your email inbox telling you that someone you’ve seen, spoken to and written about every day is no longer going to be a part of your day-to-day work experience. You get used to it with players because you eventually accept that anyone is tradeable at any given time, but when it’s a coach it feels a little different.
And it sucks. It sucks because unlike players who are traded, you know that a coach who has been let go has lost his job. A job that he loved and worked hard for and appreciated every single day that he came to work. Regardless of the wins and losses accumulated, Triano being let go isn’t entirely a reflection of his coaching ability.
How could it be? In the NBA where stars reign supreme, it is always the head coach who gets the axe first. Regardless of the fact that he has a less than desirable roster to work with. Despite having that roster that was severely lacking in talent, depleted by injury and almost destroyed by the lure of South Beach, Triano had his guys playing competitive basketball over the course of 82 games. Not an easy feat when the season’s been hailed as a rebuilding year from the get-go.
Compare this team to a season earlier when the Raptors did have the supposed right pieces with Chris Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu, and yet the 22-win team from this past season was more enjoyable to watch. They worked hard, they improved and they came to practice ready to work. They just didn’t play defense. And, without defense, you’re lucky to make it to 20 wins in the NBA.
While Colangelo said the search will be on for a new coach immediately, I wanted to take a moment to look at the coach the franchise will be saying goodbye to. Why? Because he was pretty enjoyable to work with, when talking about head coaches.
Spend any time around Triano and it’s easy to see why his players worked hard for him. He quietly demands respect, but he gives it, too. He’s a teacher. Whether it’s a player, an assistant or media member who isn’t clear on why he has chosen to do something, ask and Triano will take the time to tell you. If that didn’t clear up your question, he will physically take you to the court and show you the who, what, why, where and how. He’s a basketball junkie in the truest sense of the word. He just wants to make the game better.
He’s a coach. He wants to help you become better at the game you love. Whether you’re the highly-touted 9th pick in the draft or the D-League alum that was an offseason trade throw in, show up ready to work and Triano will be there waiting to work you out. A media member with a question that will take too long to ask in a scrum? Shoot him an email and he’ll have an exchange with you where he challenges you, encouraging you to think about the how and why before simply giving you the answer. A few emails into the back-and-forth conversation and you realize you’re being coached yourself. So you’re a player that has had a reputation follow you for your career? It stops with Triano who believes in clean slates and second chances, giving players the opportunity to show him who they are.
Not surprisingly, he’s got a huge heart. If you had asked him about his friend Terry Fox, or about carrying the Olympic torch earlier this year you would have heard his voice crack. If you had covered practice this season you would have noticed him strangely absent one weekend session. You wouldn’t be able to forget when he pulled you aside the next time he saw you to ask, with tears in his eyes, if you knew the teenaged basketball player who had passed away far too soon, before explaining he missed practice to pay his respects to the young man’s family.
Then there are the random conversations that end up happening when you’d least expect them to. Remember watching DeMar DeRozan in the dunk contest this year? I was watching with some friends at a sports bar when I looked to my right and spotted Triano watching his sophomore stud on the big screen. Before I knew it, Triano had said hello, we invited him to join our table and then he ended up staying there. Watching the dunk contest, cheering as loudly as everyone else in the building, he hung out even after DeRozan was eliminated to talk all things hoops, sharing Olympics stories from years past and Team USA memories from the summer.
He’s a man with a work ethic that won’t allow him to stop. It’s how he got to here, it’s why the Raptors felt compelled to keep his basketball mind around and it’s why he’ll remain in the NBA. Every NBA coach loves this game, it’s the ones who can get their players to trust and believe in them who set themselves apart. Despite his win-loss record in Toronto, Triano had that. Amid the struggles of a rebuilding year with a young squad, Triano had their ear because he had earned it, working and prepping as hard for Game 82 as he did for their first preseason scrimmage.
Passion isn’t something you can fake. Not for the long haul. Not when things get tough and are anything but glamorous or glitzy. Those are the moments when everything fades except for what’s inside. During those moments, Triano was still the same coach he had been all along because there is no posturing with him.
A friend of mine once told me that if you treat the game right and it will treat you right back. If this is true, Triano’s got a lifetime supply of basketball waiting for him wherever his journey takes him.