CHICAGO – A glut of media types, team staffers and security personnel were huddled under a TV mounted in a United Center hallway, catching the final seconds of the Norfolk State-Missouri NCAA tournament game Friday evening. There was a Portland Trail Blazers backdrop draped on one wall, it was about time for their head coach to do his media chores and that’s when someone realized: Maybe he was standing amongst them already. Who’d know?
Within moments, Kaleb Canales hurriedly walked over and took his position before the cameras and reporters. In his polo shirt, baggy shorts and sneakers, he looked like a ball boy trying to pull an April Fool’s stunt, but no, this was the right guy. He had been out on the court, putting Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge through their pregame workouts. Same as always.
What, change things up just because Canales was going to be working his first game as an NBA head coach?
Wouldn’t be right. Wouldn’t be Canales. “They’re giving me a hard time about it,” he said. “But anytime I can get out on the court and try to improve our team, improve our guys, it’s a great time.”
It is a dizzy, improbable, staggering time for Canales, who joined the club in 2004 as a video intern and was named Thursday to replace fired Nate McMillan, his friend and one of his mentors. In between Canales worked as the Blazers’ video coordinator, adding “assistant coach” to his duties prior to the 2008-09 season. At 34, he is the youngest of the 30 men working the sidelines in the NBA. And as far as actually coaching a game, well, he did go 4-1 with Portland’s 2010 entry in the Las Vegas summer league.
He a 5-foot-11 former forward for his Laredo (Tx.) high school team. He easily could pass for a twentysomething. And he has been flipped the keys of a franchise that – however sideways it has gone in recent days – boasts an All-Star (Aldridge), four players who have been in the league longer than he has and one (Kurt Thomas) who is five years older. The men on his staff – Bernie Bickerstaff, Bob Ociepka, Buck Williams – have smarts and credentials beyond his own.
But Canales, tabbed for this role by Portland’s acting GM Chad Buchanan, apparently prepared for this overnight opportunity the way he prepares for everything basketball-related: Tirelessly.
“You have so many ideas and thoughts running through your head,” he said of the night before his debut Friday against the Chicago Bulls. ” ‘I want to do this and that, and this and that.’ I put my head down at 1 a.m., turned and looked over my left shoulder and it was 4 a.m. So I haven’t really slept too much.”
What else is new? Canales is known as the guy who slept at the Blazers’ practice facility, the gym rat who was available at any hour to shag balls for a player hoping to hoist a few hundred practice shots or work on some other facet of the game. He spent two years as an assistant at his high school and one on the staff at the University of Texas-Arlington where he got his bachelor’s degree.
Mostly, he went sponge, soaking up as much basketball know-how as he could at each level. He still was doing it as he fielded phone calls and texts from well-wishers Thursday-into-Friday, and he isn’t likely to stop learning now.
“Nobody’s going to outwork him. Period,” Portland guard Jamal Crawford said. “I’ll go shoot at the gym at 9, 10 at night and he’s still there. He’s going to be prepared. He knows every set, he knows every player in the league. ‘Cause he’s a hoop-aholic, so even if it has nothing to do with the team, in his time off, I’m sure he’s watching basketball.”
Canales spoke with McMillan about the awkwardness of this opportunity. He met with the Blazers players and, though so many already are thinking about next season, hammered home the usual tonight-is-the-most-important-game message. He acknowledged other pluggers who have come before him – coaches such as Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Indiana’s Frank Vogel, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra. And now he’ll lean on everything he knows about the team, the game and the league, from deep inside, starting Friday and for 22 games after that.
“Having built sweat equity with our guys over the past eight years,” Canales said, “I feel I have a good grasp of our guys, of our team’s personality, DNA.”
Canales seems to have this opportunity, for as long as it lasts, wired into his.