By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
Kaleb Canales (Sam Forencich/NBAE)
If the name Kaleb Canales doesn’t ring a bell, it likely will soon. Think Erik Spoelstra. No one knew the two-time champion coach of the Miami Heat when he was living in the shadows of the franchise’s video room or as an assistant on the Heat bench.
Now everybody knows his name, as well as the fact that Spoelstra is the first Filipino-American to coach in the NBA.
Two seasons ago, Canales — born in Laredo, Texas and whose father is from Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas — became the first Mexican-American to lead an NBA team when he took over the Portland Trail Blazers as the interim coach for 23 games after the team fired Nate McMillan.
In the offseason, a month after his 34th birthday, Canales was one of two finalists to become the next coach of the Blazers. Despite the support of the players, the club passed on Canales’ youth for the experience of Terry Stotts, who had previously been a head coach and just celebrated winning the 2011 championship on Rick Carlisle‘s staff with the Dallas Mavericks.
Canales remained with the Blazers last season as a lead assistant and helped ease Stotts’ transition with his new players. When Mavericks assistant Jim O’Brien decided to step aside last summer, Carlisle hired Canales at Stotts’ recommendation.
The move ended a long relationship with a Blazers organization that gave him his shot and the tools to grow. But it also delivered Canales back to his home state, just a stone’s throw away from where his unique coaching ascension started on the ground floor as a student and then as a coach at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“So when I was in high school, I’m sure like every kid, I had a list of goals I made with a pen and pad — spiritual goals and professional goals and personal goals,” Canales said. “And one of my professional goals was to be a coach in the NBA. Obviously, when I told my friends that growing up in Laredo, it was like, ‘Yeah right,’ you know?”
What do those friends, most of whom live close enough to hop in their cars to come visit, say now?
“They all come to the games and ask me for tickets,” Canales laughed.
Paying his dues
How did a kid from Laredo, Texas, a heavily Hispanic-populated border city of a couple-hundred-thousand, make it to the NBA, and at such a young age? Those who know Canales say his boundless energy and enthusiasm, belief and perseverance paved the way.
“First of all, he has good spirit,” Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “He’s always into it with energy and he’s wholeheartedly always giving 100 percent. I think he put everybody in a good position and we loved him.”
Like Spoelstra — and, actually, with a little help from him — Canales accepted an internship in 2004 with the Trail Blazers to work in their video room. It was unpaid, but it counted as credit toward the Master’s degree he earned online from Virginia Commonwealth University while coaching at UTA.
“I started doing a lot of research on how coaches were getting opportunities to coach,” Canales said. “I read Erik’s bio, I read a bunch of assistant coaches’ bios, I read John Loyer from Detroit; I saw video coordinator in their background. I knew that was something I could attack. I had some video experience at UTA. My first interview was with the Miami Heat. I know Erik last year [in an article], he was kind of nice because he said I wrote him a letter every week for a year. I think it was almost like every day for a year.”
Canales got an interview with the Heat and nailed it, but they politely told him they decided to hire from within. Impressed with him though, some phone calls were placed and Canales got an interview with, and then an offer from, the Blazers. He would quickly advance from unpaid intern to paid staffer as Portland’s video coordinator. Canales would pore over game film until his bleary, reddened eyes watered.
By the 2008-09 season he was promoted to assistant coach while keeping his duties as video coordinator. And by the next season he was out of the video room and fully immersed in player development as a full-fledged assistant. He was 30 years old.
“It started with Damon Stoudemire and Nick Van Exel for me and became LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy,” Canales said. “And it became Jerryd Bayless, it became Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard.”
From the start, he earned a reputation for having an insatiable appetite for work, practically living at the Blazers’ practice facility.
“He would watch film and work guys out, and at odd times of the night,” Aldridge said. “He wanted to make sure that if anybody came there at any time he would be there, so he would literally sleep at the practice court all the time. So if you came in at 12:30 [a.m.], he would be there. All basketball.
“When you ask him who is girlfriend is, he always says, ‘Spalding.'”
Learning from the best
Whatever free time comes his way, he typically spends it seeking out and studying other coaches. While still with the Blazers he made it a point to contact Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and attend summer workouts. He visited University of Oregon football practices before Chip Kelly left for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.
“I love studying coaches because I love studying leadership,” Canales said. “Watching and studying the practices of coach Carroll or coach Kelly, you see the energy from them, you see how they interact with their players and then you see them playing on Sunday. I went to an OTA [Organized Team Activities] in the summer with the Seahawks. I said, ‘Coach, it feels like you have a game Sunday,’ how sharp they were.”
Not much has changed in Canales’ hundred-mile-an-hour approach in his first season with the Mavs, a team that has improved throughout the year and is in a dogfight for one of the final playoff berths in the Western Conference.
Canales plans to return to Laredo for a couple of weeks during the summer to visit with his mother, Alicia, his father, Victor, and his sister, Chantall, all of whom have become accustomed to rearranging the calendar to fit Canales’ busy schedule.
“We celebrate all the holidays in the summer,” Canales said. “It’s like July 9 and we’re celebrating Thanksgiving or something. We try to get creative with that, understanding that this is a passion. It’s definitely a lifestyle and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
When he’s in Laredo, Canales runs a basketball camp for kids. It’s there he shares his stories and encourages the young campers, almost all of whom share a similar cultural heritage, to dream big. Canales said empowering Hispanic kids is a responsibility he takes seriously.
“You can’t be afraid not only to dream, but to dream big,” Canales said he tells the kids. “It’s a big-time responsibility, and I hope that kids can see my blessings and then see through faith and hard work that they can achieve their dream. It’s something I want them to really believe in.”
Before too long, much like Spoelstra’s rise from anonymity in the video room to the spotlight of the Heat’s lead chair, Canales may soon find himself making history.
“Obviously, looking down the road, I would love to have that opportunity again one day,” Canales said of getting another shot at an interview. “But that’s not where my concern is right now. I understand how blessed and fortunate I am, and I don’t take that for granted.”
Throughout the month of March, the NBA is celebrating Latin heritage through its Noches Ene-be-a program. For more information, click here.