Dwane Casey, ahead of the curve in spreading basketball’s gospel, ‘proud to represent Pistons’ in Mexico City
Jeff Haynes (NBAE/Getty)
MEXICO CITY – There might have been an NBA coach or two who’d look at a mid-season trip to another country as a burden, but there was no chance of Dwane Casey harboring that sentiment.
Casey’s eyes were opened to the power of basketball’s ability to bridge cultures four decades ago when he was a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Kentucky, and he began what became a lifelong friendship with Mototaka Kohama. Kohama spent that 1979 season studying the Kentucky basketball program, taking that insight back to Japan where he would apply it on his way to becoming his nation’s most respected and accomplished coach.
Their friendship led to Japan becoming something of a coaching lifeline for Casey after the NCAA brought down sanctions on Kentucky – with Casey becoming a scapegoat. He was later vindicated in court, but in the meantime Casey needed a job and Japan represented an open door – and open arms.
Casey coached for Japan’s national team and two pro teams over his five years there before George Karl launched him on the NBA segment of his coaching career by making him part of his Seattle SuperSonics staff in 1994. While a part of Seattle’s staff, he had his first experience in Mexico City, the Sonics playing a preseason game there.
So if the NBA was looking for the right coach to help spread the gospel of basketball, they got their man in Dwane Casey.
“I know and realize how important it is for Mexico, Mexico City and the NBA,” Casey said after the Pistons practiced at Mexico City Arena, a 22,300-seat facility opened in 2012, ahead of Thursday’s game with the Dallas Mavericks. “Our team and our organization take pride in it and we just want to make sure we put on a good show.”
The Pistons staged a basketball clinic after the practice for area schoolchildren and Special Olympians and the grins on their faces were every bit as wide and authentic and easy as those of their hosts. They posed for dozens of pictures, signed autographs until their hands cramped and left impressions that will endure long after their stay here ends.
“I love it,” Derrick Rose said, surrounded by dozens of cameras and microphones, the bulk of them from Mexican media outlets. “Especially when you come somewhere where the weather is great, the food is great and the wine is great. Take in everything and cherish the moments that we have here and take in the culture.”
Rose and Blake Griffin are the two Pistons whose stardom transcends even the expansive boundaries of the NBA. They are global marketing superstars. Nobody has a keener appreciation for the power of the NBA’s reach than they do.
“It’s huge. Obviously, I’m biased, but because basketball has done so much for me in my life, I’ve got to see a lot of places I wouldn’t necessarily see,” Griffin said. “The first time I came here (with the Clippers in 2010) was for basketball. I love being able to come to places like this, whether we go overseas to China or wherever it is, and play the game. The growth of basketball is a huge thing and hopefully gives kids out there more and more opportunities.”
Soccer remains the dominant sport in Mexico and in many other pockets of the globe, but basketball among the major professional sports played in the United States has had the most success at global penetration.
Casey saw that early, struck by the passion Mexican fans had for the NBA more than two decades ago, though it came as no surprise to him after his time in Japan and witnessing the galvanizing effect of basketball wherever he went to coaching clinics on various continents. He’s gone on to coach players from all corners of the world in the NBA. Coaching the Pistons in Mexico City is merely the latest in a long line of international basketball experiences for a coaching lifer who’s been an enthusiastic ambassador for his sport.
“I know our organization wants to represent our brand – the Detroit Pistons,” Casey said. “It’s important to all of us. I’m proud to be able to represent the Detroit Pistons and the NBA here in Mexico City.”