Timberwolves Give Dwane Casey An Opportunity He Deserves

By Steve Kelley
Updated: June 20, 2005


Dwane Casey

SEATTLE — In the dead hours — and oh, there were so many dead hours — Dwane Casey would lie on his hotel bed flipping television channels, blankly watching one show after another, listening to actors whose language he didn’t understand.

In the early 1990s, his exile years, Casey might have been the loneliest man in Japan. He didn’t speak the language. He didn’t know a soul. Even though he was the coach of the country’s men’s and women’s national basketball teams, he felt like a stranger in a strange land.

“I felt so far away, like I was a million miles from where I wanted to be,” Casey, the new Minnesota Timberwolves’ coach said by telephone yesterday afternoon. “I felt like nobody in the United States cared whether or not I ever won a game.”

Before 1988, Casey always could count on basketball. The game had given him everything. It gave him an education. It gave him a job. It gave him a kind of unique, requited joy.

“I was consumed by it,” Casey said. “It still is something I think about from the minute I wake up in the morning, until I go to bed at night. It is a part of me every day. It is what I know.”

But in 1988, the game betrayed him. It left him.

On April 14, 1988, when Casey was a Kentucky assistant, an unsealed Emery express delivery envelope containing $1,000 in $50 bills, allegedly intended for then-recruit Chris Mills, was discovered. The name listed as the sender was Dwane Casey.

I’ve known Casey for 11 years, since he came to Seattle in 1994, and I know him to be one of the most decent and moral guys in the game. Steadfastly, he has denied that he sent money to Mills and I’m convinced he unfairly was made the fall guy in the Emery incident.

Still, this was the kind of incident that can ruin a coach’s career. Ruin his life.

Casey, however, never has showed a hint of bitterness. Never said a discouraging word about Kentucky or his coach at the time, Eddie Sutton. His friends and supporters in the game are legion.

“Kentucky was a big part of my life,” said Casey, who as a junior played on its 1978 national-championship team and was team captain his senior season. “It was my dream to be the head coach there one day.”

But, after an investigation, he was forced out of Kentucky in March 1989 and exiled to the hoops gulag of Japan. There, Casey faced the real possibility of spending the rest of his professional life hustling for jobs in all of basketball’s vast backwaters.

“I thought that might be what happened, but I hoped it wouldn’t,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I didn’t know if I could get back in. It was just a big unknown. I didn’t know where I would go next.

“But Japan was also a real period of personal growth for me. I did a lot of soul-searching, and the good news through that period was that I was still coaching. Japan had given me the opportunity to stay in coaching.”

If perseverance is a measure of success, Casey will have the Timberwolves in the NBA Finals next season. He spent five years in Japan and took the men’s national team to its first world-championship appearance in 31 years.

Every summer during his exile, he would return to the United States, visit NBA summer leagues just to let people know he wasn’t some kind of coaching Chernobyl.

He talked with then-Sonics coach George Karl before the 1994-95 season, who offered Casey a second chance when Bob Kloppenburg’s retirement created a vacancy on the staff.

“George is a great basketball mind,” Casey said. “He was very, very creative. I learned a lot from George.”

In recent years, Casey, 48, has been a finalist for openings in Milwaukee, Toronto and Atlanta. None is as good as the job he got on Friday.

The Timberwolves, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996, were the preseason choice to win the Northwest Division. They had the most disappointing season in their 16-year history and still won 44 games, missing the playoffs by only two games.

“This isn’t your typical situation where you’re being brought in to rebuild a bad team,” Casey said. “This team has a lot of pieces. This is a team that has big goals. We have the greatest power forward in the world in Kevin Garnett.”

Minnesota made the right choice. Late last night, Casey still was in his office, watching videotape of the workouts of draft candidates.

Be certain, he will outwork every coach he faces. He will be prepared for every game the Timberwolves play. He will talk with his players, and they will play for him.

He is in love with the game and, a long way from those lonely hotel rooms in Japan, basketball is loving Dwane Casey back again.