“He was a kid who took any speaking engagement, whether he was being paid or not, to develop his ability to handle himself in front of a crowd and deal with that pressure,” Hall recalled Friday.
In his current gig coaching the Toronto Raptors, Casey has proven fairly skilled at handling pressure.
With Toronto needing a road victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Thursday night’s NBA playoffs opening round to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, Casey watched his team open a 71-46 lead with 5:17 left in the third quarter.
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He then saw Milwaukee unleash a devastating 34-7 run to take an 80-78 advantage with 3:06 left in the game.
Perhaps reflecting the personality of their unflappable head coach, the Raptors did not panic. Toronto put together a 9-0 run of its own and pulled out a 92-89 win that allowed the Raptors to claim the series four games to two.
Casey and Toronto will face LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Cavaliers in the conference semifinals with Game 1 tipping off at 7 p.m. Monday in Cleveland.
When Casey was playing at Kentucky (1975-79), Hall said he did not necessarily have the 6-foot-2, 195-pound guard pegged as a future coach.
“But I had him pegged as future success in whatever he did,” Hall said. “Dwane was the most disciplined, organized, ‘having his head-on-straight’ kid I ever coached. And he was a great worker.”
Casey was the middle of three players Hall recruited out of Union County in Western Kentucky in the 1970s. Point guard Larry Johnson (1973-77) started the pipeline from Morganfield, then came Casey, followed by forward Freddie Cowan (1977-81).
Johnson (850 career points, 390 rebounds, 319 assists) and Cowan (975 points, 489 boards) both became full-time starters in their UK careers. That didn’t happen for Casey (125 career points, 62 assists, 51 rebounds).
Yet Casey was part of the defining moment of Hall’s UK coaching career.
Wildcats fans were expecting the Cats to win it all in 1977-78. Yet at halftime of Kentucky’s ‘78 NCAA Tournament opener, UK was trailing Florida State 39-32 at halftime.
In a coaching gamble for the ages, Hall opened the second half by benching three starters and inserting reserves LaVon Williams, Cowan and Casey in their place.
Said Hall: “You never had to worry about effort with Dwane. The value he added to our program with his presence in the locker room was a whole lot greater” than his career statistics reflect.
Casey’s college coaching career crashed in 1989. The ex-Cat had the misfortune to have his name in the return address on the Emery Air Freight envelope sent from the UK basketball office to the father of a Kentucky recruit in California that “popped open” in Los Angeles, revealing $1,000 in cash.
Casey maintained he had no knowledge of that money. Regardless, the NCAA put Kentucky on probation and slapped Casey with a five-year show-cause penalty.
To rebound from that career nadir and reach Casey’s current standing in the coaching profession is a remarkable example of real-life mental toughness.
“He paid a big price (for the Sutton-era UK scandal) but it never fazed his desire to coach, his confidence or his self-assurance that he was going to make it,” Hall said of Casey.
Now in his sixth year in Toronto, Casey — who turned 60 April 17 — has gotten maximum production from a roster that has high-level players such as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan but does not have a James/Curry/Westbrook level of superstar.
Since Toronto joined the NBA in 1995-96 as an expansion franchise, the Raptors have won a total of four playoff series. Having led Toronto to the Eastern Conference finals last year, Casey has now been responsible for three of them.
Here in Lexington, an 88-year-old former UK basketball coach is basking in the success of the former Wildcats player who used to make all those speaking engagements.
“I love to talk about Dwane Casey,” Hall said.
Raptors at Cavaliers
7 p.m. Monday (TNT)