Dwane Casey has a soft spot for children who are at-risk and stuck in a vulnerable situation.
Those raised in complicated family situations. The kids who are at the brink of good or bad. Because he was once that child.
The Detroit Pistons head coach, who played and was an assistant coach at University of Kentucky, was raised by his grandparents in Morganfield, Ky.
“I don’t want to sound like woe is me, but we had coal stoves,” Casey said. “My weight lifting program was picking up coal and bringing it in.”
His grandfather, Urey Miller, worked two jobs, as a janitor and in a dry-cleaning business. He was up at 5 in the morning, and wasn’t home until 10 at night. Every day.
His grandmother, Elizabeth Miller, cleaned houses — Casey would go with her and hang out in the basements while she worked.
Together, his grandparents taught Casey discipline, work ethic and the importance of making the right choices.
And now, Casey is trying to spread that same message.
When he took over as the Pistons’ coach in June and moved to Detroit, Casey wanted to get involved in a children’s charity.
One where he could set an example and make a difference.
One where he could share the lessons he learned from his grandparents.
This past weekend, the Pistons and Casey, his wife, Brenda, and children, Justine, 10, and Zachary, 7, held a Very Merry Casey Christmas, hosting 36 children from the Pure Heart Foundation, a nonprofit based in Detroit. It’s a group that helps children who have parents who are incarcerated.
The Pistons invited the kids to watch practice. They met the players, shot around after practice with many of them, and received presents, including personalized Pistons jerseys, basketball shoes from Pistons guard Langston Galloway, hats, a basketball and headphones from center Andre Drummond.
Casey didn’t go into specifics about his family situation. His parents weren’t in jail, but he can relate to the kids.
“Whatever I can do, whatever my family can do, to show them there is hope,” Casey said. “If you do the right thing, you can go far. I could have gone either way. I could have gone the route of drinking all the time, hanging out, not doing my schoolwork, not working at basketball. But I decided, I made a decision, to do the right thing.”
Sherelle Hogan, the Pure Heart executive director, expects this special event, this one experience, to change lives.
“I am blown away,” she said. “To have the Pistons reach out and want to adopt Pure Heart is mind-blowing. It’s so amazing that someone like the coach of the Pistons thought enough of them to invite them and adopt them for Christmas. These children feel so hopeless and they are going through so many things. I believe each child’s life will be changed.”
Hogan also has a special connection with these children.
She, too, grew up in a vulnerable situation — both her parents were in prison.
“It is our goal of breaking generational incarceration,” Hogan said. “At home, all they see is struggle. They need to see a light.”
And Saturday, that light was the Pistons.
That light was Casey and his family.
“All of our players, all of us have come from unfortunate situations,” Casey said. “Even though you don’t have money, even though you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, there are choices. Who am I going to run around with? Who am I gonna hang with? What time am I going to get in? Choices to try drugs or drink alcohol or drink water. That’s the difference if you go south or you continue to grow. Opportunities are there, if you make the right choices. And I’m a prime example.”
They gave each kid $100.
But that gift came with a test.
“My thing is, here it is,” Casey said. “You make the right choice with it. You can buy presents with it. You can buy something to eat with it. Whoever is taking care of you, go out and get them a gift. But it’s your choice. Don’t mess it up. This is your first test.”
This, too, is Part of Casey’s master plan is he’s not just coaching a team. He’s trying to teach his player’s important lessons.
“The guys donated gifts,” Casey said. “The guys have jumped in. I’m so proud of our players, pitching in. …
“As coaches, we can do an even better job of growing as men, make the right decisions, be disciplined off the court, give back, all those little things. Because I do believe in the basketball karma, the basketball Gods. When you do all those things, when you do everything with a pure heart, good things happen.”
A fantastic example. Casey isn’t just the right coach for this team now: He’s the right guy for our community.
He exudes hard work. Discipline. Goodness. And honesty.
Just like his grandparents taught him.