TORONTO — Dwane Casey has been carrying around a contract in his briefcase for the past few months, signed by all the Toronto Raptors and the team’s staff.
The contract, just two or three lines long and something that “wouldn’t hold up in court,” Casey said laughing, was a pledge of commitment. Its headline: “I’m all in.”
Perhaps no one was more committed than Casey to the Raptors’ success this season, and on Tuesday, the 57-year-old coach was rewarded with a new three-year contract. The announcement came two days after Toronto’s season ended, but a couple of months after GM Masai Ujiri first approached the coach to get a new deal done.
“Coach Casey was really classy because he said to me and he said to the players, ’Let’s leave this and concentrate on the season, this is our chance to prove ourselves,”’ Ujiri said, recounting his initial contract talks with Casey back in March.
“He said, ’If I’ve preached that to the players, then I owe it to them to continue this and we’ll talk about (contract negotiations) after the season.’ I really give him credit for that.”
Casey led a young Raptors team to a remarkable and unexpected season that included a franchise-record 48 wins, an Atlantic Division title, and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. Toronto pushed the vastly experienced Brooklyn Nets to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs, losing Game 7 by just a point.
Casey said he drew up his “I’m all in” pledge right after the February all-star break. In their next game, the Raptors recorded a big 103-93 win at Washington.
“(It was about) committing to the process. Leaving their egos at the door,” said Casey, who said he might have the contract framed. “Each player dedicated themselves, gave themselves to the season, and also as far as I’m concerned to the future. Because this year was just a start of what we want to grow and develop with Masai as our leader and also the guys that are coming back here.”
Kyle Lowry was the first player to jump up and sign the pledge, said Casey.
Retaining Lowry, the point guard whose teammates say was their heart and soul this season, will be one of the Raptors’ top priorities in the coming weeks — the 28-year-old becomes a free agent on July 1. Lowry spoke glowingly in exit interviews a day earlier about his love for his teammates and the city, and Ujiri sounded, on Tuesday, as if the feeling was mutual.
“It’s very important (to re-sign Lowry) in terms of continuity,” Ujiri said. “Kyle has had a phenomenal year. I thought Kyle was a huge, huge key to our season. For me, negotiating is easy if we want Kyle to be here and Kyle wants to be here.
“He’s grown tremendously, to be coached and to work with,” Ujiri continued. “His teammates, everybody has said that. We’re proud of him. And so we’ll go through that process, but we’re optimistic stuff will happen.”
Lowry and his teammates praised Casey in season-ending media interviews, noting the consistency of his message.
For his part, Casey said he never considered testing the market. Ujiri made a commitment to the coach when the season began, and Casey said it was only fair he reciprocate.
Casey’s job status was uncertain when the season began. He was hired by Bryan Colangelo, and Ujiri had just replaced Colangelo as GM.
“Masai could have made any decision when he first took over the job last spring.” Casey said. “He was true to his word, he gave all of us a platform to go out and prove and show, even the players, what you can do. And he was true to his word. That’s all you can ask for in this business is an opportunity.
“It would be so disingenuous to even go out and put your foot in the market and think that was a possibility, so I didn’t even give it a second thought. My heart is here, my mind is here.”