“I thought it was a breakfast meeting and it turned out to be a breakfast termination.”
That is how Jay Triano recalls his morning meeting with Canada Basketball officials on October 19th, 2004. It is A call to an execution. The national basketball team under his command had failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics; but just four years earlier he had bossed them to a 5-2 finish in Australia at the Sydney Games, an underdog’s triumph. That team was led by superstar point guard Steve Nash, who doggedly led a group of unheralded players to seventh place in the quarter-final finish down under. The Canadians have not been back to the Olympics since.
Make no mistake that the “breakfast termination” helped fester nearly a decade’s worth of player no-shows, lack of direction and a fragile identity on and off the court. After that breakfast Nash – the greatest Canadian hoopster ever and loyal Triano soldier – never played for the program again. It was the breakfast that changed everything.
“Obviously I was disappointed but what it did was that it allowed me to focus on my NBA career,” says Triano over the phone from Caracas, Venezuela. “I don’t have any regrets and I’m not mad or angry at anybody. It’s just sometimes stuff happens and its not how you feel or anything, it’s how you deal with it. I got better.”
In many ways, the story of Triano’s life is a basketball journey filled with failures bent and flipped and twisted into success. As a youngster growing up in Niagara Falls, Triano chased the dream by traveling with the boys of St. Patrick’s church, past the U.S. border, in search of better competition. Years later, he traveled across the country to British Columbia and attended Simon Fraser University after the interest from U.S. colleges failed to yield a scholarship. Instead of lamenting, Triano made the best of his surroundings. As a student, he continued to cross the border to the States, spending weekends in Washington to improve his game.
“After my first year here I had a coach by the name of Stan Stuardson who was really tough,” explains Triano, who broke 11 school records in four years at SFU. “He made you mentally tough with how hard practices were (and) what he demanded of us everyday. I think that really helped me in my career, having that right away.
“It was the best of both worlds because I was getting a Canadian education and I was playing against American players everyday because we were in the NAIA. That kind of set the stage for what I could do.”
Triano made the national team after his 1977 freshman year and was later named team captain in 1981. The same year he was taken in the eighth round of the NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. He was cut during training camp, effectively killing his NBA chances. Still, he squeezed out three years of pro ball in Mexico and Turkey, experiencing more of the international grind.
“I went to Mexico and kept trying to play for as long as I could because playing for the national team was a dream, it’s what I liked to do,” says Triano. “To stay at that level you’ve got to find places to play so I would travel to wherever I had to go to play as long as I could and stay in shape so I could spend my summers playing for our national team.”
“Playing in those countries you learn how to play under adverse conditions and different situations. You travel and you’re playing the international game on a daily basis and practicing the international game on a daily basis and it was perfect because it helped me with my quest of representing Canada.”
In many ways, it has always been about Team Canada for Triano. It is why the kid from the Falls headed west to SFU (“I first went off to Simon Fraser because at the time they had three players playing on their team that played for the Canadian national team,” says Triano). It is why he stretched out a barely memorable pro career as long as he could. Fuel for the chase. Before his national team career ended in 1988, he had gotten them a gold medal at the 1983 University games, beating a U.S. squad featuring future hall-of-famers Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. There were two Olympic games appearances, and by the time he retired his next step had already been planted.
“When that all ended and I could see that my career was going to finish up after the ’88 Olympics – and the head coach who was my coach at Simon Fraser was stepping down – it was a natural fit for me to help him for a year and then take over the program,” says Triano.
Undeterred by his short playing career, Triano entered the coaching profession immediately and has never looked back. Ten years later he was named head coach of the national team. His firing came after being named a Toronto Raptors assistant coach – a first for a Canadian in the NBA – was even more confusing to those following the game.
Panicked perhaps by his ascension through the Raptors ranks, executives questioned his commitment to the program he had bled with for over 20 years. Still, there was always Sydney.
“It was huge,” says Triano of that out-of-nowhere run. “I don’t know if it was just the Olympics but people start to realize you can coach a little bit.”
After the Grizzlies moved out of Vancouver to Memphis in 2001, Triano found himself in Toronto as a media man covering the country’s surviving NBA franchise.
“I was doing TV and radio at the time in Vancouver then TV for TSN in Toronto,” Triano explains. “There’s an opening in Toronto for a fourth assistant and I get a chance. You kind of work your way up the bench, you become the third assistant, you become the second assistant and you just keep working. Then I was fortunate enough to be in a situation where I got offered the head-coaching job there. Again, going back to the Olympics… if we don’t do well I probably don’t get an opportunity. We played well and we played as a team and we ran good stuff and we were successful. That probably opened some eyes somewhere.”
One of those sets of eyes belonged to Duke University and team USA basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski. When the USA Basketball team fell to a bronze medal finish at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, their tumble from atop of the global hoops heap was absolute. The rest of the world was catching up talent-wise but the Americans had lost touch with the international game and it was a hard and intricate grasp for players who had never had to run it. Shortly after “the breakfast” Krzyzewski tapped Triano to fill the gap; his knowledge slowly began to rise to relevancy in basketball. Triano had lived it but more importantly, he could coach.
“As disappointed as I was, I focused more on my NBA career and stayed in touch with the international game,” says Triano of his firing. “Then Mike Krzyzewski asked me to help out with the U.S. team and I would never have had that opportunity if things had not gone sideways a little bit with Canada Basketball the first time.”
Triano’s role as an international specialist helped USA Basketball reclaim of the number one spot with a gold medal win at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but what struck him was the remodeled program under coach K. It was a win-at-all-costs approach that demanded a long-term commitment from players and coaches.
“Working with the U.S. team gave me a little bit of a different look as to how I would run the national program again,” admits Triano.
Later that year, he replaced Sam Mitchell as the Raptors’ head coach, another NBA first for a Canadian. After two and a half seasons and an 87-142 record Triano was fired by the club in 2011.
“Things didn’t work out there. I didn’t feel like I wasn’t a good coach. I felt like, ’OK, I need to move’,” he reveals. “I always thought that I needed to show what I could do somewhere else in the NBA. Then the opportunity came up with the national team. When I was approached again at the time I wasn’t working. I had interviews for a couple (of) jobs and all of a sudden I got the national team job and the Portland Trailblazers assistant coaching job at the same time. They both happened in a week.” It was the kind of pick-yourself-off the-mat skills that have come to define his career.
So when Nash was retained as Canada Basketball’s general manager in May of 2012, it came with the understanding that Triano was his head coach. Wayne Parrish, the journalist turned media man now running the business, agreed. Assistant GM Rowan Barrett, a key contributor to the Sydney run, was excited. Barrett had spent a year reconnecting the program with Canada’s exploding talent pool that features 2013 first overall pick Anthony Bennett, and projected 2014 first overall pick Andrew Wiggins. Seven other NBAers are in the pool including Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Andrew Nicholson. Triano was the final piece.
“It goes pretty deep (and) I think a lot of it is that group of players at the 2000 Olympics,” say Triano. “I remember them saying ‘When we’re done and we’re finished playing we’ve got to help make a difference, man’.
Any hope the reunion would result in an instant turnaround was dashed in Caracas at the FIBA Americas Championships when Canada failed to secure a berth to the 2014 World Cup. Without it, the team must wait until the 2015 qualifying tournament to fight for a seat at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
“This team is going to be arriving in 2020 and we can’t try to accelerate these guys because of who they are and where they play,” says Triano, clearly bothered by the hype machine. “To have that much pressure on them where we expect them to medal while we go to all these tournaments? We’ve got to learn how to play at these tournaments first.”
For Triano and crew the real trench work has just begun, but there are few basketball minds in the country better at resurrection.
“There are three things that can happen when you fail at your goals,” offers Triano. He’s back from Caracas now, his words crackling through his phone on the drive back home to Niagara Falls. “One, you can quit. Number two, you can do the same as you did. Three, you can work harder.”
Needless to say Triano has lived his life according to the third. His return to the national team program not only showed a willingness to bury the past but also acts as a signal to others who may have been turned off from the rocky history between the program and its players. Triano’s own history has become his best asset. Not only did it develop his coaching acumen, but it’s also the kind of scratch and claw testament that has built the man, and in turn builds men.
For Triano, the chase has always been now and as usual, when Canada Basketball has needed him, he has been prepared to answer the call.
Even if it’s for breakfast.