By LARRY VAUGHT
There has never been a specific reason Dwane Casey has not been more involved with the Kentucky basketball program where he played and coached.
He’s been back to football games and to see friends. He came back when Rick Pitino was the basketball coach and C.M. Newton the athletics director.
However, once he got the head coaching job with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors it got harder to make it back to Lexington any time of the year than when he was coaching in Dallas and Minnesota.
“The schedule was just not right. But no one ever told me not to come back or discouraged me from coming,” Casey said. “It was great to get back to Rupp Arena to see the great Kentucky fans. I was on the team that opened the building. I never even thought I would see a place like Rupp Arena built, but it has exceeded expectations. Being back reminds you of what the No. 1 program in the U.S. is like.”
Casey was back for the UK alumni/legends charity weekend. He was a member of UK’s 1978 national championship team but chose to coach, not play, in the alumni game. He joked he knew that was the right decision for him even before former UK teammate Jack Givens, the 1978 Final Four MVP, tore his Achilles tendon in the game and needed surgery a few days later.
“I told Jack he should have been smart like me and coached,” Casey said. “We went to dinner after the game with Cal (John Calipari) and Jack kept complaining his calf was sore. He said he just went up for a shot and it felt like someone kicked him in the back of the leg. In the NBA, that usually means a torn Achilles tendon. He goes to the doctor and has to have surgery. I told him that’s a sign he should slow down. Of course, he wasn’t going that fast in the game. Maybe 2 miles per hour — tops.”
Casey deserved to have some fun and not have to relive what happened in March of 1988 when he was an assistant on Eddie Sutton’s staff at UK. Emery Worldwide employees found $1,000 in cash in an envelope addressed to Claud Mills, the father of UK recruit Chris Mills, that somehow just popped open. Kentucky officials said nothing proved Casey sent the money but Casey was still placed on five years probation by the NCAA. That ban was later rescinded when Casey settled his defamation lawsuit against Emery Worldwide.
“I learned from things that you can be accused of something you didn’t do. I know I didn’t do it. I could endure because of that,” Casey said when asked about the incident. “I am not saying I am a perfect person, but I didn’t do that. I can sleep at night every night knowing I did not do that. I do regret ever going through that and being involved in that, but that’s in the past.
“I have a clear heart and clear mind and understand what happened and what the university went through. I had no ill feelings toward the university. I learned from it and the whole university learned from it. It made me a stronger person.
I learned from the adversity.
“I’ve had to help build a program in Toronto from the bottom to the top. All that stuff that happened early in my career made me stronger as a person. As the old saying goes, what does not kill you makes you stronger. It made me stronger. But I did not do what they said I did and settling the lawsuit should have told everyone that.”
Casey was also head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves and then a successful assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, who won the NBA championship in 2011, before taking over in Toronto for the last six years. The Raptors have won 48 or more games the last four years and have 14 playoff wins the last two seasons.
He says not once in his NBA coaching career has he been asked about what happened at UK. Not once by an owner or general manager.
“If they had asked, I would have had a pure heart telling them I was not running from responsibility because mistakes were made at Kentucky when I was coaching there. But I did not do what they accused me of,” Casey said. “That’s why the lawsuit was settled. If I had done what they said, they would not have given me the money they gave me to settle.
“I would not want anyone to go through what I did to clear my name or all that the university went through. But thankfully that is all in the past. That was 30 years ago.
Casey occasionally sees Chris Mills when he’s in Los Angeles. Same with Shawn Kemp, perhaps Eddie Sutton’s most talented recruit who left campus without playing a game. He lives in Seattle where Casey does in the offseason and Casey says Kemp is doing well.
“Life goes on. That’s one of those things you regret happened but there are no hard feelings on my part. I still love Kentucky. I am trying to convince my kids to go to Kentucky,” Casey said. “I love the school and fans. That’s why being back to be part of the alumni games was so much fun for me and I hope to be able to do it again.”
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