By Jonah Bronstein
Greater Niagara Newspapers
Basketball fans in the hockey haven of Western New York harbor a fantasy that the Toronto Raptors will someday come to town to play a game at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena, completing a karmic exchange with the nearby metropolis that annually borrows their beloved Bills.
Up in Canada, there’s at least one man who would also like to see that happen. And he happens to be the head coach of the Raptors.
Jay Triano, 58, grew up in Niagara Falls, Ont., just a few minutes from the Rainbow Bridge. His high school years coincided with the Buffalo Braves’ brief run as an NBA playoff team. He eagerly awaited the few Braves “home games” at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, and on occasion, he’d drive over the border to buy a standing room only ticket for games at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium.
“That was my team,” Triano said after a Raptors shootaround the day after the Bills played in Toronto. “Bob McAdoo, Ernie D., Jim McMillian, Gar Heard, Randy Smith, those were my guys. It was an exciting time for me. I was a basketball fan and a player and that’s how I got introduced to the NBA.”
Triano also developed an affinity for Little 3 basketball, particularly the Niagara Purple Eagles. He fondly recalls watching Calvin Murphy play on Canadian television.
“He’s very familiar with the rich tradition of Niagara basketball and the Little 3 and has great appreciation for it,” said former Purple Eagles coach Jack Armstrong, who has been part of the Raptors broadcast team for the last 13 years.
Triano was the leading scorer all four seasons at Simon Fraser. He set 11 school records, including the all-time scoring mark of 2,616 points. He also played football as a senior. During the summers, Triano would go to the Gallagher Center looking for quality pickup games.
In 1981, Triano was drafted in the eighth round by the Los Angeles Lakers and in the sixth round by the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders. He later received an invitation from former Niagara coach Frank Layden to attend the Utah Jazz training camp.
The pinnacle of Triano’s playing career came on the international stage. He played for the Canadian National Team for 11 years, serving as captain from 1981-88. He participated in the Olympic Games in 1980, 1984 and 1988. He played in the World University Games four times, including in 1983 when Canada won the gold medal and he led the tournament in scoring. In 1985, he carried the Canadian flag during the opening ceremonies in Japan.
Triano’s father, Howie, was a longtime high school coach in Niagara Falls, where he still lives.
“His father was a terrific player and coach,” Armstrong said. “The family has a great love for the game.”
The Triano coaching legacy began in 1985 when Jay returned to Simon Fraser as an assistant. He became the school’s head coach in 1988, and stayed there until 1995. In 1992, he joined the coaching staff for the Canadian National Team. He took over as head coach of the national team in 1998 and served in that capacity until 2004. He led Canada to a semifinal berth in the 2003 FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Puerto Rico and a 5-2 record in the 2000 Olympics that was second only to the United States.
Triano broke into the NBA in 1995, working as the director of community relations for the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies. He also worked as a radio and television analyst until 2001, when the franchise relocated to Memphis.
The following season, Triano joined the Raptors staff as an assistant to Lenny Wilkens. He served as an assistant for the next two coaches, Kevin O’Neill and Sam Mitchell. In 2008, Triano became the first Canadian-born head coach in the NBA when he was named the interim replacement for Mitchell.
“Jay is a very humble guy that has paid his dues, come up through the ranks, done things the right way and treated people with respect,” Armstrong said. “He gets it and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. When you see a guy like that get the opportunity of a lifetime, you’re just so happy for him.”
Triano took over after 17 games and guided the Raptors to a 40-42 record. The team won 22 of 32 games at one point, but dealt with key injuries down the stretch and missed the playoffs by one win.
“At times on the sideline, he has a very stoic personality,” Armstrong said. “But he’s a very intense competitor and a tough guy. He knows when to be low key and knows when to be more forceful. He’s a very balanced guy, and that’s a hard thing for a coach to do in a very competitive business.”
Triano received a three-year contract extension in 2009. In his first full season on the sideline, the Raptors were six games above .500 and fifth in the Eastern Conference standings in early March. An injury to franchise forward Chris Bosh coincided with a late-season demise, and the Raptors once again missed the playoffs by one spot.
After the season, Bosh left Toronto to take his talents to South Beach, and the Raptors suddenly entered a rebuilding phase. Management has established that making the playoffs this season is a secondary priority to developing the young talent base. Starting point guard Jarrett Jack was recently traded for a prospect, Jerryd Bayless. Entering today’s home game against the Knicks, the Raptors are 8-11, having won two straight.
“He’s in a difficult situation right now, but it fits his personality,” Armstrong said. “He’s demanding, yet he’s patient. When you have young players, they are going to tick you off a lot because they aren’t going to get it, how hard you have to play every possession and a lot of the little things. At times you want to lash out and at times you need to lash out, but he does it in a way that he doesn’t lose them.”
Triano said the coaching he received when he was a young player who still didn’t get it has guided him through a career that has already been enshrined in the Canadian Basketball, Canadian Olympic, Basketball British Columbia, Basketball Ontario, Simon Fraser Athletic and Niagara Falls Halls of Fame.
“It all happened for me in Niagara Falls,” Triano said. “If it hadn’t been for a good high school program and all the people that helped me, it all wouldn’t have happened.”
Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2258.