Trail Blazers vs Suns Monday, 04/16/12 AT 07:00PM

Canales Coaches A 'Beautiful Game'

  1. Written by: KevinHudson  / avg. rating: 5.0

    Kaleb Canales’ father Victor is passionate about soccer. This comes as no surprise, as the Nuevo Laredo, Mexico native joins the vast majority of his fellow Mexicans to whom “the beautiful game” sits alone atop the pantheon of modern sport.

    But when Victor Canales tried kicking the soccer ball to his young son one morning at their Laredo, Tex. home, the child picked it up with both hands when it rolled his way.

    “My dad’s first sport is soccer, he loves soccer just like the way I love basketball,” Canales said. He added, with a grin: “But since that day in the yard he said I had no shot at ever playing soccer.”

    Still, Canales shares a love for the game of soccer with his father and supports both the American and Mexican national teams. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Mexican national team and Manchester United forward, is far and away his favorite player to watch.

    “What he’s doing at that level we haven’t seen since probably Hugo Sanchez, one of the best Mexican soccer players to ever play,” Canales said. “Chicharito is so exciting to watch. Everyone sees him score goals but I think he’s such a complete player. He passes the ball great, he fights for every ball.”

    The quality of a broad skill set on the soccer pitch is one that transfers obviously to the basketball court. A player who can score is valuable; a player that scores, rebounds, defends and passes can have a far greater impact on the game.

    Canales sees other ways that the two sports can mirror each other, though more subtly. To illustrate the point he refers to FC Barcelona, considered one of the top clubs in the world and home to Lionel Messi, considered one of the game’s top players.

    “I would love our basketball team to play like Barcelona does. I think they play beautiful soccer. I love watching them play, the passing, the passing angles, the give and goes, the spacing that they need,” Canales said. “There are the obvious differences - they have 11 guys on the field to our five, they have a goalie - but in terms of scheme and context I think it’s the closest thing to our sport.”

    Canales’ appointment to the Trail Blazers helm hasn’t gone unnoticed in the world of international sport, and Chicharito took a moment from the hectic home stretch of English soccer’s Barclay’s Premier League season, where Manchester United sits atop the table by five points over Manchester City with five matches remaining, to send his own vote of confidence to the Trail Blazers coach.

    “My congratulations go to Kaleb on becoming head coach for the Portland Trail Blazers. It was nice to hear that he is a soccer fan and is incorporating some of the soccer tactics on the basketball court,” Hernandez said. “I would like to wish Kaleb all the best in his new role and I hope the Portland Trail Blazers have a very successful season.”

    Despite his love for soccer and his appreciation for other sports, basketball took hold of Canales like no other game could.

    “When I was a kid, just like every kid, I played every sport,” Canales said. “Basketball, I just felt an instant connection and I’ve just been in love with the game ever since.”

    Canales’ youth was a golden age for the NBA, when Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics were the established rivals and Michael Jordan was beginning to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation of basketball fans. Canales was no exception, and his father did what he could to encourage that interest.

    “My dad would take us to Spurs games as much as he could, as much as we could afford,” Canales said. “I remember watching Jordan play with my dad up in the 300 level…I just fell in love with all the players and the game itself.”

    And while soccer and baseball both rank ahead of basketball for most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, Canales said the fan base is there and the sport is on the rise among Latinos, as it is throughout the world.

    New Orleans center Gustavo Ayon and 11-year NBA veteran forward Eduardo Najera are examples of Mexicans at the sports highest level and Canales’ proof of the growth of the game among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

    To get to the highest level himself, Canales has leaned on the work ethic he learned from his parents and the coaches he’s met and worked with along the way, mentioning Minnesota Timberwolves advance scout Pat Zipfel and Detroit Pistons assistant John Loyer specifically as influential figures in his young career.

    “I’ve been very blessed to have so many mentors I saw in the NBA…had so many good people around that I could say, ‘Hey, I like that I think that’s kind of how I want to be.’ That’s not only in coaching but in life you meet people and you just kind of add it to your foundation and go from there,” he said.

    An historic feat

    When the Portland Trail Blazers announced, March 15, that they had parted ways with coach Nate McMillan and named Canales the interim head coach, it was an historic moment for Mexican-Americans.

    Canales, born in Laredo, Tex., to American-born Alicia and Mexican-born Victor Canales, became the first Mexican-American coach in NBA history with the Trail Blazers appointment, a feat he hasn’t had much time to contemplate in the whirlwind of basketball since.

    “My focus has been to put my energy into preparing our team. Some people have mentioned it to me,” Canales said of the accomplishment. “It’s an honor, it’s a privilege and it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.”

    Laredo, where his mother was born, sits on the border between America and Mexico, with a bridge that crosses into Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, where his father was born. Growing up, his life was a mix of both cultures.

    “There were certain things we did with my father’s family and certain things with mother’s family,” he said. “During the holidays we kind of had the best of both worlds in terms of cultures.”

    That mix of cultures means Canales is fluently bilingual, an asset that has benefited him in his career, including connecting with Spanish-speaking players.

    “Growing up you don’t realize the impact that the ability to speak two languages fluently kind of opens doors for you,” he said. “You don’t understand how much of a benefit it can be and these past couple years I’ve really seen that and it’s very important to me.”

    And while Canales hasn’t had time to reflect on the historic accomplishment of being the first Mexican-American to be named an NBA head coach or bask in the pride of his family and the people of Laredo, his hope is that a kid out there somewhere is taking notice of what he has done.

    “I just hope it sends a message to all of the kids out there that they can’t be afraid to dream,” Canales said. “Through faith and hard work, anything they want to accomplish in life, they’re very capable of doing it.”

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