I don't know Kaleb Canales personally. Before Thursday, he was just a name.
In NBA circles, he was regarded as an up-and-coming young assistant with a reputation for having a strong work ethic and good individual relationships with players, similar to a coach Windy City fans are somewhat familiar with. But after Friday night's win over the Bulls -- in his first game as an NBA head coach, following Nate McMillan's ouster Thursday, after Portland's 40-point loss at the hands of the Knicks (featuring their own new head coach) and coinciding with the trade-deadline deals that shipped veteran mainstays Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby to New Jersey and Houston, respectively -- the 34-year-old interim head coach of the Trail Blazers already has a win over the league's top team under his belt, not to mention same instant name recognition.
"Just a special time for us as a team, as an organization, as a family. All the credit goes to the guys in that locker room for holding it together. Obviously it's a special win because you can imagine everything that's going on," Canales, the NBA's first Mexican-American head coach, said afterwards. "We just talked about staying in the moment and controlling what we can control, and we did that tonight."
"Our team spirit was there tonight and it was a team victory all the way through," he continued. "We just made adjustments at halftime as a staff and we talked about certain wrinkles that we felt we could go with, and we were just fortunate that they worked out.
"Canales told his players in the locker room after the game that I loved them and with the commitment we asked this morning, they committed to it and we're going to hold them accountable for the rest of the year."
McMillan was viewed as one of the league's upper-echelon coaches for years, but after years of devastating injuries, it seemed as if the former Seattle Supersonics guard had simply run his course with this season's edition of the Blazers. Under Canales, at least in his head-coaching debut, Portland appeared rejuvenated, even as short-handed as they were after the trades, and shocked a Bulls team coming off an inspired Wednesday win over the Heat.
"To be honest with you, it's kind of relaxing. I've been very blessed and fortunate to get this opportunity. It's very humbling," Canales, who acknowledged that it's been a "tough year" for a Portland squad looking in at the playoffs from the outside at the present, remarked. "I just wanted to go out there and compete. That's what we want to do every night. We wanted to compete and play together."
"We're focused on practice tomorrow," he added. "We talked about it and in our league, wins and losses, the biggest thing you gain from it is in practice the next day and obviously we know we've got to get some work tomorrow.
"I have a lot of sweat equity with these guys. I've spent a lot of time with them."
Now, Anthony Evans, I do know. But to most people, the head coach at Norfolk State University, like Canales, was pretty much anonymous before Friday.
A No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament after winning the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, consisting of all historically black colleges and universities) tournament, Evans' Spartans team was matched up with Missouri, the Big 12 tournament champions, in the opening round. Missouri was picked by many observers to make it to the Final Four; instead Norfolk State upset them, the first of two No. 15 seeds -- Lehigh, which beat Duke, being the other -- to win on the evening.
"I apologize, but I don't apologize because this is a dream come true, to get to the NCAA Tournament, actually win a game, representing the MEAC, who have done it before. One of the people who I called was MEAC rival Coppin State head coach Fang Mitchell. Fang Mitchell, years ago, was a 15 seed who beat Texas. He gave me some great advice. He told me to keep the game close over the increments, but tell the kids to go out and have fun. We did that last night and we got our first victory in the NCAA Tournament," Evans told CSNChicago.com. "It's great for college basketball. These are the stories that you live for when you're growing up and they talk about Cinderella. These are the teams that they mean. Lehigh, there's a guy on staff, Steve Ott, that I know. He actually played under me when I was at SUNY-New Paltz as an assistant, so I'm happy for the staff, happy for him and definitely elated for us. Hopefully both of us can continue through the tournament."
I've known Evans since he was an assistant at Norfolk State -- he recruited a high-school player I worked with in Philadelphia -- and always thought highly of him, but I can't say I expected him to knock off Missouri. To be frank, his team broke my bracket, though the joy of a friend's success outweighs me winning an NCAA Tournament pool.
However, I wasn't surprised that it was a close game. I watched Norfolk State take Marquette to the wire in the championship game of the Paradise Jam holiday tournament (before the hectic NBA season started), after getting absolutely destroyed by Jimmy Butler's alma mater in an earlier matchup.
Kyle O'Quinn, the MEAC player of the year, conference tournament MVP and defensive player of the year is the main reason the Spartans got the historic upset, as the 6-foot-10 senior went for 26 points and 14 rebounds against Missouri. O'Quinn is solid, blue-collar type who has received interest from NBA teams throughout the season.
"When he first came to us, he was really, really raw. He's only been playing basketball for about six years. We had to put all the basics in with him, with footwork and everything. He's developed, he's matured all-around. He can block shots, rebound and his offensive game has definitely come around because he can make a back-to-the-basket move, rock-steady. He hit a three-point shot Friday, which he has done for us time and time again for us this year," Evans said of O'Quinn, his fellow native New Yorker. "He's just been a pleasure to coach the last four years. He showed last night that he can be a dominant force and I hope some of the teams in the league will pay attention,"
Still, even with O'Quinn, whose only Division I scholarship offer was from Norfolk State after only seeing significant playing time as a high school senior, beating one of the best teams in the nation would be a tall task. Evans believed that Missouri's unconventional style and smaller lineup actually played to his team's advantage.
"We started breaking down some film and we watched Missouri play. They play four guards. In the MEAC, we see a lot of that and they were similar to Marquette. They wanted to get up and down the floor, they wanted to play a fast pace, score in the 80s, so we thought our matchups were pretty favorable for us. Once we started playing last night, Kyle got off to a great start. He was really aggressive at the beginning of the game. I thought he set the tone for the rest of the team," he said. "At the end of the game, they were a little fatigued because some of the threes they were hitting in the first half, they started missing, so we were rebounding, we had a six-point lead and if we hit some free throws, we could have extended it, but we missed them and they got back in. Pressey hit a real, real deep three to put them within one, but we responded and as long as we responded to the runs and the plays that they made, I thought we had a good chance of pulling the game out."
As improbable as O'Quinn's journey was, his coach can relate. Evans worked his way up from being a volunteer assistant at a New York junior college to becoming an assistant coach at Norfolk State for four seasons before being hired as head coach five seasons ago, with stints as a Division III assistant and junior-college head coach in between.
"All I knew about was working hard. Working as hard as I could, put the right pieces together, the right staff together and make a run at it. We had a five-year plan. We got to the championship game in the MEAC in '08 and we lost to a very good Morgan State team, but for the last couple years, we struggled a little bit out of conference," he said. "This year, everything came together. We had some transfers sitting out and some seniors coming back, who were hungry to win."
Sunday, the Spartans face Florida, another guard-heavy squad. However, Evans understands that after knocking off Missouri, the Gators will be wary and won't be taken by surprise.
"Everyone's happy, but we know we have a job to do. Florida's going to be a bigger challenge than Missouri because they had a chance to sit down and actually watch us play last night. They're going to be prepared, so we have to play better than we did last night, in order for us to be successful. It's going to be a tough challenge, but I think we're going to be ready when we step on the floor tomorrow night," he explained. "It's good for us because we're not playing against a big, physical basketball team. I think we can match up. I think they might be a little bit more physical than Missouri was, but I like our chances. Again, we have to go in and play our best basketball because we can't think that what we did last night is good enough to win. We have to go in with a sense of urgency, we have to play together, we have to play with composure, so that we can be successful tomorrow night, as well."