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Auburn Hills — Dwane Casey was ready for his big shot.

It was 1988 and Casey was dressed in his best blue sport coat and gray slacks, on the cusp of landing his first basketball head coaching job.

He sat in the office of Ron Maestri, athletic director at the University of New Orleans, for a formal interview to lead the up-and-coming program. Casey, 31, had served as an assistant and recruiter at the University of Kentucky and was ready for a change.

Casey’s life changed that day — in a way he could not have imagined. 

“The secretary came in and gave (Maestri) a sheet of paper and said, ‘You may want to take this call,’” Casey recalled last week.

His quest to become the New Orleans head coach was about to unravel, delivering a death blow to his collegiate coaching ambitions. It would not be the last setback in the winding career of Casey, the new coach of the Detroit Pistons.

Casey had been directly implicated in a recruiting scandal that took down Kentucky, one of the most vaunted programs in all of sports.

"(Maestri) took the call and came back in and said that we’d better wait until this thing gets resolved before we go forward,” Casey said. “I went back to Lexington and withdrew my name from the search.”

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Just like that, Casey’s dream was dashed, derailed for years while he detoured to coach in Japan, cleared his name in court and finally returned in the professional ranks of the NBA, where he became an assistant coach with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1994.

After 11 seasons as a Seattle assistant, Casey landed his first NBA head coaching job, with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was fired after 1 1/2 seasons, and a 53-69 record.

The next stop was Dallas and Casey spent three more seasons as an assistant with the Mavericks, winning an NBA championship in 2011.

He got his second NBA head coaching gig with the Toronto Raptors in 2011 and won 48 or more games in five of his six full seasons, including a franchise-record 59 last season when he was named NBA coach of the year. Playoff success was elusive, however, and Casey was fired after a second-round sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

But Casey, 61, has landed right-side up again in Detroit. He makes his regular-season Pistons debut at Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets. It’s a new opportunity and new direction for Casey, who was brought in by Pistons owner Tom Gores to guide the team back to respectability — and possibly its first playoff win in a decade.

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John Niyo and Rod Beard preview the 2018-19 Pistons under new coach Dwane Casey. The Detroit News

'I hadn't done anything wrong'

It’s been 30 years since the Kentucky incident, but the sting still lingers. Employees at Emery Air Freight claimed they found an opened envelope with $1,000 cash addressed from Casey to Mills. The NCAA investigated and effectively banned Casey from coaching for five years and added probation for Kentucky.

“Perception at that time was reality and that’s something that you really fight through because once you’re accused of an NCAA violation, it’s like OK, here’s the pariah over here — he’s bad; leave him alone and don’t touch him,” Casey said. “But I knew in my heart that I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

The NCAA later cleared Casey of any wrongdoing and he was reinstated — but the damage already had been done. Casey filed a defamation lawsuit against Emery for $6.9 million and the sides later settled for an undisclosed amount. It was a small victory for Casey, but his name and reputation were tarnished.

“When you go through something like that ... people remember the accusation but don’t remember that I won the settlement against Emery Corp. and after that, the NCAA took away all the (sanctions) and allowed me to go back (into coaching)," Casey said. "That’s in the fine print.

“I know many people in basketball know the whole story and what the accusations were and the acquittals. That was tough to go through, but I never hid or got away from coaching.

“It was tough, but I do know it made me a better person, a better man, and made me tougher, to be able to handle any situation anyone throws at me, after going through that.”

Coach Kohama's 'life raft'

In 1979, while Casey was a graduate assistant at Kentucky, he was responsible for working with Mototaka Kohama, who is regarded as the godfather of basketball in Japan. Casey transported Kohama around and after Kentucky’s practices, Casey would try to explain some drills to Kohama, who was interested in expanding the sport in Japan.

The two built a lifelong relationship, but in the early years, there was one problematic chasm: the language barrier.

“He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Japanese,” Casey said, “but he understood that my heart was in the right place and I was trying to help him. When all that hit at Kentucky, he called me and said they had an opportunity in Japan.”

Casey moved to Kyoto, where he worked with corporate-sponsored teams, as well as Japan's men’s and women’s national teams. It was just what Casey needed at the time, to embrace and invigorate his coaching passion.

Though the skill level wasn’t near what he was accustomed to in the U.S., Casey honed his ability to connect with players and build relationships, a strong characteristic that he still carries with him in the NBA.

That relationship with Kohama continued after Casey returned to the NBA in 1994 as an assistant coach in Seattle. He went back to Japan to coach each summer for a few more years, still grateful for Kohama’s help in a time of need.

“Coach Kohama threw me a life raft and helped me out,” Casey said. “I went over there last summer — specifically to see him — because he had lung cancer and was dying. Luckily, I got over there in August of last year and he passed away (at age 84) in January.”

'A great communicator'

Before Casey’s coaching career began, he built his name as a player at Kentucky. His Wildcats knocked Michigan State and freshman Earvin "Magic" Johnson out of the NCAA tournament en route to the 1978 national championship.

He took great pride in working with then-coach Joe B. Hall for a year as a graduate assistant, but Casey got his first break when Clem Haskins hired him as a full-time assistant at Western Kentucky in 1980.

Even then, Haskins saw some of the qualities that have made Casey successful in the NBA.

“He was a good person, honest person and a great communicator. He could relate to anybody: red, black, white, green, whatever color — he could motivate young men,” Haskins said. “I was looking for a special coach and I hired him because I wanted a strength coach to implement a weight program at Western Kentucky, and Kentucky had the best in America. They had guys who could play football because they were so big and strong.

“After I got him, I realized I had a keeper because he was a great communicator, players loved him, and they responded to him. He worked hard and was a great recruiter and a great X-and-O man. Whatever you gave him to teach, he could teach the game.”

Haskins, 75, considers himself an old-school coach — more of a dictator than a player’s coach — but saw something in Pistons practice last week that caught his eye. It’s the same hands-on approach that Casey has used to build bridges with players in each of his coaching stops, from the NCAA to Japan to the NBA.  

“I watched a young man make a turnover, what I’d call a bonehead play. Casey said, ‘I love you, but you can’t do that. We can’t win like that.’ ” Haskins said. “If you put me in that position, I would have corrected him, but I would have hurt his feelings. That’s why (Casey) is unique in what he does."

The Pistons challenge

The Raptors fired Casey in May, following another playoff sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavaliers, even though Toronto had the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Raptors team president Masai Ujiri called the Casey firing a “very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take” as Toronto seeks more postseason success. “We are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level.”

After the Pistons parted with Stan Van Gundy, the fit for Casey was there — and after Gores hired Ed Stefanski to run the front office, the next priority was getting their coach.

Stefanski and Casey had worked together in Toronto, so there wasn’t much background checking to do. Casey signed a five-year deal and immediately got to work — not with making plays, but with getting to know the players. 

“Casey is a very good basketball coach, but he’s even a better person. That’s important and the players see that; they’re excited about it,” Stefanski said last month. “Casey is like myself, a person where you know where you stand. We’re open to talk to people and we may not give them what they want to hear all the time.

“The players know he’ll kick them in the butt when they need it and give them encouragement when they need it also.”

It’s a delicate balance, but Casey has spent time individually with players this summer and has built strong bonds with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, around whom the Pistons are structuring the team’s future.

The Pistons got Griffin at the trade deadline and weren’t in the market to add any big-name free agents. In many ways, Casey is their biggest free agent — and he understands everything that goes along with that.

“I feel the pressure of expectation, but I don’t want to transfer that to the players. I want them to enjoy playing basketball,” Casey said. 

After following his coaching dream around the world and back, Casey is ready for another big shot. 

"It’s like everything: When tough times happen, you either fold over or move on," said ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, himself the head coach of the Pistons when Casey played for Kentucky. "I give him credit — he didn’t fold over.

"The Pistons got a good one."

rod.bard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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