From all-star to teacher: Coach Jerry Stackhouse takes Raptors 905 to D-League final preaching culture of family, resilience


MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Jerry Stackhouse is no stranger to transition.

It’s the morning before Game 2 of the second round of the NBA Development League playoffs and the Raptors 905 have just finished their morning shoot-around. Pascal Siakam emerges from the tunnel leading from the court in a black hoodie and sweats, followed closely by Stackhouse, dressed in a grey team tracksuit with a coach’s polo underneath and a coffee in hand.

Even at 42, Stackhouse appears ready to jump back on to the court at any moment — and he probably could. Over the course of a decorated 18-year NBA career, Stackhouse developed a reputation for occupying many roles. At his peak, he was an all-star in consecutive seasons (1999-2000 and 2000-01) and finished second to Allen Iverson for the league scoring title in 2000-01.

“At one point, I might have been the last man towards the end of my career, but I kept reinventing myself to create longevity in this game. To be able to do that for 18 years, I feel like I’m a basketball lifer,” Stackhouse says.

Many remember Stackhouse as an all-star and a scorer, later as a sixth man and a veteran presence. But statistical accomplishments and individual accolades aren’t what Stackhouse prides himself on. He describes himself differently now — using words such as “provider,” “nurturer” and “protector” when referring to his role as bench boss of the Toronto Raptors’ NBADL affiliate.

The 905 finished with a 23-27 record in what proved to be a respectable inaugural season in 2015-16 under coach Jesse Mermuys. Mermuys left to join Luke Walton’s staff with the Lakers, which provided Stackhouse with a new opportunity. This season the team vaulted to the top of the standings, finishing the regular season with a 39-11 record – the best winning percentage in D-League history. Stackhouse believes his experience as a player has made him approachable as a coach with a resumé that players aspire to emulate.

“When you’ve done it and because of the success I’ve had as a player, getting these guys to pay attention is not my problem. Their eyes and ears are open,” Stackhouse says.

“I felt like I was no-nonsense as a player, I’m no nonsense as a coach. I want us to be a family where we’re brothers as a group with a respect for the boundaries of coaching. Players understand that dynamic, but at the same time they feel comfortable enough to talk to me.”

Stackhouse’s playing career offered him the chance to learn from some legendary coaches, such as Basketball Hall of Famers Dean Smith and Don Nelson. However, Stackhouse credits his parents for teaching him about work ethic, respect and discipline — pillars of an approach to coaching that were ingrained well before Stackhouse even considered being a coach.

He grew up as the youngest of 11 siblings in Kinston, North Carolina, under the roof of parents who worked multiple jobs to provide for the family.

Stackhouse’s father’s “whole cheque was basically for our family. It was probably $400-450 for the whole week, but in my mind we were rich because whatever I needed when it came to sports or whatever I was doing, they did whatever it took to make sure that I had it.”

Stackhouse was 21 years old when he was drafted third overall in 1995 by the Philadelphia 76ers, who were firmly entrenched in the basement of the league at the time. The 76ers hoped the University of North Carolina player would become a franchise cornerstone. The transition from an elite college program to an also-ran NBA team was difficult.

He sought the guidance of veteran Vernon Maxwell, who Stackhouse credits for helping him learn to defend the two-guard. Their tenure together was short-lived as Maxwell signed with San Antonio and the Sixers won just 18 games in 1995-96. As the team dwelled in mediocrity, the absence of a mentor made an impression on Stackhouse.

“Other than him (Maxwell), I didn’t have a lot, so I kind of yearned for that and promised myself that I would never be a guy who didn’t share information with younger players in fear of them taking my spot,” Stackhouse says.

After being traded to Detroit halfway through the 1997-98 season — where he has his all-star seasons — Stackhouse would go on to play for six more franchises en route to playing 970 games in 18 seasons.

But Stackhouse couldn’t stay away from the game for long. He did some TV work right after retiring and then joined the Raptors’ staff as an assistant to Dwane Casey in 2015. He is easily the most famous current D-League coach.

After Raptors 905’s regular-season success, Stackhouse now finds himself with his team in the best-of-three league final against the Rio Grande Vipers. Game 2 is Tuesday night at the Hershey Centre with the 905s down 1-0. Win or lose, Stackhouse likely won’t be waiting long for a call from an NBA team looking to add him to their staff.

Until then, Stackhouse is focused on preparing for the next game and his team’s preparation. Shortly after making the playoffs, he was forced to say goodbye to two of the 905’s best players, Axel Toupane (New Orleans) and D-League Defensive Player of the Year winner Edy Tavares (Cleveland) – two of the league’s 38 players called up or signed by NBA teams in 2015-16. This past season alone, the D-League reported that a record 44 per cent of current NBA players have D-League experience. Stackhouse doesn’t see the trend ending anytime soon.

“When you have a veteran team like the Raptors have, there’s not going to be a huge opportunity for those guys to come in and play right away. I think having a D-League affiliate is huge. It’s almost like a minor league system to get those guys ready and give them the reps that they need,” Stackhouse says.

Stackhouse seeks to instil a culture of family and resilience within each member of the 905’s 12-man roster. The average age of the team is just above 24, and as Stackhouse notes, “When you’re dealing with young men aged 20 to 25, there’s always going to be some challenges.”

Despite their youth, the team bought into Stackhouse’s system and responded to his defence-first approach, finishing the season as the only team in the league to allow fewer than 100 points a game.

The team culture also isn’t dependent on the contributions of any one player. There’s more than just a sense of pride when Stackhouse talks about his players – it’s a belief in every individual on the 905 roster.

“I don’t believe a system where all five guys don’t have a sub, that’s just how I look at basketball. I play 10 regardless because all five guys need someone behind them. We trust everybody,” Stackhouse says.

Stackhouse has impressed in his first season as head coach of the 905, much like his first year in the NBA that saw him make the league’s all-rookie team. Last Wednesday, he was given a new honour – D-League Coach of the Year.