New role, same Canales

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer



The assistant coach bounces over and around the line of long NBA bodies stretching on the floor. He slaps hands with each player, even the ones he knows good and well won't be here much longer at training camp. The players near the end of the wall can hear and feel him coming their way, and so they stretch their open palms out.

Assistant coaches

Kim Hughes

Last seen developing players such as Chris Kaman and Elton Brand into viable big men while with the Los Angeles Clippers (2003-2010). Will be the Mr. Miyagi to rookie Meyers Leonard’s Karate Kid this year. One of three current Blazer assistants with some NBA head coaching experience.

Dale Osbourne

Got the call up from the D-Leagues. Well-traveled through the college, minor-league and independent basketball ranks, last coached the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA Development League.

Jay Triano

The Canadian on the bench who once coached the Toronto Raptors (2009-2010) to a 40-42 season – only the franchise’s fifth 40-win season in 17 years. Vast international résumé as not only the Canadian national team leader but also as ambassador in NBA’s Basketball Without Borders. The offensive mind among the group.

David Vanterpool

At 39, the youngest of the retired players-turned-coaches and still looks fit and athletic enough to lace ‘em up and hit the floor. Working with backcourt players, with emphasis on mentoring rookie point guard Damian Lillard.

J.J. Hickson waits for his greeting and Kaleb Canales smacks and grabs his hand. He stands over Hickson and says something that makes the 6-foot-9 center fill the practice facility with laughter.

After a long practice, Canales is still on.

Even more so, after guiding the Blazers as interim head coach near the end of last season but returning to an subordinate role in this period when new seeds have been sown inside the Rose Garden, Canales remains steadfastly himself.

"Excited to be part of the staff we have. You know, excited to get an opportunity to learn from Coach Terry and his championship DNA and just excited about our team," Canales said. "So, just excited to keep growing and keep improving."

If you're counting -- that's four "exciteds" rattled off in one thought. But that's just Kaleb Canales, the Vitamin B12 shot of energy serving as the new "defensive coordinator" on the revamped Portland Trail Blazer coaching staff.

"K is like that bond between everything new and what Portland is," guard Wesley Matthews said. "He's big time, big time for this program and big time for us."

Canales -- who at 34 occasionally goes unshaven to work but still wears the look of a college kid who broke into the Blazer coaches' room and stole all their gear -- has spent nearly a decade within the organization that he loves.

His story is renowned in Portland: the unpaid video intern who hustled his way through the years to become a Blazer assistant coach and even got a sniff at the big seat on March 15 as the youngest active head coach in the league.

Canales worked his contagious "Let's Go! Let's Go!" motivations and high-fives inside a lifeless locker room that the fired Nate McMillan had lost. The night of Canales' first game as head coach -- a March 16th road win in Chicago -- All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge described it as "the most fun I've ever had in an NBA game."

Canales earned their respect and although this summer the Blazers brought in a more seasoned leader, when the team announced Terry Stotts as head coach, it also had already created a position for Canales.

"I'm ecstatic about the challenge because obviously (defense) is an area of focus for us," said Canales, thoughtfully using a synonym for his buzzword, "excited."

"Obviously, I love defense. I love teaching defense, and it's something as a team I feel that we have to just keep improving and keep chipping at the rock everyday."

Easily the most popular among the new and unknown faces on the coaching staff, Canales received a rousing cheer during introductions at the Oct. 21 Fan Fest intrasquad scrimmage.

"You heard the ovation at Fan Fest for Kaleb, you would think he was a four-time All-Star," Matthews said. "You can relate to him. When he started here, he was video guy, intern guy, do whatever it takes and he just loved it. Loved being here. Loved the atmosphere about everything.

"When the coach situation happened and Kaleb was the head coach, he hit the ground running. I just have a lot of respect for him."

While Canales works under a defined title, he continues to spread his vim like a virus throughout the roster.

After practices, Canales often feeds passes to shooters such as Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard as they fire 3-pointers. He also will pull on oversized arm pads and try -- futilely -- to keep the 6-11, 245-pound Aldridge from posting up. And following this one-on-one workout, Canales, sweating through his gray Blazer shirt, will raise up for another high-five.

Every role he takes on comes with the same unrestrained enthusiasm but that's because he's still the same Kaleb Canales.

"I get to coach NBA basketball everyday. That's always been a dream. It's a blessing," Canales said. "That's not to say that some days aren't a little more challenging than others because we all face that. But for me, it's just natural to be excited. Anytime we can get on the floor with our guys, I'm just fired up about it."