Why this matters
At a time when the NBA is increasingly globalized and places value on diverse coaching staffs, the league's first Mexican-American head coach is taking a leap of faith coaching the Mexican National Team to try to become a head coach in the NBA again.
For as long as he can remember, Kaleb Canales has wanted to be a head coach in the National Basketball Association. He briefly achieved that goal in 2011 as an interim, but after 13 years as an assistant for various teams, Canales has embarked on a different path.
Canales, the first Mexican-American head coach in NBA history, made a quiet exit from the league in November 2021 when he accepted the role of associate head coach with the Mexican National team. There were many reasons to take the job – his Latino heritage, the rising popularity of basketball in the country, and his relationship with head coach Omar Quintero – but among them was the opportunity to get high-level international coaching experience heading into next year’s FIBA World Cup.
In his decade-plus in the league, Canales has seen his peers take many routes to reach the top spot in NBA coaching. There’s no clearly defined career pathway, he says, but teams tend to place a premium on coaching winning teams, and especially those with prior head coaching experience.
“There’s not one way to do it. I think that’s what makes it really challenging,” he says. “You have a mix of former players, maybe former video coordinators, former longtime assistants, maybe people who have scouted before. Obviously, everybody wants experience, and then when you have head-coaching experience, I think that kind of puts you in a different group.”
Still, Canales’ decision to leave the NBA and coach in Mexico is not without risk. Broadening his experience on an international stage could help him get back to the league and to the job of his dreams, but his leap of faith could also be ignored. Despite a growing stable of foreign-born superstars and the NBA’s expansion to new markets overseas, the league has been slow to embrace coaches with international experience. European champions like David Blatt and Igor Kokoskov came and went last decade, as did successful foreign-born assistants like Etore Messina.
“The coaching side, you always have to be ready to adapt and adjust,” Canales says.
As Mexico sits 4-2 in qualifiers led by NBA veterans like Gustavo Ayon and Juan Toscano-Anderson, vying for its second World Cup appearance in nearly 50 years, Canales believes that he’s advancing his career. Will general managers and owners in the NBA agree?
Around the Country and Back Again
Canales, whose father immigrated from Mexico to Laredo, Texas before marrying Canales’ mother, is thoughtful about the resilience it requires to make it as an NBA coach. Working in the league means pushing forward, perpetually, without knowing how your job description — or the team you’re working for — might change.
When the Portland Trailblazers made Canales interim head coach in March of the team’s 2011-2012 season and the NBA’s first-ever Mexican-American head coach, he was tasked with repairing a fractured locker room. He’d been with the team since 2005 and an assistant since 2009, but in order to acclimatize quickly he took to sleeping in the Blazers’ practice facility most nights.
Ultimately, Portland did not promote Canales to head coach in 2012 after the team won eight of 23 games under him. But he was retained as an assistant, a rarity in a league where incoming head coaches tend to clean house in favor of their own selections. The following season, the Blazers’ record improved from 28-38 to 33-49, and while new head coach Terry Stotts held ample coaching experience, his quick adaptation to a roster that remained largely intact as the year before owed a great deal to Canales’ intuitive understanding of the team.
After one season as an assistant under Stotts and eight years with the team, Canales spent time in Dallas and New York before a stint in Indiana ended abruptly in 2021. While in Dallas, Canales’ family grew in conjunction with his career. His wife had a baby girl, and when Canales talks about her and his son, his voice grows dreamily faraway. Two young children and the upheaval of life during the pandemic made it feel imperative to Canales to establish a “home base,” which the family has now in Dallas, and focus on having a “family season” in which he could watch his kids grow. It also put them closer to Laredo, where Canales’s foundation, Assist 13, is based.
It was in that brief stretch of respite Canales was approached by Quintero, head coach of the Mexican national team, and asked if he wanted to join them in their push for World Cup qualification.
“My dad is Mexican, I’m Mexican-American,” Canales says. “My culture, my heritage, it was just really a dream come true to get the opportunity to put on that jersey, that shirt, be able to coach these young men and be part of an exciting time of basketball in Mexico. Basketball is ready to explode there.”
National team coaching had always intrigued Canales, who spent many summers abroad helping run the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camps, but the NBA’s relentless all-year-round schedule hadn’t made it a possibility. Canales had noticed basketball becoming “a worldwide sport,” and notes that while his focus is fully on getting Mexico into the World Cup, he still had a feeling this past year of having a foot in both the international world and the NBA. A desire to return has gnawed at him, even as he seeks to get his team over the hump at qualifiers.
“I don’t think I’ve ever watched as much basketball as I did this past season,” Canales laughs. “When you’re in a season, you have so much tunnel vision — to the next practice, to the next game.”
‘For the Good of the Game’
Foreign-born players in the National Basketball Association have dominated MVP Award lists since the 2017-2018 season, and the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program is a prominent example of a clear desire by the league to have a global foothold. Yet even as players from Greece, Japan, Slovenia, and 37 other nations shape the league like never before, opportunities for international coaches to join NBA benches and move up the ranks remain comparatively limited.
Since the 1940s, only nine men born outside the United States or possessing dual citizenship with another country have been head coaches in the league. Today, three of them are active: Brooklyn’s Steve Nash, a Canadian who was born in South Africa; Golden State’s Steve Kerr, who was born in Lebanon; and Boston’s Ime Udoka, a Nigerian-American who was born in Oregon but played for Nigeria’s national team.
Because the historical pool of NBA head coaches with significant overseas experience or ties is so shallow, it’s difficult to ascertain career pathways or patterns that others can emulate–or factors that tend to keep those coaches employed over time. Kokoskov first came to the U.S. as a college assistant coach in 1999 and worked as a NBA assistant for years before getting a shot in Phoenix. His tenure was short-lived. Blatt grew up in the United States, immigrated to Israel, played and coached there, and coached across Europe – winning the EuroLeague Coach of the Year award and leading the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics – before he was hired by Cleveland. His tenure was also short, and he has yet to return to the league.
By contrast, Mike Brown coached Nigeria at the Tokyo Olympics and was recently hired by the Sacramento Kings, his third chance at being an NBA head coach.
When the subject of expanding the league’s head coaching pool comes up, Canales is pragmatic. He’s seen friends get opportunities while others are passed over, and he’s been in both situations himself. The challenge, as he sees it, is there’s no real way to streamline the process – nor should there be.
Canales went to international basketball to get more high-level coaching experience, but wonders whether it will be enough. Every team has different criteria and expectations, long- and short-term, for the head coach they want.
“Maybe an organization wants a coach that’s had head coaching experience, so in that case the longtime assistants, maybe they’re not getting interviews because they don’t fit the criteria they’re currently looking for,” Canales says. "Part of it is unless you really interview a broad amount of people, you might not know if someone might impress you in an interview.”
While skepticism may remain in some NBA circles regarding the value of international coaching experience, there’s no doubt the league is putting effort in to diversify its coaching ranks overall. As of the 2022 offseason, half the league is led by Black head coaches. Nash and Kerr were born outside the U.S., and Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra is Filipino-American. Canales credits the work of David Fogel, executive director of the National Basketball Coaches Association, and Karen Marrero, its director of communications, for things improving over the last few seasons.
“They’ve been so creative, and they’ve been so willing to help us, as coaches,” he stresses, highlighting the coaching profiles as well as a newly deployed coaches database the NBCA has set up to assist teams in finding and hiring talent outside the same small coaching pool.
“[They’re] just continuing to put tools in our toolbox so when the opportunity comes, we’re ready for it.”
Asked about the active role the league is taking in expanding hiring networks for its franchises, including at the international level, NBA Chief People & Inclusion Officer Oris Stuart is firm: “Let’s be clear: this is really important. It is a measure of us getting the best talent that’s available and making sure that they have equity of opportunity. It’s for the good of the game.”
In terms of broadening the hiring pool for head coaches, Stuart acknowledges that it’s a slow process. To expand the hiring pool, the pipeline itself has to broaden to include incoming international candidates, as well as women and more candidates of Color. The league recently brought on consultants to help league executives “better understand what the pathways are” for basketball coaches and understand how to bolster those pathways. It’s working from the bottom up to press the league forward toward progress.
“You have to get to the heart of the matter, you have to get to the roots,” Stuart stresses. “You have to not only look upstream, but work upstream, so that the pipeline continues to be diverse, so when you’re making those final decisions you’ve got a healthy mix and a sustained mix of incredibly qualified and talented candidates of all backgrounds to be able to select from.”
Stuart also says that the league is “very attentive to how talent moves throughout our environment,” actively evaluating, in recent years, trends of departing coaches like Canales.
It behooves the league to track these migratory routes since international coaches provide inroads to international talent. Many have worked for years alongside scouts and agents to establish networks intent on discovering the next greatest and yet-unknown athletes, and it benefits the NBA by evolving the game and by tapping into a broader international audience.
Pursuing and investing in more international coaches also could improve the experiences of the NBA’s international players. In Dallas, for example, young All-NBA forward Luka Doncic gets to work with Kokoskov, his former Slovenian National Team coach. When the Philadelphia 76ers drafted Australian forward Ben Simmons, his relationship with 76ers and former Melbourne Tigers head coach Brett Brown helped Simmons adjust.
Language and communication barriers, adapting to different training methods and gameplay rules, offsetting the occasionally lonely and culture-shocking experience of leaving family far away to pursue a professional career in basketball — all these things could be better remedied by a focus on the reciprocal benefits international talent and experience provides.
The balance, and further challenge, for the league comes in ensuring existing veteran talent in coaches like Canales, with heritage and professional experience outside the U.S., isn’t forced out. Canales makes it clear that his goal remains becoming a head coach in the NBA, and with the experience he’ll have gained away from it on the international stage, it’s hard to glance over the head coaching landscape of the league and not see a place where his onus on adaptation and relationships – as well as his Latino heritage and international coaching experience – would be a welcome fit.
Personal philosophies for leaders, Canales says, also have to adjust. As someone sunny by default, who has only grown more resilient in the breadth and miles his experience has afforded him, Canales has turned tenacity into habit.
“That’s one of the things that I’ve really tried to work on, not only as a coach, but as a person, right?” He says. “Our life changes throughout the years, our perspective shifts at times when we least expect it. Yeah,” he chuckles, “I think I’ve carried [that] a little bit at least to life.”
Ideologies aren’t meant to stay static. The league, if it means to embrace as much as support the changing face of international basketball — and the NBA coming to be that face at a global scale — needs to have opportunities, and principals, that translate.
In his 1996 book "In Black & White," Global Sport Institute founding CEO Kenneth L. Shropshire wrote that "the selection of the right person for a position in sports, both on and off the field of play, is extraordinarily subjective." That book prescribed reforms across levers of society to increase the representation of Black leaders in sport.
This issue continues Shropshire's exploration, with a particular interest in how those in power have shaped progress when it comes to diversity, for better and worse.