Kaleb Canales’ NBA Rise Paves The Way For Latinos In Sports

By Paul Adams

Last Wednesday, the Portland Trail Blazers were playing against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Well — theoretically — the whole team appeared to be mentally checked out, plodding through what would turn out to be a 121-79 drubbing. It would also turn out to be a fitting end to an era for the team, as on the following day, the Trail Blazers front office decidedly swept out the entire roster. Along with shipping out veterans Marcus Camby, Greg Oden, and Gerald Wallace, they fired head coach Nate McMillan.

In comes a young man by the name of Kaleb Canales, promoted from his assistant coach duties to interim head coach for the Blazers for the remainder of the season. He’s become famous for being the first Mexican American head coach in the NBA. Also, he’s the youngest head coach in the NBA — ever — at the ripe age of 33 Canales aims to bring in his hard-work and enthusiasm to save a buried franchise ridden by past false saviors.

Hailing from Laredo, Texas, Canales’ trajectory into the NBA began in high school, where he played varsity basketball as his team’s starting 5’11” power forward. He then went to study sports leaderships at the University of Texas at Arlington. Though he never sniffed a college or professional basketball court as an athlete, he eventually scoured his way through the vaunted and secluded NBA threshold as an unpaid video intern for the Blazers back in 2004. Always burning that midnight oil, studying film and playbooks past his work shifts, players and staff would often find him passed out on a couch, realizing he never left the facility. With his reputation as the organization’s hardest worker spreading, he quickly gained the respect of his superiors and players alike, often even being approached by coach McMillan for advise.

By 2009, he made it to the bench, becoming the assistant head coach for the Blazers next to McMillan. Last Friday, Canales found himself willing the Blazers to a 100-89 win over the championship contending Chicago Bulls as his first official game as head coach of the team.

But beyond what may unfold for Canales and this franchise, a more significant event has superseded the menagerie of subplots that have come with Canales’ sudden grasp of this franchise. Replacing Nate McMillan last Thursday, Canales became the first Mexican-American head coach in NBA history.

Though the NBA has dabbled in Latino influence from time to time — from Puerto Rican head coach Dick Versace of the Indiana Pacers (1988-90), to rookie Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson having a maternal grandmother who was from the Dominican Republic — the striking dearth of Hispanics with professional jobs in not only the NBA, but the whole sports spectrum across the United States is baffling. Especially considering how the NBA is holding ever tighter this audience, which is making up an ever important portion of its profit-making.

Though the 2010 Census indicates that 16.3% of the U.S. population is Latino or Hispanic, passing African-Americans (12.6%) as the leading minority in the country, Kaleb Canales joins Ron Rivera (NFL head coach of the Carolina Panthers) and Ozzie Guillen (MLB manager of the Miami Marlins) as the only Hispanic head coaches in the major American sports.

But — much like the scanty Blazers franchise — perhaps Canales’ gradual but persistent ascension from unpaid video intern to NBA head coach will be a sign of things to come for the Hispanic community and their influence in the sports world.

Paul Adams is a writer who lives in Los Angeles, follow him on Twitter @Yustomovic.

[Screenshot By PortlandTrailBlazers]

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