After a disappointing 17-33 record last year, the Los Angeles D-Fenders made the decision to move on from head coach Phil Hubbard. Following a series of interviews with a variety of candidates, they landed on a familiar face: former D-Fenders assistant coach Casey Owens.
The move has been paying quick dividends this season, with the team jumping out to a 4-1 record throughout the first couple weeks of the season, good for the top spot in the NBA D-League Pacific Division.
With a roster that the D-Fenders possess, as well as the coaching prowess of Owens, this start should come as no surprise to anyone. A long-time coach himself, Owens took a peculiar path to get where he is today, with stops all across the globe.
In an interview with RidiculousUpside.com, Owens noted that while his playing days ended when he graduated high school, he still maintained his interest in the game.
"I grew up playing the game, I played through high school. I didn’t play college basketball; I instead pursued writing and got my Master’s Degree. I published a book in 1996 and then my plan was to teach creative writing at a small liberal arts school and coach on the side, I was searching for a tenure job when the New Mexico Slam of the International Basketball Association came to Albuquerque and I was able to get started with them," Owens said.
Once he was able to get started with the Slam, he was hooked. He knew that coaching basketball was what he wanted to do with his life at this point, but unfortunately a bump in the road was ahead for the team he was coaching. The International Basketball Association folded after just its third year in operation, but luckily for Owens he had been able to make a few valuable connections that kept his coaching career alive.
"Our team folded in New Mexico and Dave Joerger, then a fellow coach in the IBA and now the coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, told me that his team was leaving the IBA and joining the CBA," Coach Owens said. "I had become friendly with him over the years and he offered me a spot with them. I joined them and we had an incredible run with two championships in three years."
Following a championship win in the 2003-2004 season, Joerger left for the Sioux Falls Skyforce which opened the door for Owens to become a head coach for the first time in his career.
"Being named coach was a tremendous honor to me and wouldn’t have been possible without Dave. I was 31 or 32 so it was hard to grasp. It was a lot of responsibility and to think back now what I didn’t know is kind of funny but I was certainly honored. Every time you get even an assistant job you’re humbled, so this meant the world to me," the coach explained.
The life of being a head coach offers its own set of challenges as opposed to being an assistant coach and Owens admitted that there were some concerns as he entered his first season at the helm.
"I thought, ‘Do I know what I’m doing?’ You just have to go out there and figure out your own style and your own voice and if you attack that with supreme work ethic and integrity, you can have success. I’ve grown tremendously, but you always have room to improve."
He excelled in his first season as a head coach, advancing all the way to the semi-finals but the team was unable to repeat as champions. After a move to the D-League with the Colorado 14ers, Owens decided to make a big leap and join the Shanghai Sharks in China.
"Going over to China was really just about opportunity and adventure. The opportunity to coach and teach the game over there, coaching for Yao Ming’s team, was something I couldn’t turn down. I was able to take my family with me and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything."
With four years under his belt in China, Owens decided to take on a new opportunity in Venezuela, but the lessons he learned while in the Chinese Basketball League still stick with him today.
"I think the more styles of basketball that you see gives you more of an arsenal. You have to learn all the tweaks of the international game and it expands your basketball horizon, a lot of guys never get to see basketball outside of the United States so I think that certainly gives me a bit of an edge," Owens added.
Much like his time in China, his time with Guaiqueries de Margarita in Venezuela gave him the chance to experience a different culture, as well as a different brand of basketball.
"It’s a great league with very high talented players, but ownership can be impatient and coaching/player turnover there is too high. I was on Margarita Island so that was great but as for the basketball, it’s a very tough, fast-paced league that’s refereed differently than you see here."
With the 2013-2014 season around the corner, Owens made the decision to return to the place that he had called home for years: the NBA D-League. He had never coached in Los Angeles before, but his return to the D-League reunited him with a former coaching associate.
"To be honest I wouldn’t have come back to the D-League if it wasn’t for Bob MacKinnon. We coached together and won a championship in Colorado and when he got the head-coaching job we talked and while I hadn’t planned on going back, that opportunity came up and I thought the D-Fenders were one of the marquee jobs."
He has already made his presence felt on the league this season, propelling the D-Fenders to a spot as one of the best teams in the entire D-League and he has goals set for the remainder of the season.
"This is a player’s league and I want to move them into better places than they are right now, whether it be in the NBA or internationally. Whatever their situations are, I want to help them reach their goals. I want to win every single game, but the NBA D-League has a bigger vision and it’s about developing."
His overall mindset may be on the developmental side of things, but as Casey Owens has shown at each of his stops including this hot start with the D-Fenders, he will always put his players in the best position to win games.