By Dan McCarney
LAREDO — It finally sank in for Laredo native Kaleb Canales that he had reached the NBA several years ago in Charlotte.
Having been promoted to assistant coach with the Portland Trail Blazers, Canales was heading to the visitors’ locker room when he realized he was about to cross paths with one of the most recognizable human beings on the planet.
Canales quickly weighed his options: Should he introduce himself to Michael Jordan, or play it smooth?
“He’s probably heard it all,” Canales said. “So I said hello, and he said hello. After he passed me, I was like, ‘That was Michael Jordan.’ That was cool.”
It was a rare moment of restraint from the ambitious Canales, who in eight years has clawed his way from an unpaid internship in the Blazers’ video department to interim head coach.
In addition to becoming the NBA’s youngest head coach, the 33-year-old Canales is the first Mexican-American in league history to hold such a position.
Not only has Canales achieved the seemingly unachievable, he did it more than a year before the deadline he set back in his teens, when he first aspired to become an NBA head coach by the time he was 35.
And someday, he will get around to savoring it.
“In all honesty, I haven’t had any time to feel anything,” said Canales, who is 2-3 since replacing his mentor, Nate McMillan, on March 15. “Obviously, it’s an honor. The guys coming up after the Bulls game (a 100-89 victory in his debut), that’s a special moment. I know I’ll look back to that. Right now, it’s not time.”
While Canales focuses on the remainder of Portland’s schedule, a stretch that could determine his future with the Blazers, friends and family members have reacted to his stunning ascent with pride, joy and more than a little astonishment.
Not because they doubted Canales. But because someone who didn’t play college basketball, had no connections to rely on, hailed from an area with virtually no NBA presence, and had never been a head coach at any level could rise so high, so fast.
“It’s hard to put into words, to be honest,” his sister Chantal said. “It’s been surreal, just seeing where he started. The whole path is pretty amazing.”
“The entire community is proud of Kaleb,” said Hector Noyola, executive director of the Boys Girls Club of Laredo, where Canales was once named member of the year. “It’s the No. 1 sports story ever in Laredo. It’s a goal that few would think he could achieve, and he did it.”
Canales abhors talking about himself only slightly less than losing. As such, he scoffs at the notion that he has done anything on his own.
“The greatest gift you can have is people who believe in you,” he said. “And I’ve had a lot.”
The majority of Canales’ earliest supporters still reside in Laredo. Located roughly 150 miles south of San Antonio, flush on the Rio Grande, the so-called “Gateway City” boasts a unique blend of Mexican and American culture.
The latter is especially prevalent in the city’s passion for sports. Though high school football and Little League baseball are hugely popular, basketball was the only game for Canales and a group of childhood friends with whom he remains close.
As much as Canales loved basketball, it was not an endeavor he was especially suited for. A 5-foot-11 power forward at Alexander High School, he hit the first 3-pointer in school history but could never crack the starting lineup.
“Like any kid, he wanted to play more,” said Alexander head coach Luis Valdez, who was an assistant during Canales’ senior season in 1995-96. “But he never complained. He wanted to know what he needed to do to get better.”
Canales applies that same dedication to his coaching career, which began at Laredo Martin High School in 2001.
It wasn’t unusual back then for head coach Bobby Cruz to show up the morning after road games and find that his assistants, led by Canales, had already washed the uniforms and prepped for practice.
Not only that, but Canales went about his duties with so much enthusiasm that some actually complained.
“Grown men and women would tell me, ‘What’s wrong with your assistant? He’s annoyingly happy,’?” said Cruz, now the athletic director for the Laredo United Independent School District. “I’d say, ‘It’s not what’s wrong with him, it’s what’s wrong with you?’?”
Despite a pay cut, Canales left Laredo in 2003 to join the college staff at Texas-Arlington.
He got the college job largely because of the impression he made as a team manager several years before while pursuing his bachelor’s degree. And he earned that position because of the impression he made while visiting best friend Hecky Noyola, then a redshirt freshman with the Mavericks.
“I asked the coach if he could watch practice,” Noyola said. “And he was out there mopping up sweat and handing out water. He took pride in everything he did.”
‘NOT DONE YET’
It was no different when Canales began to pursue his ultimate goal of reaching the NBA.
Mindful of Erik Spoelstra’s journey from video intern to Pat Riley’s right-hand man, Canales bombarded the future Miami Heat head coach with handwritten letters in the hope of earning an internship of his own.
Spoelstra says he received one per week, each personalized with a motivational quote. But Canales said he actually sent one every day, only slightly embarrassed at his doggedness.
Though Canales didn’t land the internship, Spoelstra was so impressed, he recommended him to friends throughout the NBA. When the Blazers called to offer him an unpaid position in the video department, Canales might as well have won the lottery.
But the real work, he knew, was only just beginning.
“I’ll never forget the look on his face,” said Charley Ochoa, who grew up in the same Laredo neighborhood and remains one of Canales’ closest friends. “You could see it in his eyes — he wasn’t coming back. He was going out there to prove himself.”
Stories of Canales’ commitment have become legendary among the Blazers. He spent almost as much time at the practice facility as he did his own apartment, leading McMillan to praise him as the hardest-working person in the entire organization.
“My first and second year, he would actually sleep here every night in case guys came back late, or he would be here if guys came in early in the morning,” Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge told the Associated Press. “I wouldn’t do that. I’d go home.”
With funds at a premium, Canales ate tuna so often during his internship that he treated the staple of his meager diet as an unofficial roommate.
“I’d call, and he’d say, ‘Me and Tuna are awesome,’?” Cruz said.
“Did he say Graham Crackers?” Canales said. “Throw those in, too.”
Despite the hardships, he never complained.
“I was just trying to do whatever it took to stay here,” Canales said. “I didn’t allow myself to think any negative thoughts. I just knew I was going to work my tail off every day, and that if it was in God’s plan, it would happen.”
Promotions came quickly in Portland. He became video coordinator, then a part-time assistant, then a full-time assistant in 2008-09. When Canales was tabbed to replace McMillan, news spread through Laredo like wildfire.
Ochoa broke down when he heard, and once more during a recent interview.
“Amazing,” he said after regaining his composure. “Amazing.”
Hecky Noyola is more stoic, but even he became teary as the text messages began flowing in.
“Every day I think about it,” he said. “I can’t stop talking about it.”
It wasn’t long ago that an unexpected package arrived at Noyola’s office at Martin, where he coaches the basketball team with assistance from Ochoa.
Noyola opened it to find a photo, professionally enlarged and mounted on wood, of him, Canales, Ochoa and several other friends in a solemn embrace after winning an amateur basketball tournament in 2001.
Such gestures, Noyola said, strike at the heart of who Canales is.
“Anybody else would have just put it in a little frame,” he said. “He goes out of his way to do stuff like that, to show you what kind of friend he is.”
Canales’ willingness to go above and beyond in everything he does is just one of the reasons Cruz believes his story is only just beginning.
“It’s a nice feather in our cap as a community to be able to say that one of our own broke the barrier,” he said. “He’s a shining example for our kids, our city, our region. And he’s not done yet.”
Job: Portland Trail Blazers, interim head coach
Education: Laredo Alexander High School,? Texas-Arlington (bachelor’s), Virginia? Commonwealth (master’s)
Coaching stops: Laredo Martin H.S. (2001-02), Laredo United H.S. (2002-03), Texas-Arlington (2003-04), Trail Blazers (intern, 2004-05; video coordinator, 2005-08; assistant coach, 2008-12)