Friday, 3 August 2007

Mike Katz Profile

This is the first in series of stories on CIS coaches which we plan to do periodically. Today's question and answer session is with University of Toronto Varsity Blues Head Coach Mike Katz, who has a wide range of coaching experience spanning more than 3 decades on many levels of basketball in both Canada and abroad. One of Canada's most successful and long-standing coaches, Coach Katz's body of work, which includes success at the high school, Canadian College, Ontario provincial, international and now CIS level ranks with the top coaches of all time in Canadian basketball.

How did you first get involved in the game?: Like most coaches, I played high school and then went on to play university. I was a Metro Toronto High School all-star at Vaughan Road Collegiate and was good enough to start during my final two seasons at U of T (3 year career playing for the late John McManus), graduating in 1972 with a degree in Commerce and Finance.

What was the scouting report on Mike Katz, the Player? Back then, no one scouted as they do now but if there was a scouting report I'd probably be described as a combination guard who could handle the ball, a catch-and-shoot scorer.

No mention of defensive capabilities ? (Laughs)

How did you stay involved in the game once your U of T playing career ended ? I was fortunate enough to extend my playing career for a short while, playing in Aix en Province, France and then later in Isreal. I then found out that I was accepted into U of T teacher's college and my first high school teaching placement was the following year at George Harvey C.I. on Keele and Rogers Road in what was then the Borough of York in Toronto.

If I recall, Harvey was a languishing program playing in the shadows of Runnymede, Vaughan Road and Oakwood at the time ? : Correct but I was fortunate to walk into a situation where I had a 6'11" kid (Danny Secly who went on to Bradley) and benefit from the first big wave of West Indian immigration into the area. Almost immediately, we had a number of tremendous athletes who loved to play the game at Harvey. It took about 5 years, but we built the program to the point where we got to OFSAA in 1980 at McMaster and then continued with strong teams through the early-to-mid 80's. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Katz's 8 year career at Harvey was a period during which an incomparable 32 players went on to play either NCAA, CIAU (now CIS) or CCAA basketball).

By the mid-80's, your old friend Doug Fox at Humber came calling Doug and I had stayed in touch over the years and he had invited our Harvey teams to the Humber high school tournament so we knew each other well. Doug was looking to move out of coaching and he basically offered me the job without a formal interview process. The Humber job came at probably the busiest period in my life with 2 children being born, continuing to coach high school (Katz had moved on to York Memorial) and the Humber job.

Like Harvey, it took some time for you to win championships at Humber Again, we were fortunate to draw from a growing West Indian/Carribean population in Toronto filled with tremendous athletes although we had to endure our fair share of close misses. But we got over the hump in 1991, coming from 20 down with 8 minutes left to defeat our arch-rivals Sheridan Bruins on a last second shot by Patrick Rhodd, beginning a string of 3 consecutive CCAA national championships. The Humber/Sheridan rivalry games still rank at the top of the best games I've ever participated in.

Around that time you also got involved in Ontario provincial team basketball. I wanted to be exposed to coaching at an even higher level and the 3 years coaching Team Ontario was perfect for me at that point. Getting to guide teams made up of great players like Phillip Dixon (Bathurst Heights/Utah), Wayne "Fridge" Robertson (Runnymede/New Hampshire DII), Alex Urosovic (Kitchener St. Jerome's/Waterloo), Jack Vanderpol (Ancaster/McMaster), Tim Mau (Ottawa St. Pius/Guelph), Mark Daly (Hamilton Cathedral/Boston University), Keith Vassell (Toronto Mother Teresa/Brandon), Cordell Llewellyn (Toronto George Harvey/numerous U.S. schools), Wendell Brereton (Toronto Oakwood, Farleigh Dickenson) and Bobby Allen (Mississauga Morning Star/various U.S. schools) was a tremendous coaching experience in terms of harnessing all that individual talent into a team concept. At that time, there were no AAU programs in Canada so provincial teams across the country were the best of the best - elite athletes and future national team players.

Years ago you shared with me the famous Katz coaching binder with notes from all your learnings including the famous triangle offense as taught by Tex Winter with the notes dated well before the Bulls dynasty. How did you learn the game in those earlier days? I pretty much wrote down every new thing that I found interesting watching others through time spent in gyms and arenas including many trips down the QEW to Buffalo and Niagara Falls to watch NCAA games. The game in Canada at that time was not as sophisticated with filming and scouting as it is today so teaching was much more hands on in the gym. That binder was a repository for anything new I saw and felt was leading edge and I've refered to it often over the years.

The next logical step after success at the national level was to work with the National team program. Talk about that experience in terms of your evolution as a coach. I thought I was a decent coach until I got to work with the National team program in the early 90's, learning from quality coaches like Ken Shields, Del Harris and others. I quickly realized how much there is to know about this game and soaked up as much as I could watching our staff and international coaching, which was in its infancy but getting better each year. The offensive and defensive team concepts I learned under Shields/Harris was a complete education that, practically, I could never get anywhere else. My technical understanding of the game and ability to teach the game properly got much stronger working with the National program. NOTE: In 1993-94, Katz took a sabbatical from City of York and his Humber College head coaching job (Rick Delina would guide the Hawks to another championship) and Canadian National team Head Coach Ken Shields took him on his staff as an assistant coach. During that season, Canada went on a tour of the NCAA, playing 9 games in 10 days against Big East schools and later played 8 games on a European tour.

What did you learn for watching European teams and their style of play? At that time, international players did not have the athleticism common in the North American game and the games featured much more team play, multi-skilled players and offensive sets in which each player read and reacted to the defense instead of simply overpowering opponents with athleticism.

Talk about your experience coaching Steve Nash. Steve's first appearance with the senior team was the 1994 FIBA World Championships hosted by Canada. It was the summer after his sophomore season at Santa Clara and here was this skinny kid who seemed to improve almost from practice to practice, worked harder than anyone on the finer skills of his game over and above team practices and was a ferocious competitor. As great a basketball player as he was, there is something about him that transcends basketball and draws people to him: great sense of humour, always has time for people, intelligent, thoughtful. When I think of Steve Nash, I don't think of him as a basketball player first. NOTE: Steve helped Canada to a 7th place finish in a very competitive field at the '94 Worlds including a match against the USA's Dream Team II in Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

Next step was to have your own team internationally for Canada which you did starting with the Jones Cup and culminating in the 1997 World University Games in Italy. NOTE: Katz guided Canada to a silver medal at the 1997 World University Games in Italy. In the championship game against the USA that saw 11 lead changes and five tied scores, the U.S. squad, behind a game high 23 points from Earl Boykins, edged Canada 72-64 for the gold medal. That USA team included 7 NBA players including Kenny Thomas, Brian Skinner, Scott Padgett, Bryce Drew, Loren Woods, Michael Ruffin and Boykins. By capturing the silver medal, Canada's '97 World University Games team achieved the highest finish for a Canadian international basketball team in the last 10 years - no team has done better since.

The University Games in Italy was one of the highlights of my coaching career as we had a solid roster of players that jelled into a team that bought into a system and got key contributions from Canadian university players including including Eric Hinrichsen (UVic), Shawn Swords (Laurentian) and Titus Channer (McMaster).

Your international career then culminated when Jay Triano asked you to coach with him and together you led Canada to the Olympics in 2000. I was honoured that Jay would ask me because we didn't know each other very well prior to working closely together. He was a tremendous leader and his ability to bring players together and play for each other was incredible. Our first big tournament was summer of '99 in Puerto Rico for Olympic qualifier and we defeated the host Puerto Ricans for final qualifying spot for the Sydney Olympics. Then the Sydney Olympics were somewhat of a coming out party for Steve Nash. Nash's NBA career took off after the Olympic experience and was a time of great excitement for National program. That team included Nash, Rowan Barrett, Todd McCullough, Greg Newton, Sherman Hamilton and Shawn Swords. NOTE: Canada went 5-2 overall in the 2000 Olympics losing to France in the quarter-finals.

Your final summer with Canada Basketball was the 2002 World Championships. Talk about how this particular tournament influenced your coaching. The Indy world championships (in which the USA finished 6th and Canada finished 13th) were the first signs that the rest of the world was catching up. That tournament highlighted many emerging NBA players who were international nobody's prior to then including Manu Ginobli, Andreas Nochioni, Yao Ming, Peja Stoyakovich and many others. I scouted 28 of 31 pool games at the Olympics in 2000 and almost as many in Indy and watching teams like Argentina and Yugoslavia run their offensive sets to perfection taught me how important it was to teach players the basic concepts of offensive basketball. Many kids in North America these days still have not been taught the basic concepts of reading and reacting in a team-oriented set-based offense and the rest of the world has caught up.

Do you view U of T as your final challenge in coaching ? I have been fortunate to coach at virtually every level in Canadian basketball and have cherished the experiences. When the opportunity arose to coach at my alma mater in my hometown just minutes from where I grew up and raised a family, it represented one last challenge in my coaching career. U of T had some nationally-ranked teams in the 90's under Ken Olynyk but just prior to taking over the program, it was not where it needed to be, yet we had some decent players who needed to learn how to win. Our goal in the first year was to compete with every team in every game and even though we finished only 9-13, 10 of our losses by 6 or fewer points and we won a playoff game at Queen's. Our last two seasons we have grown the program to where this past season we were one possession away from defeating a CIS Final Four team on their home floor in the playoffs. We'll need to replace some talent this season but we're confident that the program is back on solid footing.

Talk about the satisfaction of coaching your son Ben. One of the great thrills of my life in addition to my coaching career was watching Ben play at program as tremendous as the one Joe (Raso) has built at McMaster. At Mac, Ben went to the Nationals 3 of the 4 years that he played and after Ben was accepted into his Master's program at U of T, we were fortunate to bring in an establish all-star at the CIS level with experience and credibility. Still we had to think about how to fit him in with the existing group. The returning vets welcomed Ben and he knows all the stuff I do at both ends from being around so much, so having him on the floor helped not only because of his talent but because he knew our systems very well. Ben made us a lot more competitive on the road last season and I'm very proud he was able to make a First Team all-star in both Ontario leagues in his career.

Finally, you've been passionately involved in Canadian basketball for over 30 years. There seems to be a general feeling in the basketball community that the National team program has taken a step backward since qualifying for the 2000 Olympics and 2002 World Championships. What are your feelings on this issue? At the international level, credibility and profile is earned by qualifying for and then succeeding at the major international tournaments in the world; that is, the Olympics and the World Championships. If that isn't achieved, then one has to conclude that the organization has failed.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic profile on Mike. I got to talk to Mike a number of times after his son joined the McMaster program. He always had time to chat and discuss thing that happened or he thought should have happened and with all his background never was one to criticize another coach. He is just as nice a person as he is a coach.

Anonymous said...

That's a great article. You drew out many interesting insights and historical anecdotes from a terrific coach.

I would be enjoy reading more of these types of profiles.