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Raptors welcome Darko Rajaković as the 10th head coach in franchise history


Walking up to Maple Leaf Square just outside Scotiabank Arena, the sense of anticipation was palpable. Usually, these press conferences are held indoors and behind closed doors, but with an outdoor setting courtesy of a lukewarm June afternoon, fans and staff could celebrate Darko Rajaković, the 10th Toronto Raptors’ head coach in team history.

’’Since the day I started coaching, for me, the biggest thing I enjoy is seeing players get better, players improve,” Rajaković said while looking extremely stylish in his three-piece navy blue suit. “You are going to win games, you are going to lose games – definitely we want to win every single night – but seeing the team grow, seeing the players grow, seeing people throughout the organization grow is something that has always been my biggest reward and that’s how I operate. I try to wake up every single day with that on my mind – How can I help? How can I serve? How can I improve everyone in the organization.”

Rajaković’s development as a coach began at a hardly believable age. It’s not every day you see a 16-year-old decide that coaching is the route they’d like to take, but the Serbian coach was forced to face the reality that his playing career as a point guard had topped out since bigger guards like Marko Jaric – who played in the NBA for seven seasons – were being preferred in his native Serbia. Rajaković quickly learned that coaching was his next best option because he knew, more than anything, his passion for the sport was too intense to do anything else.

In Europe, coaching requires schooling, and Rajaković received a basketball coaching degree from the Belgrade Basketball Academy as well as a degree in sports management from Alfa BK University in Belgrade two years later. When he transitioned his career to Spain, he had to earn the same coaching degree all over again but this time in Spanish. The teaching methods there are all-encompassing, including biomechanics, sociology, and even psychology.

Having started so young, Rajaković is now approaching 30 years of coaching experience – including 17 as a head coach – across Serbia and Spain before coming to the NBA and putting in time as an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, and most recently the Memphis Grizzlies. Between 2004 and 2011, he also served as an European scouting consultant for the San Antonio Spurs. He also has some FIBA experience, as an assistant coach for Serbia at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.

’’We did have many incredible candidates and we wanted to go through a process because of the stage of which our team is,” Ujiri said. “I think Darko just hit all of it and depending where our team could be, we’re excited. We’re excited to have his knowledge, his experience, being so studious of the game, his journey, diversity, everything, to me, his incredible family, it all comes together in some kind of way. The process was long and tough but we know we came up with the right candidate here.”

How does Rajaković put in all that time and perform at a high level? Espressos. A self-proclaimed espresso connoisseur, Rajaković’s daily dosage is set at three on practice days and goes up to six on game days, all made at home with his own espresso machine. Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler may have a full-fledged business going with Big Face Coffee and Raptors GM Bobby Webster has his own espresso machine that he even brought to the bubble in Orlando, but Rajaković reckons he can give both some friendly competition.

There’s no escaping the fact that Rajaković eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball, and though he even found time to co-author an academic journal style article on the evolution of the pick-and-roll for FIBA Assist Magazine during his time with the Spurs, he’s not just about the X’s and O’s. As mentioned earlier, at the heart of the 44-year-old’s coaching philosophy is player development, and within that development is a deeply embedded desire to connect with his players.

’’First of all, I want to be very invested in them as human beings,” Rajaković said. “I see every player as a person with a family, whatever is going on in those lives I want those guys to know and to feel that I really care about them. I really want to connect with those guys on a personal level, when they know how much I love them and care about them, I have a strong belief that we’re gonna come together as a group and be ready to take it to another level.”

Family and faith is the cornerstone of everything Rajaković does. He has been with his wife Gaga for 19 years now and was blessed with a son, Luka, five years ago. Quality time with them is all he needs to disconnect, and he has some close friends whether back home or now across the border who he maintains regular contact with. His agent, Spencer Breecker of CAA, has become one of his closest friends, and the two share many conversations about life instead of basketball.

All these qualities have made Rajaković the type of coach who drives players to be the very best they can be within the framework of the role he envisions for them, and the role advertised is always one that seeks to maximize what the team can be. His knowledge, attention to detail, and emphasis on team has stood out since he first interviewed for the job the day after the Grizzlies were eliminated from the post-season and steadily took him to the top of the Raptors’ list.

When speaking at the end of the season, Ujiri didn’t mince words when he said he didn’t enjoy watching his team play over the course of the season, that there was an air of selfishness that he didn’t appreciate and that the culture that they had built since his arrival had deteriorated. The hiring of Rajaković is an effort to correct course and return to a version of the team that embodies the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. That seems a Rajaković specialty.

’’This is not about me,” Rajaković said at a press conference specifically about him. “This is about those guys, about the team, how we’re gonna get to the next level. My goal is not to get one player better but all 17 players on the roster, how we can improve those guys and help those guys. My core belief is [that] when you improve players, it’s much easier to improve strategies and tactics, and that’s gonna give you results, that’s gonna be your outcome.

’’I always operate like that, for me, the season doesn’t start in October, it started three days ago when I was appointed the head coach and I’m trying to win every single day.”

Vivek Jacob

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