Canales settling in with new role

PORTLAND — It is said that Kaleb Canales spends so much time at the Trail Blazers' practice facility that he's got a bedroom there.

Truth is, Canales sleeps many nights on a couch in the building. But rest has been rare recently for Portland's new interim head coach, who started with the team in 2004 as an unpaid intern.

Canales became the NBA's first Mexican-American head coach when he took over for Nate McMillan, who was dismissed last week following six-plus years at the helm of the Blazers.

Also the youngest head coach in the league at 33, Canales assumes a team in disarray. After a promising start to the season, the Blazers have withered with losses in nine of their last 12 games.

Portland's housecleaning last Thursday was swift. Over the course of the day, McMillan was fired and two trade-deadline deals sent starters Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby elsewhere. Former No. 1 draft pick Greg Oden, the often-injured big man who was once hailed as the Blazers' ticket to an NBA championship, was unceremoniously waived.

Canales was thrust into the jumble when he was made acting head coach, joining acting general manager Chad Buchanan in "interim" status.

Canales has been charged with the difficult task of inspiring the team that's left to finish out the season. The first thing he did as head coach was to gather everyone at practice. One by one, he asked them if they were dedicated to the Blazers.

"I just know that we're going to hold them accountable," he said. "We've asked for them to commit to each other and to commit to competing, playing together. That's what we're going to expect from anybody."

Right after that meeting, the Blazers responded by beating the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls 100-89 in Chicago. But as reality has set in, they've lost two straight, including a 116-87 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday morning, Canales had his team running competition shooting games, and the losers were stuck with push-ups. He was right there with the guys doing the push-ups when his group lost.

Later in the day, McMillan paid a surprise visit to the practice facility to say goodbye and thank employees. The respected coach had already bid farewell to his players, stopping by the hotel in Chicago before the Bulls victory.

While some would say Canales' role is more about player development at this point than winning games, he certainly doesn't see it that way.

"Every loss hurts," Canales said.

With just 20 games remaining in the lockout-shortened regular season, the Blazers host the Memphis Grizzlies tonight.

A native of Laredo, Texas, Canales didn't play basketball in college. After he landed with the Blazers as an intern, he worked his way up to video coordinator, then part-time assistant coach and finally full-time assistant under McMillan. He coached the team at the NBA's Summer League in Las Vegas for three seasons.

Asked how he feels about his new role with the team, Canales was quick to deflect attention, relying on an old cliche that drew groans and laughs from those gathered around. Canales is nothing if not personable.

"I'm not going to lie and say it's not special," he said. "But it's not about me. It's about us."

In deference to McMillan, Canales has not moved into his former head coach's offices at either the practice facility or in the team's Rose Garden locker room.

"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," said LaMarcus Aldridge, who has played in Portland since 2006. "He wanted to be here all day, all night. So that was pretty tough. I wouldn't do that. I'd go home."

Bill Schonely, the longtime Blazers broadcaster who coined the phrase "Rip City" and now is a special ambassador for the team, had nothing but praise for Canales.

"I love him. He's a very down-to-earth, very good person. He loves the team, he loves to teach, and he loves each and every one of those players," Schonely said. "And the players love him to death in return."

While this season looks bleak for the Blazers, the summer should be interesting. As a result of several moves this season, Portland has stockpiled picks for the June NBA draft and has cleared as much as $25 million in cap space in hopes of landing a premier player — preferably a point guard.

Canales is well aware his stint as head coach is temporary, but he plans to make the most of it. And that means that the couch at the practice facility won't see much use in the next several weeks.

"I don't think I'm going to have time for anything else except preparing this team every night," he joked.

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