Growing up as an Indian in North America, Roy Rana never really associated himself with what most Indians around the world take pride in – cricket. Many young sports fans would pay attention to ice hockey due to the sport’s central role in the national culture. But what really caught the eye of Rana was neither cricket nor hockey, it was hoops and buckets.
Rana’s obsession with the game of basketball would often leave the Indo-Canadian family worried, to an extent where his mother feared her son’s mental state. “My mom always thought that there was something wrong with me because I was so passionate about basketball. I watched it, I played it, she was concerned I had some type of mental health issue,” recalls Rana, who was born in Wolverhampton, England but soon moved to Toronto with his parents in 1969.
Like most Indian families, Rana’s parents - from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh - were hoping to see him excel academically, which he did, but he had other plans. Despite not flourishing as a point guard during his playing days, the Canadian was quick to switch to coaching. He began his coaching career in 1994 at CW Jeffery’s HS and six years later in 2000, Rana was named the head coach of Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, a public high school in Toronto.
However, eyebrows were raised again because no one believed that he could become a basketball coach. “In my time coming up, people used to be like, ‘Why do you want to become a coach?’ It wasn't viewed as an opportunity to better yourself or to make a life for yourself, right? It was viewed as something that would be very concerning,” he says with a wry smile.
But it didn’t matter to him as Rana’s team were champions in 7 of the 9 seasons played in Canada. A 256-39 record as the head coach of the ‘Saints’ was the icing on the cake. Records were broken even after Rana left the team to join the Ryerson University, where he made 5 National Championship appearances in 9 seasons, which included consecutive runners-up finishes in 2017 and 2018.
“This passion for basketball was kind of unusual almost. I think because I entered through education, I entered through a profession, I don't think anybody realised that this was going to become what it did,” reasons Rana, who later led Canada’s junior men’s national team to win their first-ever gold medal at any level at the 2017 FIBA U-19 Basketball World Cup in Cairo, Egypt. Rana also coached the senior men’s team during the FIBA 2019 World Cup qualifiers.
The big call was just on the horizon for one of the most decorated high school basketball coaches. After the success of the Nike Hoop Summit and with his rich experience at the international, collegiate, and high school levels, renowned NBA head coach Luke Walton wasted no time in adding the ‘tinkerman’ to his staff at the NBA franchise, Sacramento Kings.
With great power, comes greater responsibilities. That being said, the transition from Ryerson to Sacramento wasn’t a surprise for Rana. In fact, he relishes the challenge. “I'm getting a PhD in basketball at the highest level of earnings,” he says. “I would say that if my jump was only from a Canadian university to the NBA it would have been pretty shocking. Probably the biggest ‘aha!’ moment for me is just the sheer size of the operation in the NBA. When I was with our Canadian national team, the operation was fairly small. Here, the scale of everything is much bigger, the group, the amount of travel, it's just bigger. I try to help Luke (Walton) in my role to do the best as we can,” the 51-year-old Sacramento Kings assistant coach adds.
But he doesn’t seem to be bogged down by the pressure at all. “Pressure is such an interesting word. Probably the most pressure I felt was when I was a high school coach because, to be honest, I felt like I was trying to prove myself. So for me, it was life or death. It was a mark on my career.”
Meanwhile, Sacramento Kings got off to a slow start to the NBA season but turned the tide swiftly to hold a 7-3 (win-loss) record before the season was suspended due to coronavirus. Assistant coach Rana reflected on his first NBA stint as a ‘rollercoaster ride’. “This is just one part of it. From the start of the season, getting on Drake's plane and flying into India for our first game. Starting the season on a losing streak and then finding wins and battling through injuries and another losing streak and then we made some roster changes,” explains the Indo-Canadian Roy Rana, whose Sacramento Kings stand a chance to reach the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2006.
After years of overcoming doubts and stereotypes, Rana hopes his basketball story will inspire coaches and players. Over the years, the family showed immense support too. “Now it's a source of great pride in my family and it's a source of great pride in our community,” he says. “I think in some ways that maybe if I have some small impact on people that are following me is that it's okay to aspire to be a coach. Coaching is a profession and it is an incredible profession. It is something that people can take pride in. The mentality has changed tremendously amongst the Indian community,” says Rana, who became the first coach of colour and Indian descent to coach the Canadian national team.
Just a few months ago, Roy Rana travelled to India with the Sacramento Kings during the inaugural NBA India Games. The experienced coach pointed out key aspects that will help the growth of basketball in India.
“Talent identification is going to become critical and that has to happen probably at an earlier age. I don't know what age it starts in India, but I think looking at 13 and 14-year-old kids and trying to see who has potential, matters. So I think there needs to be a coordinated, designed effort and there's alignment in teaching the game across the country. All of this is really about coaches. The better you develop your coaches, the better you develop your talents.”
Roy Rana expressed the desire to stay connected to his homeland as he hopes to watch a cricket match someday, although basketball still remains his top priority. “Cricket is a huge commitment. In North America, we want something in three hours. Maybe next time when I'm in India, somebody can take me to watch one of the ODIs or T20s. I'd love to be able to go and experience that,” he concludes.