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TRIBUNE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Assistant coach Jay Triano, 57, says working for the Trail Blazers and under head coach Terry Stotts 'has rejuvenated me.'If the face of Canadian basketball is Steve Nash, the sport’s heartbeat north of the border traces directly to Jay Triano.


The Trail Blazers’ lead assistant coach is a living, breathing piece of history for basketball in Canada.

The 6-5 Triano played for the Canadian national team for 12 years (1977-88), served as captain for the past eight years, and was the squad’s leading scorer in the 1984 and ‘88 Olympic Games. He served five years (1998-2003) as national team coach, guiding the Canadians to seventh place in the 2000 Olympics.

Triano later spent 2 1/2 seasons as head coach of the Toronto Raptors — the first Canadian-born head coach in NBA history. And he has resumed his role as head coach of the Canadian national team, with the hopes of leading the team to a spot in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this summer.

For now Triano, in his fourth season as the right-hand man to Portland head coach Terry Stotts, is enjoying an under-the-radar role as Stotts’ chief sounding board.

“I don’t know if it was the timing of everything, or how great this organization is, or working for Terry, or the staff, or the players, but everything has been fantastic,” says Triano, 57. “It has rejuvenated me. I needed this. It’s been a lot of fun.”

• • •

Triano was raised just across the border in Niagara Falls, Ontario. His younger brother, Jeff, was a hockey player, drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs and a pro in Europe for 14 years.

“I played hockey,” Jay Triano says. “I should have kept playing. Being (tall) is now the trend, but back then it wasn’t. When I was 12 of 13, I grew about 7 inches and got knocked off my skates all the time. I thought, ‘This isn’t a whole lot of fun, picking myself off the ice.’ I hit a growth spurt. That sealed my fate for me.”

The Trianos lived in basketball country, anyway.

“The (NBA) Buffalo Braves were 20 to 30 minutes away,” he says. “Niagara University — with Frank Layden coaching and Calvin Murphy playing — was in my wheelhouse of being a fan. “I’m blessed. Even though I’m Canadian, I was 10 minutes from the U.S. side and was able to learn much of my basketball that way. Basketball was more popular than hockey in my area at the time.”

Triano developed into the greatest Canadian basketball talent of his era, initially as the No. 1 career scorer for Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

“I became a good shooter because I couldn’t play enough (games),” he says. “All I did was go shoot by myself. A lot of Canadians were like that. Part of our success in the ‘80s was because we had so many great shooters. We were all spread out across the country. All we ever did was shoot the ball. When we got together, we learned to play with each other.

“That’s what has changed the game now. Everybody goes to the gym, and they play games, and they get the ball one-tenth of the time. I had the ball in my hands all the time.”

Triano was taken by the Los Angeles Lakers in the eight round of the 1981 draft, but was cut during training camp and never played in the NBA. He did play three years professionally — two in Mexico, one in Turkey. Triano also played for the Canadian national team from 1977-88, captained the team the past eight years, and was the driving force behind Canada’s gold medal in the 1983 World University Games and the successful finishes in the ‘84 and ‘88 Olympic Games.

After retiring as a player, Triano served seven seasons as head coach at Simon Fraser (1988-95). In 1999, he became the Canadian national team coach, taking them to seventh place in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and continuing his close relationship with Nash.

While at Simon Fraser, Triano recruited Nash as a high schooler out of Victoria, British Columbia.

“I started recruiting him in 10th grade,” Triano says. “I went to the island as many times as I could. I watched him play rugby. He was the best player in the province. I watched him play soccer. He was the best player in the province. His team won the high school basketball championship.”

On Nash’s recruiting trip to Simon Fraser, a storm arose as Triano was driving him to catch a ferry ride home. The ferry was delayed, giving them extra time together at the port. Nash revealed that he had been offered a scholarship to Santa Clara.

“What would you do if you were me?” Nash asked.

“I’d play at Santa Clara,” Triano told him. “You should play at the highest level possible. If it doesn’t work out, come back and play for me.’”

Nash asked Triano about his lifetime goals.

“I’d love to coach the national team,” Triano said.

“Well, I’m going to end up playing for you,” Nash responded.

That happened when Triano took over as the national team coach. Nash captained Canada’s team that upset Yugoslavia and finished seventh.

“When we walked into the opening ceremonies, Steve looked at me and said, ‘We said we were going to do this,’” Triano recalls.

Triano coached the national team until 2003, when he was relieved of his duties. Nash stayed on through the 2004 Olympics, leading Canada to a fourth-place finish. Nash then dropped ties with the national team, disillusioned by Triano’s dismissal.

“Our relationship is very strong,” Triano says today. “We have a great mutual respect and friendship.”

• • •

In the meantime, Triano had hooked on as an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, serving six seasons under Lenny Wilkens, Kevin O’Neill and Sam Mitchell. In December 2008, Mitchell was fired and Triano took over as head coach. He stayed on through the end of the 2010-11 season, compiling an 87-142 record, then served a year with the club as vice president of pro scouting.

When the Raptors’ star, Chris Bosh, departed in a sign-and-trade deal with Miami, “It was time to rebuild,” Triano says. “I understood that. It wasn’t like we weren’t trying to win, but it made it very difficult. We didn’t have the talent. It was about developing players.

“The one thing I enjoyed was working with the players we developed — guys like DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis. It wasn’t ideal when Chris left, but sometimes you’re in a rebuilding mode. We always competed. I loved that we developed the players, which was our goal.”

In 2008, Triano had landed another gig — as an assistant coach for USA Basketball. He joined a staff led by Mike Krzyzewski and included Nate McMillan, Mike D’Antoni and Jim Boeheim. Triano coached the U.S. select team that included Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant that year. Triano then served as an assistant for the U.S. team that won gold at the 2010 World Championships.

“I was learning from the other coaches on a daily basis,” Triano says. “The basketball talks were unbelievable. I thought, ‘This is really neat.’ I felt like I was a contributor.”

Triano spent four years working on Krzyzewski’s staff, ending his run in 2011. The next year, he received a phone call from Nash, who had been offered a job as general manager of the Canadian national team. He told Triano he would accept the job only if Triano would be his coach.

“Didn’t take me too long to say yes,” Triano says.

Shortly after that, Terry Stotts was on the phone after being named head coach of the Trail Blazers. Stotts and Triano had become acquainted a few years before while working an annual camp for NBA prospects held in Treviso, Italy. Among the players in the weeklong camp were Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka.

“Jay made a really good impression on me in two ways,” Stotts says. “He was a very good basketball coach. I appreciated the way he was conducting drills. And I enjoyed his personality, his sense of humor. He was fun to be around.”

Triano already was well aware of Stotts, who had been lead assistant for George Karl with some great Seattle SuperSonics players when Triano was at Simon Fraser.

‘I would often drive down I-5 and watch the Sonics as a basketball fan,” Triano says. “I knew who Terry was. But Treviso was when we first got the chance to talk and share ideas and get to know each other.”

Stotts offered Triano the job.

“I wanted a veteran coach, a former NBA head coach if possible,” Stotts says.

“Jay’s experience as a head coach helps me. He knows the things that go through a head coach’s mind and what he’s dealing with.”

Triano had learned valuable lessons as head coach with the Raptors.

“My biggest problem (as head coach) in Toronto had been that there was too much else other than basketball,” Triano says. “Meet with the media. Meet with the season ticket-holders and suite-holders. Meet with the GM. Talk to agents. I would be thinking, ‘It’s 9 p.m.; I need to start getting ready for the Lakers tomorrow.’ All my assistants had to do was coach, and I was envious.

“I think I did well at the other things, but at the same time, I love the game. Being an assistant, it’s all basketball all the time. In Portland, I don’t have to do anything other than give Terry ideas, and it’s up to him to pick and choose.”

Triano also learned when to speak up, and when to keep his pipes shut.

“As a head coach, I was getting so many things from the assistants — some of it I liked, some of it I didn’t like,” he says. “I try to give Terry as many ideas as I can without overloading him or getting in his way. During timeouts, for instance, everybody would be giving me ideas. I was losing my train of thought of what I wanted to say. Over time, you build a relationship between the head coach and the assistant. You know when to back off and when to give advice.”

Stotts had learned the same lessons, too, during long stints under Karl in Seattle and Rick Carlisle in Dallas.

“When I was an assistant, I tried to pick my spots,” Stotts says. “You want to suggest things, but you have to believe them. I found that with Rick. There’s a good chance the coach may do what you suggest.

“Jay has a great feel for the game. I rely on him on a lot of different levels. I run a lot of things by him because of his experience.”

• • •

Much of Triano’s duties with the Blazers center on development of the team’s young players such as 20-year-old power forwards Noah Vonleh and Cliff Alexander.

“Every day, before and after practice, Noah and I work with Coach Triano and Coach (Dale) Osbourne,” Alexander says. “(Triano) is a great guy to work with, just teaching me the game, working on my jump shot, my footwork and my ballhandling.”

Another understudy has been power forward Meyers Leonard.

“Brilliant coach,” Leonard says of Triano. “He has a very creative and innovative mind for offense, and for the game in general. He’s a fun guy to be around — serious when it comes to practice and games, but any time we get a chance to crack a joke, he will.

“He’ll challenge me with different things and make good observations. (In a recent game) my first shot was a 3 on the first possession I was in the game. I didn’t get to rebound, pass it, nothing. At the next timeout, he was like, ‘Pass the ball inbounds so you can get a feel for the ball.’ He notices things I don’t think a lot of coaches would.”

Triano has developed a special relationship with point guard Damian Lillard.

“I love Jay,” Lillard says. “He’s my guy. We text and we talk all the time. During practice, I stand on the sideline next to Jay and we’ll talk. We talk about everything, not just basketball.

“I love having him as a coach. I like how straightforward he is. He’ll say something, and he doesn’t care if it’s corny. He’s going to say what he feels. If he disagrees with what everybody says, he’ll say that. And he’s with you. A lot of times, you don’t know who’s really with you. He’s a team guy. He’s got your back.”

“Damian calls me the ‘Old Head,’” Triano says with a laugh. “There’s always that veteran guy on the staff. I hate that I’m the old guy, but I like the fact that I’ve been a head coach, that this is my 20th year in some capacity in the NBA. I’ve been through a lot and seen a lot.

“I feel old sometimes, but being out here on the floor with these guys keeps me young.”

• • •

Aside from the Blazers, Triano’s biggest mission now is to get Canada back to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Canada needed to make the finals of last summer’s FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico City to gain an automatic berth to Rio. The Canadians, featuring NBA talent such as Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Olynyk, Cory Joseph, Nik Stauskas and Tristan Thompson, lost to Venezuela 79-78 in the semifinals, having led by seven points with less than two minutes to go. Venezuela’s Gregory Varga hit a free throw with 0.3 of a second left to win it.

Canada had beaten Venezuela by 50 points in an exhibition prior to the qualifier and by 20 points in the round-robin portion of the tournament.

In the semifinals, “It was a perfect storm against us,” Triano says. “Anything that could go wrong did. Stauskas was ill and couldn’t play. (The Venezuelans) hit three crazy shots in a row down the stretch. There was a bad call that cost us. Joseph missed a layup. Olynyk slipped at midcourt, and they picked up the ball. It was like fate. But stuff like that happens. That’s why they play the games.”

Canada now must participate in a pre-Olympic tournament in July in the Philippines, one of three qualifiers throughout the world. Six teams that have not yet qualified are in each event. The three pool winners advance.

“I love representing Canada,” Triano says. “I loved playing in the Olympics. One of the greatest things I’ve ever done was coach (the Canadian Olympic team) in 2000. I got 12 players to experience something that I did — to be an Olympian.

“There are Olympians only every four years, and it’s not easy to get there. I take a lot of pride in that. If I can get this next generation of great NBA players and help them reach that (Olympic) goal — that’s the reason I do it.”

Triano’s contract with Team Canada is up after this year.

“I’d like to continue,” he says. “A lot of it will depend on being with an NBA team that would allow me. Neil (Olshey, the Portland president/general manager) has been fantastic in allowing me to do it.”

• • •

Triano has three children — daughters Courtney, who lives in Calgary, Alberta, and Jessica, who is in Vancouver, British Columbia, and son Dustin, a sophomore walk-on basketball player at Gonzaga. Dustin spent a year as a teammate of Vonleh at a prep school in New Hampton, N.H.

“Funny how the basketball world comes around,” Triano says.

Triano lives in the Pearl District with girlfriend Sheri Parker, a Toronto native who shares Jay’s love of baseball.

“I’m big into the Blue Jays, and being out here, I’ve become a bit of a Mariners fan,” Triano says. “Shari’s a bigger baseball fan than I am.

“For Christmas every year, I give her a five-game summer trip. Last year, we started in Toronto and went to games in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit. (Cincinnati first baseman) Joey Votto is a Canadian. I used to let him work out in our facility when I was coaching the Raptors. He got us tickets and went out for dinner with us afterward. The whole trip was fantastic.”

Triano isn’t sure if he aspires to be a head coach in the NBA again.

“Maybe in time,” he says. “I’m not in any hurry. I get a great fix in the summertime coaching the Canadian team. When last summer ended, I was excited to come back and be an assistant. Right now, I’m completely comfortable doing what I’m doing.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers