G-League

Jama Mahlalela’s path from teaching school to G-League head coach

The first time you meet Raptors 905 Head Coach Jama Mahlalela, his positivity is overwhelmingly his most identifiable feature. He’s friendly and genuine, with the type of full-face smile that you can’t help but reciprocate.

Mahlalela wasn’t destined to be a coach like so many in the NBA ranks. It isn’t his birthright. He has a physical education degree and a bachelor of education at the University of Toronto. He had a job offer – what he refers to as a “dream job” – from his old high school to teach physical education and history, but an opportunity arose with the Raptors at the same time. It was a crossroads, but in a sense he chose both. He works in basketball, but he never stopped being a teacher.

He grew from humble beginnings, working at various times in international camps for the NBA, and film work, player development, and as an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors. It’s been a long road, climbing the ladder. He had never been a head coach before the 2018-19 season. Not in college, not in high school, not at any level. There was chatter before the 2017-18 season that Mahlalela would take the reins for the Raptors 905 after the departed Jesse Mermuys, but the job eventually went to Jerry Stackhouse. This season, despite leaving an assistant coach’s job in Toronto, Mahlalela felt ready to run his own team in Mississauga. Still, the man who admitted to feeling butterflies before presenting scouting reports to his team was nervous before his first game.

“You know what, I’m normally a pretty good sleeper, although I have the two young kids at home. A one-year-old and a three-year-old, so they wake me up, normally. I woke myself up a few times, just sort of with excitement,” said Mahlalela before the season opener.

Teachers are usually nervous before their first time meeting a new class. But Mahlalela wields the same tools as does any well-adjusted high school teacher: positivity and optimism. In his first season as head coach for the 905, he’s worked hard to instill his personality traits as defining features of his club.

“It’s been amazing growth for me to take a career that was sort of grounded in NBA basketball and grounded in the Toronto Raptors organization, and shift it into a head coaching mold where I can sort of infuse some of my own sort of cultural identity…to the team, can create an environment that’s about being positive and about sort of what do you do today and how do we achieve today and how do we aspire today,” said Mahlalela in the final few days of the G-League’s regular season.

That positivity has manifested itself in a variety of significant moments. Mahlalela makes sure to appreciate times that deserve extra attention. 905 guard Duane Notice competed for Canada in its quest to qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, and Mahlalela wanted to surprise him when he returned to the team.

“Duane landed from Brazil, and we told him, ‘hey, go home and sleep and rest,’” said Mahlalela in early December. “’You had a long flight.’ He said ‘no, I’m coming to practice.’ I had our video guys cue Oh Canada ready, so right in the middle of practice, we cut practice, and I hit it, and he walked in, and we brought everyone in, and I told Chris (Boucher) and Myck (Kabongo) to stand up tall, our other Canadian players.”

Mahlalela’s approach doesn’t just cultivate team culture. It directly impacts his team’s play, as well. Positivity and optimism were integral qualities of the 905’s first-round playoff win against the Grand Rapids Drive on March 26. The 905 started out proving Murphy’s Law, connecting on only 4 of their first 24 attempts. They piled up six turnovers in just the first quarter. The 905 bent, but they didn’t break.

“Even when it got a little ugly there, you’ve got to give them a smile and say, ‘guys, we’re all right. We’re ok. Lot of basketball game left. Sunny days are still ahead of us.’ And we slowly just climbed our way back,” a jubilant Mahlalela said after the win.

Chris Boucher, the 905’s dynamo center scoring 27.2 points per game, missed his first six shots. He was visibly frustrated, and his play suffered. Early in the second quarter, Mahlalela pulled him aside and spoke to him. Boucher calmed, grew serious, and thanked him. They shared props after a short conversation.

“He just told me, you’re doing a lot of the things that you don’t see, but it’s making us win this game,” said Boucher after the game. “When he said that, I think it was an eye-opener for what I was doing. Obviously I was thinking about my shot a lot, but when he said that, it made me realize that if we don’t win, I won’t get a chance to retaliate, or to play again, so for me it was just a way to wake up, give us another chance to play.”

In Mahlalela’s telling of the story, his role was a little less pronounced.

“You build relationships with players, and your ability to check in with them, and just see how they’re doing, and get them out of the basketball moment and realize that everything’s still going along as normal,” said Mahlalela. “I think in doing that, it inspired him to play a little bit better. It wasn’t anything magical, just a quick technical check-in, and ‘how you doing Chris, everything good out there, you alright?’ And he was great, obviously, for the rest of the game.”

Boucher scored poorly in the overtime win, but he finished with a triple-double, including 11 monstrous blocks.

That anecdote offers another defining quality of Mahlalela: he rarely wants to credit himself, always preferring to boost the standing of those around him. For him, the conversation is always about his family, his players, the front office, the culture. He doesn’t deflect away from questions about his coaching, but he judges his own success by the success, and happiness, of those around him. His status as a high-level Canadian coach means Mahlalela feels a responsibility to pay his fortune forward by offering opportunity and access to Canadian coaches through the 905. Their success equals his success.

In a sense, Mahlalela’s is the perfect mindset for a G-League coach. He is happy to offer credit to all around him. To that end, he’s rolled with all the punches a G-League season has to offer. He’s learned what a flurry it can be. If Mahlalela is going to take the leap to the head spot on an NBA bench, it will be his prioritization of process over results, his ability to adapt to any situation, and his deep well of optimism that earn him the gig.

NBA brass won’t judge Mahlalela on his culture and locker room alone. His team’s performance will matter. The thing is, that’s been stellar too. The 905 are a model G-League franchise, reaching the finals two seasons in a row before this one, and winning the championship in 2016-17, so Mahlalela has a high bar to reach. He’s performed up to standards.

The 905 are once again poised to make a deep run in the G-League playoffs. They finished the regular season 31-19 and have advanced to the second round of the playoffs. They boast two legitimate MVP candidates in Jordan Loyd and Chris Boucher, and Mahlalela has had to remake the team’s strategic approach time and again as the roster has changed dramatically over the course of the season. Alongside Boucher and Loyd’s rapid development, a variety of players have thrived in roles with increasing responsibility. In the 905’s first playoff game, only three players who earned time were on the active roster at the start of the season.

At this point, even if the 905 lose to a talented Long Island Nets on Friday in the second round, Mahlalela’s resume remains stellar. The team’s wins and players’ development are gold stars on Mahlalela’s record. But he’s always stressed process over results, and the playoffs are no different. Early in the year, Mahlalela was contemplative after his first loss as a head coach.

“Your first loss is really your first moment as a coach,” he said. “All coaches lose a game at some point, here or there. The first one for me was one to pause, stop, reflect, and really figure things out. To me, that’s where the learning comes, and that was a little hurt in the moment, and losses stay with you longer than the wins do… the losses help you get there faster, I think.”

Those same losses have been more difficult for Mahlalela than he expected: “I think I’ve found myself being more angry and upset than I normally am, also. I think losses definitely have an impact on you. I think that I didn’t realize that they would, not as much as they have.”

Mahlalela has learned gobs this season, at least as much as he’s taught. His motto has been ‘win the moment,’ and this G-League coaching stint will definitely fall in the win column for Mahlalela. And all the while, through roster churn and loss-induced heart burn, he’s maintained his unfailing positivity.

Fast forward to the playoffs, and he’ll continue learning from his first loss as a head coach in the playoffs, whenever that comes. Losing is a part of sports. If you trust telepathic Al Pacino, it’s the part of sports – and life – that matters. In the G-League, winning isn’t the most important part of the game. Even as Mahlalela has accomplished the winning, it’s been in the deeper areas of the league that he’s thrived, in fostering culture and development. It’s a good thing the 905 hired a teacher for the job.

Blake Murphy of The Athletic contributed to the reporting for this story.

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