Old colleagues, close friends, now opposing coaches face off

"There's always going to be a bond when you're going through the same journey"

It was obviously good-natured, but it was also peculiar.

The College Park Skyhawks won the jump ball, ran a crisp offensive set that ended in a layup, and Raptors 905 head coach Eric Khoury shot Skyhawks head coach Ryan Schmidt a smile. Maybe Khoury, who’s known Schmidt since the latter joined the Raptors 905 as an assistant coach back in 2017, tipped his cap for a slick opening play call?

It was now Raptors 905 ball. Couple actions, then a pass was deflected out of bounds. Schmidt and Khoury locked eyes again. It seemed like they were about to burst into laughter.

“Of the millions of different plays you could run we ran the exact same one,” Khoury revealed after the game, a second straight loss at the hands of his close friend and former co-worker with the 905. “It was just a weird coincidence. We both threw it to the elbow, had a little fake weak side action just to go to a strong side DHO, and both of us ran the exact same thing.”

Khoury and Schmidt are cut from the same, yet different cloth. Both served as assistants under former 905 head coaches Jama Mahlalela, now on his second stint as an assistant with the parent club, and Patrick Mutombo, now an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. Both arrived at the Raptors organization with no professional coaching experience.

In 2012, Khoury latched onto the Raptors in the analytics department, after acquiring a masters degree in experimental fluid dynamics. Five years later Khoury moved to an assistant coach position with the Raptors. Schmidt turned to coaching after a brief and surely unsatisfying playing career. The Brooks, Oregon native began his coaching journey at a youth academy, followed by a prep school, before connecting with Jerry Stackhouse, the 905’s second head coach in franchise history. Stackhouse eventually brought him onto his defending G League champion staff in 2017.

It was two years later that Khoury and Schmidt joined forces under Mahlalela. The engineer whiz-kid from Toronto and the pale redhead whose entire elementary school consisted of 65 kids became close friends. Though Khoury had already been with the Raptors for seven years, including two seasons as a behind-the-bench assistant with the parent club, he needed to expand his coaching skillset. That included presenting scouting reports, running film sessions, and simply being more “hands on.” Schmidt, meanwhile, was slowly gaining increased responsibility on the player development side. Over four seasons with the 905, he’d move from working with the end of bench players to the assignees and two-ways, developing deep connections using a unique brand of encouragement, empathy and technical expertise. Whether they knew it or not, each coach wanted a skill the other had.

“I wish I had an engineering degree,” Schmidt half-joked. “He’s brilliant. He sees the game in 4D, especially from an offensive standpoint. Tactically he’s really sound.”

“Ryan’s way of teaching is unbelievable,” Khoury said. “His way of breaking things down into very digestible step-by-steps, whether its player development on offence or defence. That’s something I’ve tried to take from him and implement here.”

In early 2021 Khoury and Schmidt brought their masks to Walt Disney World for the G League bubble. 15 games in 25 days. A relentless cycle of scouts, meetings and games; a grind for players and coaches, with only colleagues to turn to for any in-person contact. For Khoury and Schmidt it was an opportunity to dream.

“I remember some of our conversations sitting out on the lake when it was about 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit. It was snowing back here in Toronto. My wife was killing me when we were FaceTiming,” Schmidt reminisced. “Eric and I were just sitting there talking about hopefully we’ll eventually become head coaches. Just going through that preparation process of, ya know, once we get there we’ll be ready to do it.” 

“Getting to talk big picture there, as assistants you’re always bringing different ideas to the table and bringing your perspective to the head coach and doing your best to support the staff in general,” Khoury said. “We also talked about that when we’re in the big seat we’re going to implement things. Just getting to talk to him about that stuff was great.”

During the bubble season Schmidt and Khoury helped head coach Mutombo craft the best offence in the G League. Eight players under their purview would go on to play in the NBA, including Alize Johnson, who after 36 points and 17 boards in a late February 2021 win, gave one of those lowly assistants a personal bit of gratitude.

“Huge shout out to Coach Ryan,” Johnson said. “We’ve been getting together and watching some film, just picking out my errors in the game. He’s been making me make the right plays to make it easy for myself.” 

After the bubble, the two aspirants ascended. With a souped-up coaching month in Orlando, Khoury returned to the parent club, which had to set up shop in Tampa for the 2021-2022 campaign. When that black hole of a season ended, the Raptors did what they’ve always done – sent an assistant from the parent club to its G League affiliate to become their head coach. At 33 years old, Khoury became their youngest in franchise history.

Schmidt won a championship as head coach of the Hamilton Honey Badgers of the Canadian Elite Basketball League. From there he accepted the head coaching position with the London Lions, a stunning move to some, who felt leaving the G League’s proximity to the NBA would hold him back from his ultimate goal of reaching the NBA. While Schmidt understood people’s trepidations, he felt he had to do what Fred VanVleet did – bet on himself. So he sojourned across the Atlantic, doubters be damned. That year, he guided his British Basketball League side to the domestic treble – finishing atop the “ladder” (the standings), winning the BBL Cup, and the Play-Off Final (they hyphenate “playoff” in England, those crazy Brits). After the season Quin Snyder and the Atlanta Hawks asked Schmidt to head up their G League team.

A few months later, Schmidt made his G League head coaching debut in the city where it all started, against his old roommate with whom his coaching journey began. Six years after entering the coaching ranks, both were leading NBA affiliates, and both had started growing families. Khoury was giddy at the prospect reuniting, as Schmidt was bringing his wife and one-year old daughter on the trip, and Khoury has three kids of his own.

“Just one of the greatest people I’ve been able to meet,” Schmidt said of Khoury. “Super caring, someone I consider a good friend.”

After the first of their two-game set, a 17-point Skyhawks win, Schmidt and Khoury hugged and caught up on the court well after the cleaning staff had completed postgame duties. After another double digit Skyhawks win in game two, the two shared a quick bro-hug and dispersed. Khoury was frustrated. The 905’s 0-3 start to the season will have him losing sleep. But you’d imagine in the morning he’ll congratulate Schmidt on the win, and look back at their first head-to-head meeting as head coaches as another cherished memory in their shared journey.