Growing up in Kentucky, Dwane Casey learned the value of an assist, on and off the basketball court

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United States of St. Jude - Kentucky - Dwane Casey

Dwane Casey signs an autograph in 2013, as coach of the Toronto Raptors, during a visit to St. Jude.

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Dwane Casey grew up in Kentucky — basketball country — where he learned the game that would bring him glory.

He played point guard for a national championship team at the University of Kentucky. Then, as an NBA assistant coach, was part of the Dallas Mavericks’ title-winning team. Later, as head coach for the Toronto Raptors, he won NBA Coach of the Year honors.

But that’s not the story Casey told when he visited St. Jude, in those pre-pandemic days of early February 2020, while his current team, the Detroit Pistons, was in Memphis to play the Grizzlies.

Casey talked about growing up in the small northwestern Kentucky town of Morganfield, where he was raised by his grandparents, Urey and Elizabeth Miller, who instilled in him the values — hard work, empathy, charity — that made him who he is, not just as a basketball coach but as a man.

“When I was a little boy, my grandfather used to send money each month to a hospital in Tennessee, and I never knew,” said Casey. He began to tear up at the memory. He excused himself, walked away, wiped his tears, gathered himself and returned to finish the story.

“I never knew what he was sending money to, until I got older, and realized how important it was for people like yourself, and other people, to have the donations.”

Casey’s grandfather, Urey, who worked three jobs, two at dry cleaners and another mopping floors at a restaurant, was donating to St. Jude, the children’s research hospital some 275 miles south of Morganfield.

“He didn’t have a lot of money,” Casey said. “It was $10, $15 a month, but it was from his heart.”

Casey learned crucial lessons from his grandfather, who rose at 5 o’clock every morning and didn’t return home from work until dark, and his grandmother, who cleaned houses. He would sometimes tag along with both of them, taking it all in, taking it to heart.

He may have been gifted at basketball, but he worked, too — jobs including cutting tobacco and cleaning the rails in a coal mine. “At lunch, he would dim the light on his miner’s helmet and nap 450 feet under the earth, rats scurrying beside him,” Sports Illustrated wrote in a 2018 profile.

“And so,” Casey said that day at St. Jude, “when I got in a position where I could help, and do things, and donate, and spend time and promote and wear the pins religiously, and the hats religiously, I did so.”

He didn’t have a lot of money. It was $10, $15 a month, but it was from his heart.

St. Jude and the NBA have been partners for more than a decade, and campus visits by players and their teams have created indelible moments for patients — from playing video games with James Harden, to singing karaoke with DeAndre Jordan, to sitting down to tea at a child-size table with 6-foot-11 center Marc Gasol. And one coach donates blood whenever he visits campus.

But Casey’s relationship with St. Jude is especially meaningful — for the children and families he touches with his devotion, but also for what it says about that little boy growing up in Kentucky and the man he became.

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