London News & Search
The final judgment will come some eight months from now when the 2017-18 National Basketball League season has come to a close.
But after a short conversation, Keith Vassell, the newly announced coach of the London Lightning, comes off as an impressive guy. Not only does he have a strong basketball playing and coaching resume, but also the way he handles himself will give Lightning fans, players and ownership sends the clear message he’s realistic yet confident about what he wants to do.
Vassell is clear-spoken, articulate and focused.
The Lightning should be in good shape.
Vassell, whose latest additions to his resume include being head coach of the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association Niagara College Knights and interim coach for half a season of the NBL Niagara River Lions, was named the successor to Kyle Julius as the head man for the Lightning.
“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Vassell said Thursday. “Being part of the London Lightning and also part of the NBL, which is a growing league . . . I’ve taken a lot of pride in being a Canadian and just the opportunity that that’s afforded me. This one also hits home, being able to build something special.”
Vassell is from the Toronto area. He’s played at successful college programs as well as professionally overseas and with Canada’s national basketball team. He’s coached professionally.
For Lightning owner Vito Frijia, it was important to give another Canadian a chance to coach.
“I want to make it a more Canadian league,” Frijia said. “When the league first started there were a lot of American owners who didn’t know the Canadian game. Now it’s getting a lot more respect.
“Getting Keith . . . the more I interviewed him, the more impressed I was.”
Vassell, who is 46 but looks 35, and has already been scouring the basketball world for players.
He was supposed to return to Niagara College but having coached as the interim with the River Lions made the decision to come to London a lot easier. He says he wouldn’t have moved to the NBL if he hadn’t coached in Niagara.
“I coached previously in Europe and I moved away from that,” he said. “I coached at university and college. I realistically was looking at possibly coaching at university again. Now when I coached at the River Lions, it was something that was very engaging and invigorating.
“There’s a lot of things you can do with pros that you can’t do with college guys. There’s a lot of convincing that has to happen in college. In pros it’s very simple: you either do it or you don’t, as good as that may sound or as bad as that may sound. But that’s a pro. You have to be professional all the time. It’s not my job to make you professional. You either are or you aren’t.”
Vassell doesn’t shy away from talking about the Lightning’s championship season. Most coaches would give the standard answer that they don’t feel any pressure to replicate what Julius and the Lightning did last year.
Vassell says he feels a little nervous and doesn’t mind saying he does think about how the Lightning did last year. That kind of honesty is refreshing.
“I have to (think about it),” he said. “I’m a builder. As weird as it may sound, I feel more comfortable in a River Lion situation — coming in with our backs against the wall, having to come out swinging, having to figure it out, getting everybody on board. That’s what I’m used to.
“This (Lightning) group, for all the players that I’ve spoken to, they’re prepared, ready to go — professional, engaging, exciting. In some ways it’s, ‘Where do I fit in? How do I not take away where they’re at and how do I enhance it?’ I know the league is going to be better than last year and we have to make sure we stay on top.”
Vassell’s philosophy is similar to the one Julius preached.
“Defence has to happen. Defence is something you can get to as close to 100 per cent every possession, every minute. Sometimes you can do everything right offensively and the ball doesn’t fall. Defence I want us to be very strong.
“On the other end, offensively with this group, we want to open up the floor and allow the talents of the players to be able to show through. We have great shooters; we have very good slashers; guys that that can get to the basket; we have fantastic passers; and we have the player of the year. That’s where the pressure is. How do you fulfill your potential with the roster we have? I don’t know, but the goal is going to be that.”
Vassell expects many of the key players from last year to return.
“Hunger is a huge factor,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to feel out how satisfied, how filled everybody is from last year’s championship and have they come back hungry for another one.”
London News & Search