TORONTO — Billy Lange has been watching in joy and in misery.
When the Sixers lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal Saturday in Toronto, Lange ached for his hometown team, where he’d been an assistant coach for the past six years. But it meant Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry was one step closer to his best chance at an NBA title.
When the Sixers won Game 2 on Monday, Lange, who became St. Joseph’s head coach in March, celebrated the moment for his former colleagues, but knew Lowry would be hurting until the teams reconvened Thursday night in Philadelphia.
“It’s hard,” said Lange, the father of four boys. “I am a Sixer for life. But he literally is our fifth son.”
Their investment in each other is that deep.
Their relationship began when Lange, then Jay Wright’s assistant, recruited Lowry to play at Villanova. They were cast from the same mold: Lange, a hard-nosed guard from Haddon Heights, N.J., who played at Bishop Eustace and then Rowan; Lowry, a hard-nosed city guard who played at Cardinal Dougherty, and, eventually, Villanova. Lowry often has the public address announcer cite his origins not as Villanova but, rather, "From North Philly … "
Lowry was bitter when Lange left Villanova for the head-coaching job at Navy in 2004 — as a younger man, Lowry found slights and betrayals around every corner — but they reconnected in the spring of 2013.
That reconnection changed everything.
Lowry was 27, entering a contract year. His fiancée, Ayahna Cornish, was pregnant with their first child, son Karter. Lange had returned to Villanova two years earlier, but he’d never stopped watching Lowry. He’d heard about Lowry’s petulance, about Lowry’s distrust of his coaches, about Lowry’s indifference to skill development and conditioning. So, when Lowry called, Lange knew his story.
“I told him: ‘Right now, the NBA controls the narrative. There’s enough evidence to say they’re right. Let’s change the narrative,’ ” Lange said. “I said, ‘Let’s be a hard worker. Let’s be a conditioned guy. Let’s be a pure, pure point guard. Let’s become a great, consistent three-point shooter. Let’s stay as healthy as we possible can.”
For the next three summers, they worked together at Villanova from May until August, four days a week. Three-pointers off the dribble and off the ball; absorbing contact in the lane, under control, not just hurling himself into defenders; retaining his dribble, like Steve Nash; getting to the rim with a couple of patented, nifty finishing moves from both sides of the basket. More than anything, Lange said, the workouts emphasized high intensity and extreme focus; side-to-side actions, multiple skills drilled in less than 30 seconds, and the excruciating finale, the “Star Drill,” scrambling from spot to spot and firing jumpers one after the other.
The change came almost overnight.
“Still have film from 2013. There are times I watch the first few workouts, and then I watch a month later — It’s unbelievable, the change in his motor and his body,” Lange said.
Sixers coach Brett Brown has coached against Lowry since he was a rookie, and Brown said Monday that Lowry’s physical transformation was what struck him as the most marked change over the years.
“That coincided with some disappointment in himself, and it coincided with some natural maturation, and it coincided with a gigantic year for him in terms of his contract and his stability in the league,” Lange said. He told Lowry, " 'Let’s prepare now, for when you’re 33.’ "
Lowry is 33. He averaged 10.6 points, 5.0 assists and made 33.7 percent of his three-pointers in his first seven seasons. He has averaged 18.3 points, 7.2 assists and made 38.0 percent of his three-pointer in the six seasons since. He has gone to five consecutive All-Star Games and won a gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
He is in the middle of a three-year, $100 million contract and has become the face and the voice of the Raptors since his friend DeMar DeRozen was traded to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard last summer. He has averaged 71 games in the past six seasons, 10 better than his first seven seasons. He has become an iron man with a consistent three-point shot and a level head since he began summer school with Billy Lange. For Lange, it’s simply a realization of what he believed Lowry could be all along.
“He was playing behind some guys you wouldn’t think he’d be playing behind,” Lange said.
Lowry left Villanova after two seasons and went 24th overall to the Grizzlies in the 2006 draft, but the Grizzlies drafted Mike Conley after Lowry’s second season, and they split time for a year until Lowry was traded to Houston. There, he battled with Aaron Brooks and Goran Dragic for playing time until another trade sent him to Toronto, where he and Jose Calderon split time.
Lowry never could have made it through his current workouts back then. T.J. McConnell joined Lowry the past three summers, and marvels at his regimen.
“We’d work out at 7 a.m., and he’d already have done a Pilates class,” McConnell said, “and after we were done, he’d go and do boxing.”
That conditioning makes Lowry, at 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, a headache for bigger players. When the Raptors switch on defense, you’d think Ben Simmons or Jimmy Butler, each at least 7 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, could take advantage of him in the paint. They do not.
It’s like watching giraffes try to bully a buffalo. A brilliant buffalo.
“Quite honestly, he’s always been the extension of a coach. And, quite honestly, he’s always been a pain in the butt,” Lange said. “I’ve learned as much coaching him as he learned from me. Probably more.”
Lowry’s 20 points kept Game 2 from being a Sixers blowout.
Lange was loving it. Lange was hating it.