Niagara content abounds on Nighthawks’ staff
The Guelph Nighthawks’ braintrust will have a distinct Niagara flavour if and when the Canadian Elite Basketball League begins play this summer.
St. Catharines resident Charles Kissi, the former head coach of the Brock men’s basketball team, has reupped as the head coach and general manager of the team and he recently named Mike Rao as his lead assistant and Chris Rao as one of his five other assistant coaches.
Mike Rao was an assistant coach for Kissi at Brock before taking over the Brock women’s basketball program and leading it to an Ontario University Athletics championship and a U SPORTS silver medal this past season.
“Mike is a guy I have worked with before and we went to a national tournament,” Kissi said. “He took over the women’s program, did the same thing and went to the final which was really incredible.
“He is a great friend and a guy that I trust.”
Chris Rao took over the reins of the Niagara College women’s program last fall following a stint as the lead assistant coach with the Cape Breton University men’s squad.
“It will be his first pro experience and it is great opportunity for him to continue to grow and develop as a young coach,” Kissi said. “More than anything, I was afforded a lot of opportunities and this is part of paying it back.”
Kissi also reached back into his Brock roots by selecting former Badgers player Mitch Saunders in the third round of the CEBL’s U SPORTS draft.
“He is my guy,” he said. “He is absolutely a great guy and Mitch put up with me for three years. He is a good guy, he works hard and he hits all the character marks. Maybe it’s the Brock alumni loyalty thing, but I thought it was a good move for us.”
Kissi is looking forward to the start of the CEBL season. He is the lead assistant with the Toronto Raptors G-League affiliate, Raptors 905, which saw its season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have been doing lots of development, professional development, video projects and things like that,” he said.
Last season, Guelph was in a tie for last place in the six-team league with a 3-9 record when it replaced Tarry Upshaw with Kissi. He went 3-5 the rest of the way and got his feet wet in the CEBL.
“I need to continue to be direct because the directness is important as is the honesty and openness,” he said. “They may not want to hear it, but at the end of the day they will respect it because they want to be told the truth and they want you to be honest with them.”
Being a head coach at the university level is worlds apart from doing it in the pros.
“The difference is that it is very much business like. Guys are being paid. The last time I was a head coach it was university and I was grooming the guys,” Kissi said. “You have to balance the university approach, which is a strictly growth mindset, with this where you are wearing two different hats. You are thinking growth 100 per cent but there are also some business transactions that have to happen.”
It is a delicate balancing act.
“When you are wearing both hats, you have to try and make sure that the guys don’t see it as two hats.”
Unlike last season, Kissi was able to pick his own team and character was at the top of his list.
“The season is too short to put up with nonsense,” he said. “Talent is next and then you mix in some role players.”
He feels the squad he assembled has a good balance of size and talent.
“I think we were a little bit small at the end last year,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who can shoot the ball and we will be able to protect the rim. It is building to the style of play that we want to play. We are going to be a little bit bigger in our forwards and our guards, we are going to be relatively athletic, we are going to be able to shoot the ball fairly and defend large spaces on the floor.”
Last season, a few teams loaded up with talent late in the season, but Kissi is not a proponent of that.
“Who knows how long the season is going to last and what the structure will be?” he said. “We trust the players we have selected so far and barring something crazy happening, we are going to go with what we’ve got.”
There has yet to be a start date for the league, but Kissi is preparing for all eventualities.
“You are planning for all the different scenarios and trying to be ready,” he said. “If it does go, you are not going to have time to plan some more. We have lots of time now so we figure out how to manage it and plan accordingly with your staff. ”
It’s much different scenario for Kissi this time around.
“Last year, I didn’t have any time to meet with the staff,” he said. “I literally flew from Vegas, met the team and played a game. I have time now to do it properly, get organized, make sure everybody knows what they are doing, and put some processes in place for everything from video to game prep and practice.”