“I’m not about yelling. I don’t believe in that kind of leadership”: A Q&A with new Raptors coach Darko Rajakovic
Rajakovic was hired to nurture the rookies and lay the groundwork for a championship team. It could take a while
The Raptors conducted an extensive search for their new head coach. Any idea what set you apart?
I walked into the interview with a lot of confidence, but it came down to compatibility. The diversity of my experience was also an asset. I’ve been coaching for almost 30 years now, and I have a reputation for helping young guys get better. The Raptors are a championship club, but the roster today is entirely different from 2019. My job is to lay the groundwork for another championship.
Your boss, Masai Ujiri, talks incessantly about winning. How will you do that if you’re focused on player development?
There’s a fine balance between trying to win and giving time to youth. If a player is struggling for a game or two, he shouldn’t be cut. A team is not your seven or eight top players. We’re going to have more time for everyone.
Is that the main difference between you and your predecessor, Nick Nurse?
I won’t compare us. Nick and I have known each other since we were both G League coaches. I respect him a lot.
No need to talk trash, just articulate how your approaches differ.
Well, my style of basketball is focused on great ball movement—playing unselfishly and trying to generate assists. The Raptors have a lot of talent, but individual ability doesn’t mean much if you’re not working as a group.
Everyone loves Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes. Who else should we be cheering for come opening night?
Our rookies Gradey Dick and Markquis Nowell had a great summer. Gary Trent Jr. also put in work. And I expect Precious Achiuwa to take that next step.
Last season, there were reports of locker room feuds. How will you improve team culture?
I want to build a rapport with my players. It’s about putting forth a coaching standard that fosters high character. My motto is “Win the day.” I don’t obsess over long-term outcomes beyond our control. What we can control is waking up every morning, being on time and sticking to our schedule. I want to create a culture of togetherness.
You started coaching basketball in Belgrade at 16, an age when most teens are still figuring things out. Did you feel a calling to teach basketball?
I think so. My first job was coaching eight-year-olds. Seeing them learn to pass, learn to make a lay-up—it gave me the feeling that I could help others. That’s still what fuels me today.
I understand you majored in Greek at the University of Belgrade.
That’s right—not just the language but also Greek culture and philosophy. At the time, I was coaching and going to school, so I was incredibly busy.
I guess engaging with the great philosophers was good leadership prep for your current gig.
Yes, exactly. My studies broadened my knowledge and experience. I also got a chance to travel to Greece, and I really fell in love with the country.
You and your family moved to Toronto earlier this year. I guess you’re used to the cold, being from Serbia.
Winters in Serbia aren’t like they used to be with global warming, but we do get snow. My family loves it here in Toronto. My son is already rocking his Raptors gear. Our new place is in Etobicoke, in a great, walkable neighbourhood. It’s also close to the OVO Athletic Centre and the airport.
I’m sure you know that rival NBA players love visiting—and partying in—Toronto. Have you been hitting the clubs with your players?
I haven’t hit a club for 25 years! I’m more of a low-key guy: go for dinner or go for a walk. I’ve gotten so many recommendations—Greek, Spanish, Korean. The players say I must visit Pai, Sotto Sotto and Kinka Izakaya, to name a few.
Your hiring has thrilled Toronto’s Serbian community. How does that feel?
I am so happy and honoured to represent my country and our community here. Over the summer, I was back in Belgrade, walking down the street, and a Serbian guy from Toronto actually recognized me. He told me all about Serbian places to visit here. It’s exciting.
There are some great Serbian restaurants in Etobicoke, so I don’t think your family will feel too far from home.
I haven’t had a chance to visit them yet, but I’m planning to do that very soon.
NBA folk like to talk about how nice of a guy you are. Does that mean we shouldn’t expect any courtside tantrums?
I’m not about yelling. I don’t believe in that kind of leadership, but what I am big on is accountability. I don’t like lateness or selfishness—I don’t like disorganization. My players are going to hear the truth, whether they like it or not. I have an amazing staff to support me, but when it’s time to lay the hammer down, that’s my job, and I don’t have a problem doing it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.