LOWELL, Mass. – Winning an NBA Championship is every young basketball player’s ultimate dream. That dream came true for one UMass Lowell alum, as John Corbacio ’12 became the first River Hawk to win an NBA title on June 13 as a member of the Toronto Raptors’ coaching staff.
“The championship to me is a representation of everyone on staff – players, coaches, front office – being superstars in their roles, being the best that they could be and staying locked in,” Corbacio said in a phone interview following the Raptors’ NBA Finals Game 6 win and ensuing championship parade.
Corbacio was a member of the UMass Lowell men’s basketball team from 2008-2012, and despite battling a tough injury, was respected as a team leader both on and off the floor. He helped the River Hawks win their third and final Northeast 10 Conference Championship in 2010 before the program eventually made the move to Division I.
Although he has only been out of college a few years, the Stoney Creek, Ontario native has made the most of every opportunity so far, working his way towards his current role as Video Coordinator/Player Development Coach with this year’s NBA Champs.
“I’m responsible for helping the coaches with game planning, creating the edits to show the team and overall scouting of opponents,” Corbacio explained about his position. “On top of that, I work out with the players, so last summer I spent over two months in San Diego with Kawhi Leonard. During the year on game days, I cut the game film live and pull clips to show the team at halftime.”
After a year on the coaching staff at his alma mater, Corbacio moved back to Canada to be a high school coach where Duke’s RJ Barrett was one of his first players. He then joined the Raptors’ organization in what was then the NBA D-League with the Raptors 905. His success earned him a head coaching position with a professional team in the Thailand Basketball League that he would guide to a championship at just 26 years old.
“All the players were older than me and they didn’t speak English except for my two American imports, so I had to learn how to get my message across with a calm demeanor despite the communication barriers,” he commented. “I can’t put into words how valuable that experience was.”
When Corbacio returned to the States and the Raptors 905, he added a second title to his resume in that same year. That’s when a spot as an assistant video coordinator for Toronto opened and he was asked to move up to the big leagues for the 2017-18 season.
“That summer, my father passed away,” Corbacio shared. “It was brutal because he didn’t know I had gotten the position with the Raptors yet and he was such a big part of me getting there. I feel like he still helps me every day, though.”
Corbacio enjoyed a successful first year in the NBA, as the Raptors clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. He credited his strong relationships with Head Coach Nick Nurse, the rest of the staff and the players for helping him get promoted for the 2018-19 season. And according to Corbacio, he realized early on that the team was in for a special year.
“When I met Kawhi Leonard in the summer, I was blown away by his detail. He is 100 percent basketball pure. I had also known Coach Nurse very well, and I believed in his offense and in the aggressive approach that he brings defensively. We were trying to do things differently than any other NBA team, so from that standpoint, I knew it was going to be special.”
Since winning the 2019 title on the road against the Golden State Warriors, Corbacio said it still has yet to sink in. From the final series to the celebration parade, though, the Raptors have made it a complete family affair.
“The Raptors flew our families out to San Francisco to experience it, which was incredible and I don’t think a lot of organizations would have done that. Then back to Toronto for the parade on Monday, I got to bring my mother, two brothers and my sister on the float with the team.”
Corbacio explained how much pride he had in helping to bring the NBA Championship home to a country that has not had a professional title since 1993. However, he added that he has just as much pride when it comes to his time as a River Hawk.
“Whenever someone asks me where I played, I say it with so much pride that I went to UMass Lowell,” Corbacio said happily.
And when asked if he felt his time at UMass Lowell helped him get to where he is today, Corbacio’s short answer was simply “no doubt.”
“Being a freshman, I remember waking up at 6 a.m., walking to and from Fox Hall every day, and getting on the bus going to classes no matter what. It was a tough, hardworking town and university, and doing that every day really set me up for this. My coaches and professors taught me time management and prioritizing. Coach Greg Herenda and Coach Marc Kuntz prepared me well in terms of pushing me and teaching me to work hard to get to the top.”
In addition to his coaches at UMass Lowell, Corbacio also thanked his teammates and parents for everything they did to help him achieve his dreams.
“Robbie Walton, Kerry Weldon, Ali Kanaan, our manager Will Baron, they all really helped me out and those were the best days of my life. From working together every day, and still keeping in touch, I really love my teammates,” Corbacio expressed. “Also, I can’t thank my mom and dad enough. They would drive down to Lowell in the family minivan all the way from Canada almost every weekend for games.”
As for what’s next, Corbacio hopes to become an NBA Head Coach one day, but for now, he’s staying the course.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to get there, but you can’t look that far ahead,” he concluded. “I just want to win – be the best I can be in the role I’m given and let the blocks build and build. That’s how I approach it.”
Wise advice from a successful, young alum making River Hawk Nation proud.
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