Q&A: Rowan Barrett Jr. on FIBA gold, fame, beating the U.S.

Life has certainly changed for Rowan Barrett Jr. since leading Canada Basketball to a FIBA under-19 world championship – the program’s first gold medal. R.J. has been taken on a whirlwind media tour and even inspired think pieces on where he ranks in the history of Canadian basketball.

You could see the change in his everyday reality during Week 3 of the Nike Crown league; a year ago, Barrett would have been just another kid hanging out in the Kerr Hall stands or potentially even playing.

Now, he’s the main attraction off the court.

The autograph requests, the online mentions, the questions asked, they all come in waves. When I ask him how many people a day have asked if he is going to reclassify and what university he is going to attend (Duke and Kentucky are the prohibitive favourites), he sighs and rolls his eyes before responding: “Everyone. However many people I see that day. It’s honestly so annoying. You know what answer I’m going to give. The same answer I’ve given to everyone else.”

The fact that so many people care to ask shows how far he and the program he’s become the young face of, has come. Before we exit a back-house media room on the campus of Ryerson University, a public relations manager shielding him warns, “as soon as we go out that door there will be a lot of people waiting for you.”

Barrett takes a deep breath and rolls his shoulders as if to settle himself at the free-throw line and peers through the glass pane on the door to see bloggers and fans alike steadying their cameras in anticipation. Canadian basketball celebrity is his new reality and the flashing bulbs and catcalls are his new normal. The notoriety hasn’t stripped all of his youthful exuberance as he lights up when talking about the love he’s received from current NBA players and national team members like Kelly Olynyk. I caught up with him for a brief chat on the experience of winning the tournament and returning home afterwards.

Photo by Jamal Burger.

SN: What has the response been like since you won?

Barrett: It’s been pretty great. When we won I was like, “OK we made history,” but when we got off the plane and saw everybody that’s when it really hit me that we did something special.

SN: What did it feel like to win the semifinal game against the U.S.?

Barrett: Ah man that was a big game. We were all emotional for that game. We were ready for that game. The Americans are always talking trash, always cocky. To beat the Americans in any sport is really good.

SN: At what point in the game did they take you seriously and stop talking trash?

Barrett: Not until the game was over really. They were talking trash the whole time. They always thought they were going to win but we kept punching them in the mouth and we came out with the W.

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SN: Did you guys talk trash? You are also fluent in French. Did you go bilingual in smack talk?

Barrett: From me nah. Abu Kigab, yeah. He’ll talk trash to anyone because Abu is crazy. [laughs] I think one time in the game against France they were saying something and they didn’t think I could understand. And then I started talking to them (in French) and they all go confused. But as a team not really much trash talk. We just played our game.

SN: You were the MVP of a tournament with the best players in the world that in many cases were two years older than you. Did you expect to dominate against an American team full of McDonald’s All-Americans?

R.J. Barrett holds his FIBA U19 gold medal. Photo by Jamal Burger.

Barrett: I’ve been playing in the States so I’m used to playing against the best competition. When I saw the guys on Team USA it was just another hurdle that we had to get over to get to the gold medal.

SN: So even going in you were confident you’d be the best player on the floor?

Barrett: I’m always confident in my game.

SN: Could you tell the buzz you guys were generating back home?

Barrett: Oh yeah for sure. It’s hard not to see it. The whole country is really proud of us and got behind what we did. You can definitely see with what we’ve done so far Canada is really up and coming. We definitely see Canada Basketball becoming a powerhouse.

SN: I talked to Penny Oleksiak recently about the fact that when she won gold her phone literally broke due to all of the notifications. You and maybe Alphonso Davies are the male versions of Penny Oleksiak this summer. Did your phone break when you beat the U.S. or won gold?

Barrett: [laughs] This was the old one. [takes a black iPhone out of his pocket] I had to get a new one. So many people were messaging me and congratulating me and the team but I had to get a new phone.

SN: You had to get a new phone because the old one broke or because you needed to get a new number?

Barrett: Yeah, both.

SN: The celebrity status has included an ovation for you and your teammates when you were recognized at Crown league. What was it like when all of the older players came over to congratulate you?

Barrett: You really see in these moments that our hard work paid off. We really created something special for Canada so we’re just trying to pave the way for more Canadian teams to come.

SN: What did you think when you saw Kelly Olynyk tweeting about your game?

Barrett: When Kelly tweeted that I was surprised personally. Just happy that even the high-level guys are recognizing what we did.

Barrett: He was really proud. He told me he was proud of me. He wasn’t surprised. He told me the whole tournament to believe it could happen.

SN: He is one of the architects of the program but you actually played. So, do you have bragging rights in the household now?

Barrett: Oh yeah, for sure. I told him he’s never beat the Americans so I have that over him but he’s still been to the Olympics. For sure, I’ll never let him live it down.