R.J. Barrett back home where education comes before basketball

L-R: R.J., Kesha and Rowan Barrett. (Photo: Noah Park)

R.J. Barrett is a big deal. How many high-school basketball players have their own blog for USA Today?

The first two photos on his Instagram account feature him with LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

At every age level, he’s been considered as good or better than Andrew Wiggins was at the same stage of his development.

When he carried Canada’s under-16 team to a FIBA Americas silver medal, he was the youngest player and leading scorer. He was also MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic game.

A year ago, he played in Drake’s OVO Bounce tournament, guarding Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson.

But in his household, the 17 year-old R.J. is the second-most accomplished basketball player. R.J. stands for Rowan Jr., as he’s the son of one of former Team Canada player and current executive vice president and assistant GM of Canada Basketball, Rowan Barrett.

In appearance and mannerisms, they are carbon copies of one another. But dad Rowan says don’t buy into many comparisons beyond that.

“He had way more ability than I had at that age,” Rowan says of his son. “He’s been exposed to much more. At that time, we didn’t have the Raptors here. We didn’t have the knowledge of the game. We were playing soccer and football and running track and maybe starting basketball at 14. He’s been playing for a number of years.”

Having spent the past two years down south attending Montverde Academy prep school in Florida, R.J. is now back in Canada for a summer of training and representing Canada Basketball’s U-19 team, just in time for Father’s Day on June 18.

Despite the prestige that comes with attending a U.S. prep school, the decision to send him away from home in order to help him pursue his basketball dreams wasn’t so simple.

“Who wants their child to leave home when he can go to school five minutes from home?” Rowan asks. “It’s just not a choice you’re normally going to make.”

For generations in this country, elite hockey players have left home at young ages, but the practice is relatively new for Canadian basketball players. The final decision on whether to head south was made by R.J.

“He said, ‘Dad, this is where I want to go,’” recalls Rowan.

Then using his fingers, Rowan lists off the reasons his son said he wanted to leave.

“He’s making his case, and I thought ‘Wow, this is amazing. A little hair growing on his chest!’” says Rowan.

So far, the decision appears to have been a good one. R.J. is the top-ranked player in his class, according to ESPN, 16 spots ahead of LaMelo Ball. Barrett does trails Ball in one metric — Instagram followers. Ball currently boasts 1.9 million to Barrett’s 11.3 thousand.

To put Barrett’s talent in perspective, last year as a freshman he scored 31 points when guarded by Lonzo Ball, a senior.

Rowan laughs and shakes his head when asked if he could ever imagine a scenario in which he’d say that R.J. would only workout for his hometown Raptors, as the Ball camp has done with the Lakers.

The “Big Barrett Brand” isn’t worried about selling shoes, rather impressing upon R.J. the value of his education.

Even though R.J. is already considered a future NBA draft lottery pick, school remains at the forefront of their father-son chats.

“Nothing is given and nothing is guaranteed. The only thing that you can do to make sure you are going to be a functioning member of society is to make sure you get your education,” says Rowan. “My wife and I are masters-level educated, and it is something we’ve always pushed within our family.

“There was always an understanding that if he didn’t perform in the classroom, we were going to pull him off the floor,” says Rowan.

Such concerns are no longer necessary: R.J. is an honours student.

“It means that all these lessons that you are pushing in there for all these years are starting to take hold,” says Rowan.

It still doesn’t make things easier when it’s time for R.J. leave home again.

“When they go, you definitely feel that loss, that hole that’s in your family, so it’s definitely great when he’s home,” says Rowan. “The family feels whole again.”

This guy is tall styll

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Rowan was a father-figure long before he had a child. During his career, he volunteered in an initiative called “The Barbershop Project,” in conjunction with Macaulay Children’s Centre where he’d help mentor and educate young men on parenthood.

Rowan is cognizant of the perception of black men not being as involved in the child-rearing process, so he hopes to help change that perception.

“As an Afro-Canadian man, that’s definitely something that is there,” he says. “When I was younger it was something that I would think about. Do I want to be a statistic, or do I want to be there and be steady?”

Being there and being a pro athlete isn’t simple. When R.J. was born, Rowan had to leave to compete for Canada in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “It was euphoria,” he recalls. “You’ve achieved your goal. I had been dreaming about the Olympics, and at the same time your family is growing.”

Both grandmothers were brought in to help at home, Rowan’s wife Kesha, who was a track star at St. John’s where the couple met, could get some sleep.

Now the family pulls together to help R.J. achieve his goal of playing professionally and, hopefully, in the Olympics himself one day.

“He has a goal,” says Rowan. “And I happen to have knowledge in the area and the ability to draw from people smarter than me. So, if it is calling on his godfather Steve (Nash) to get some wisdom, we’re going to do that.

“You don’t always perform and the world isn’t always going to love you,” says Barrett. “Where do you go when that happens? My job here is as a father first. My job is to love my kid. No matter what goes on, no matter, what he does, he’s going to be loved by me.”