TORONTO — Brady Heslip’s dad taught him how to play basketball and even as the son surpassed the father, he was always there in mind and spirit, if not in person.
He still is.
"[My dad] had all the influence on me," said the Canadian national team fixture in a quiet moment in the halls of Ricoh Coliseum, where Heslip will suit up for a key FIBA World Cup qualifier against Dominican Republic Friday night.
"As a kid there was never any pressure, he just supported me and made sure I had fun with it and gave me all the opportunities," Heslip said.
His father, Tom Heslip was a good player. He played for Team Ontario with Jay Triano in the late 70s. He was a star at the University of Guelph, an MVP, All-Canadian and an inductee into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.
"He was a really good," said Toronto Raptors broadcaster and former national team head coach Leo Rautins, who grew up playing against Heslip’s father in high school. "Different than Brady, but really tough and scrappy. He could shoot too, but not like Brady. But more than that he was just a really, really good person."
"He would do anything for Brady though," says Rautins. "I remember when I put Brady on the national team for the first time, Tom came up to me and thanked me, and he had tears running down his cheeks."
Tom Heslip passed on his basketball passion and the basics of shooting to his son, a set of fundamentals that have made Brady one of the best three-point shooters on the planet.
But there were other lessons even more important.
"No matter what I wanted to do he supported me," says Heslip of his father. "When it was figuring out which prep school or which university he was there for all of that.
"He always trusted my judgement, he wanted me to make the decisions but deep down I was like ‘I kind of want you to help me. You’re the smartest guy I know and basketball-wise you can see the big picture.’"
Heslip is having a career common to so many Canadian pros – the ones who fall just short of their NBA dreams. Home is often just an idea. He’s played around the world – he was in Turkey last season and won’t learn his new address until July or August, after a stint next month with the Memphis Grizzlies in the Las Vegas Summer League – the fourth time he’s been through the Summer League grind. In suiting up for Canada since 2011, the number of games he’s played at home are few and far between.
It’s one of the reasons to a man the two games Canada is playing this long weekend – Friday in Toronto and Monday in Ottawa against the U.S. Virgin Islands — are so special. Wearing the Maple Leaf in front of a home crowd simply isn’t something that happens often in the career of a Canadian basketball player.
"I love being home," says Heslip. "If I could I would stay here all the time, never have to leave. This is home for me. Burlington, Toronto, Canada, this is home for me, it’s where I want to be, it’s what I love."
The game in Toronto will take on an added significance. Heslip is part of one of Canadian basketball’s royal families. His mother, Jody, is Jay Triano’s sister. In the crowd Friday will be Muriel Triano, Jay’s mother and Heslip’s grandmother. Heslip will have cousins and friends and his girlfriend in the crowd.
But missing will be his father, who passed away this past February after living for two years with a terminal illness. When Heslip played for Canada at the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015 he shared a sweaty embrace with his Dad after an upset win over the Americans in the semifinal. That won’t happen Friday night. Win or lose. Moments like that will be have to last in memory only going forward. Such is loss.
"It would be great if he was here, but we’ll play for him," said Heslip. "I used to wear No.12 for Canada but in February [when Heslip played in the World Cup qualifiers in the Bahamas] I switched to No. 4. That was his number… so I did that for him."
But it is what his father did for others that stays with Heslip now as he goes through his mourning.
A successful businessman who was able to retire early, Heslip’s father headed to Europe too, but on a very different mission than his hoops-chasing son. With the benefit of financial freedom and facing the ultimate deadline, Tom Heslip could have done anything with the final moments of a life well lived.
He chose to relocate to Rome and volunteer at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Centre, located in the basement of St. Paul Within the Walls Episcopal Church.
"To accompany and assist asylum seekers from all over the world, regardless of ethnicity, faith tradition, or phase of their journey for protection, integration and resettlement," reads its mission statement. "Recognizing our common humanity and providing hospitality in the heart of Rome, we aim to provide a support network and to encourage and empower refugees to build new lives."
At the crossroads of Europe, with the world facing a migration and resettlement crisis, the former mover-and-shaker in Bay Street real estate investment circles devoted his final months to helping serve the needy a daily breakfast while making sure they had what they needed to shave and bathe. He donated money and drew on his business acumen to help the centre prepare its annual report. In general he did anything needed for a volunteer-driven beacon of hope serving more than 200 of the world’s most desperate citizens every day.
"He was doing everything from the smallest job to helping fund it," said Heslip. "They had refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, all over Africa. Watching him do that, it was like ‘this is what he was meant to do.’ He changed a lot of people’s lives and I’m proud of him for doing that."
He earned his son’s admiration, but his efforts were no surprise.
"He’s always been the most generous guy I’ve ever known," says Heslip, slipping into the present tense briefly. "You can ask anybody. When I was a kid and had a birthday party everybody got a present, not just me. That’s the kind of guy that he was… he was big on giving. It was important to him. It didn’t matter what walk of life you were from he cared about people."
Playing in Italy two seasons ago made it relatively easy for Heslip to drop in on his father and watch him at work. Last season while playing for Raptors 905 Heslip headed back to Rome immediately after their championship season to spend more of what little time he had left with his father.
"That was his favourite place so it was cool to have that summer," Heslip says.
Life goes on though. When his father was at the end Heslip came home from Turkey, but he didn’t stop. He went to play for Canada in the Bahamas, wearing his father’s number. He went back to work after that. He’s back playing for Canada again.
"It was difficult… but it’s part of life," he says. "I would think ‘what would he do, what would he want me to do?’ and he’d want me to keep going, keep playing and that’s what I’m trying to focus on and stay positive and all that good stuff.
"It was a crazy thing and unfortunate but it happens, everything is going to have to deal with it at some point you just don’t know when."
But then there’s all that comes after it. And in his father’s final years he passed on his most powerful lessons to his son, and they had nothing to do with basketball.
"It’s a real eye opener and life changer when something that happens. You realize what’s important," said Heslip. "I just try to think that every day I’m grateful, and basketball-wise I’m just going to be me, play my game, be a good teammate, let it come to me and stuff like that.
"But what I take away the most is what he did for other people and I’m going try to live like that too."