Q&A: Rowan Barrett Sr. on RJ’s success, the rise of Canadian basketball

The New York Knicks selected Toronto native RJ Barrett third overall at the NBA Draft.

On Thursday night the first family of Canadian basketball had their father-son moment go viral.

At the NBA draft Rowan Barrett Sr. — the former Canadian Olympian and the general manager of the Canadian men’s national team — saw his son, Rowan Jr. get chosen No.3 overall by the New York Knicks.

In an interview immediately afterwards on ESPN the teary-eyed 19-year-old Duke star laid his head on his father’s shoulder while Rowan Sr. was asked: "Dad, what does it mean to be in this moment ….

The elder Rowan started his answer confidently, but was quickly swept up in the emotion himself.

"I’m excited for him," said Barrett. "Your children make goals, and they go out and achieve them, you have to be proud."

And then with tears welling in his own eyes, Barrett addressed his strapping, 6-foot-7 son:

"I’m very proud. I’m proud of you son."

"Thanks Dad."

Kleenex all round.

But there was a lot more to swell the chest of any Canadian basketball fan at the draft, and more upcoming as Canada preps for the World Championships in China later this summer.

Barrett was just the first of a record four Canadians taken in the first round. Two more Canadians were taken in the second round. The six draftees were the most ever from Canada and the most in a single draft from any country other than the United States, breaking the previous record of five set by France.

Coming on the heels of the Toronto Raptors NBA title and in advance of Raptors head coach Nick Nurse being named head coach of the senior men’s team on Monday, the draft was another high point for Canadian basketball that seems to be rolling one every other week.

I caught up with Rowan Barret Sr. to talk about his viral moment, the success of his son and the rising tide lifting Canadian basketball as a whole.

(This interview has been edited for length and continuity)

Michael Grange: You and RJ had me reaching for some Kleenex there. That was a beautiful moment.

Rowan Barrett Sr.: It was amazing. I was there to kind of hold him up and he ended up having to hold me up. It came out of nowhere.

MG: Were you surprised how emotional it was?

Rowan Barrett Sr.: Interestingly I’ve been speaking on camera since I was a teenager, you know, so you think you’re prepared for moments like that, but you’re not.

At the athletic banquet for Duke this year I saw Mike Krzyzewski talk about [freshman stars] Zion [Williamson] and RJ and Cam [Reddish] and he said he needed to start a new tradition because normally if you’re leaving [Duke] after the first year — obviously you’re appreciated — but most of the recognition is for the ones who have gone through the four years, who have gone through school, just from a tradition perspective.

But this year he said ‘no, we can’t just let these kids leave like this’. And he brought them up on stage and he was emotional, he was weeping and I thought, ‘man, that’s Coack K’.

And the same thing happened to me!

You’re thinking you’re prepared for something like that but it’s just raw emotion, it was overwhelming. You have your son in your hand and I know why he’s feeling the emotion, on many levels.

MG: What prompted it for you? What was behind it?

Rowan Barrett Sr.: Obviously as a father you teach your children to make goals and then systematically work and try to go after them and watching him achieve one of his biggest goals was an amazing thing.

You think about all the sacrifices. The early morning trips to the gym, all the times rushing home from work to pick him up and take him to practice, all the flights I’ve taken over the last two years to support him and make sure he’s OK. It all culminated in that one moment. If there was one word it would be elation.

MG: What was RJ feeling?

Rowan Barrett Sr.: The Knicks were his [late] grandfather’s team and his grandfather used to tell him: ‘one day, you’re going to play for the Knicks’.

He was Jamaican and so when he came to the States it was all about Patrick Ewing [the former Knicks star who was born in Jamaica]. It wasn’t about Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. He didn’t understand any of them. He knew Ewing, so the Knicks were his team and he just talked about how [RJ] could play for the Knicks one day.

So RJ knowing he was fulfilling his grandfather’s dream, was one thing that made him emotional.

And RJ has sacrificed a lot. He left home at 15 years old, at times crying himself to sleep, being away from his mother and the family for months on end.

At 15 RJ left home and didn’t see his mother from September to February. She couldn’t travel, her knee was hurt and he had a busy schedule down there, so all of those things led him to this point and beyond, and that emotion came pouring out of him and I knew exactly it what it was and how hard it was for us as a family.

MG: It had to be.

Rowan Barrett Sr.: One of your children leaves the nest at 15, you know? It’s hard.

It’s a story that’s been replayed over-and-over in hockey for all these years but man, I don’t know how it can be normal for your kid to be going that early and basketball doesn’t have that culture, necessarily, so it was a challenge, but I think all those emotions came out in him and out of us as parents. It was an awesome moment.

MG: What was the behind-the-scenes like? The NBA experience?

Rowan Barrett Sr.: They think of every single thing. They help the mothers with make-up and getting their hair done. There are barbers there. They have a place for food and then off to the side you can do your nails. They think of everything and spare no expense.

They have several types of meetings to get these guys ready [for the draft process and meeting the media]. They got to meet the commissioner. It’s just awesome from beginning to end.

MG: What was your biggest takeaway, otherwise?

Rowan Barrett Sr.: From a Canadian perspective it was record-setting, the most players drafted from one country [outside the US] ever. I think it speaks to the growth of our game, it speaks to our developmental system. It speaks to the coaching, the clubs, our provincial service organizations. Obviously Canada Basketball, presiding over that, making sure the curriculum is the right one, making sure we’re training people, training coaches. And our national teams where people get to come in, ply their trade, work on their games. Junior Academies where it’s best-on-best, these kids are grinding against each other, the top ones, early, figuring out how to compete.

I think it’s a total, total win, and it couldn’t come at a better time, with everything the Raptors have done, the success they’re currently having and the kind of the attention it’s put on the game in our country. I think it’s a great time for these young guys to come into the NBA, and look, I still think there are a few kids that didn’t get drafted that could very well end up on an NBA roster.

If everything breaks the right way you could potentially have close to 20 players from Canada on these rosters.

That’s the thing that hits me.

MG: What was the mood among the other Canadians drafted?

Rowan Barrett Sr.: I got the chance to see them all at the hotel, speak to them. It was really interesting to them, guys like Mfiondo Kabengele [who was taken 27th overall by Brooklyn and traded to the Los Angeles Clippers] – ‘hey Rowan and am I going to get an invite [for the national team]? Am I going to be there this summer?’

It’s great to see the excitement. Talking Brandon Clarke’s mother [the Gonzaga star with Vancouver roots was taken 21st and traded to Oklahoma City] and her excitement about wanting him to involved in the national program. Just very, very exciting. All these guys paths are a little bit different, but they’re arriving in the same place, through hard work, head down, grinding.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

MG: You’ve known most of these kids for a while now.

Rowan Barrett Sr.: I ran a camp, way, way back when and RJ and Iggy [Ignas Brazdeikas who was taken 47th by New York] were maybe seven or eight and they were both there and now they’re going to be on the Knicks together? It’s amazing. You couldn’t write something like this.

It’s great for the country, it’s great for the kids. The amount of people who have shared with me how impacted they are and how their kids are looking up to these kids, it goes beyond sports.

Obviously I’m always focused on the team and the system and all that, but this is just as life-impacting, for some.

Even if you don’t love the game of basketball you have to be impacted by what you’re seeing here.

MG: Can Canada Basketball leverage the passion out there for the sport right now?

Rowan Barrett Sr.: We’re going to keep doing what we do on the high-performance side, with the coaching and everything else. We’ve been winning on the court, especially in the youth age groups; our teams are the second-ranked in the world [on aggregate], and now all those young athletes we worked with and built up are coming up now. They’re at the senior level, connecting those that have some experience underneath them. We’re trying to translate that and I feel like we’re in the midst of that now, but the next step is the corporations.

We need that corporate support to truly knock it out of the park. Everything from flying our teams – going to Asia, Australia with NBA players in business-class seats. They’re just too big for regular seating, right?

That costs money. The more corporate support, not only for the program, but making it more and more visible for Canadians, I think will help us in all we do.

Facilities and programs will matter [at the grassroots level] but at the high-performance level, more funding for our teams to go out and do what they need to do is the next piece that will help us gain some ground and make a stand about where we can be on the international stage.

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