Q&A: Canada Basketball exec Rowan Barrett on winning, losing and Canadian toughness

Rowan Barrett, general manager and executive vice-president of the senior men's Canada Basketball program. (Getty Images)

Rowan Barrett has done it all when it comes to Canadian men’s basketball.

As a Scarborough, Ont.-born high school legend, he was on the forefront of the wave of hoops talent that has emanated from Canada’s biggest city ever since, earning a scholarship at St. John’s University in New York City, establishing a long and productive professional career overseas after a few NBA training camp stints and representing Canada internationally at the senior level for a decade, most notably at the Olympics in 2000 in Sydney as team captain.

But his lasting legacy might end up being his work building the men’s program since joining Canada Basketball in an executive role in 2012, and now as the team’s executive vice-president and general manager. After a decade of building and growing and false starts and setbacks, the men’s program reached a historic peak at the recently completed FIBA Basketball World Cup, when Canada both qualified for the Olympics in Paris in 2024 – the first time the men’s team will compete at the Olympics since 2000 – and outlasted Team USA in overtime to win a bronze medal, the first for a men’s team since Canada won silver at the 1936 Olympics.

After 24 hours of travel from Manila and a 12-hour time change, Barrett was still a little groggy when I caught up with him for a debrief and look ahead earlier this week, but it was clear that Barrett believes Canada’s best is yet to come.

(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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Sportsnet: How are you feeling?

Rowan Barrett: Not too bad. The jet lag will hit me at some point, I’m sure.

SN: Canada just made basketball history, but with the Olympics coming next summer, there isn’t much time to enjoy it. When you look back on the World Cup, what do you take away from it? What helped make this the the most successful men’s team we’ve ever had?

RB: Well, first, I think it’s important to do a full evaluation because sometimes there’s things you think you see and then as you go deeper into evaluation realize, maybe “That was better than I thought” or maybe “That was worse than I thought.” So, we’re going to take on a full on debrief, that that will give me more clarity on everything.

But just sitting there watching the games, sitting in the meetings, I think one thing that was really, really clear was that our team was very resilient and had a toughness and a physicality that was of a FIBA standard. In difficult moments, our team was not folding. I think if you’re gonna play in FIBA, quite often these games are coming down to a couple of possessions, and you have to have the ability to execute in those moments. And from what I can see in this tournament, we executed more often than not and we’re standing on the podium at the end, so I think that’s good.

SN: Head coach Jordi Fernandez was hired to replace Nick Nurse with barely a month to prepare, seems like that worked out well.

RB: Coaching was a big question mark, maybe, for others (going into training camp). I mean, I felt really good about it, but you still needed to see it on the court. You believe it’s going to work, but you need to see evidence. But right away from camp starting, it was very clear that (Fernandez) had a control in the room, a control with the team and a trust, and then the question was if that was going to be kind of borne out as you got into competition and into the exhibition games and everything else. And he was cool, calm and collected going into Spain and beating them in Spain, and you could just see the trust of the players growing with the coach. I think he did a tremendous job. Again, I’m gonna go deeper into all the decisions made and the different games and all of that, but in general, overall, he did a good job, especially in very difficult circumstances, coming in a month out, effectively.

SN: This tournament stamps the men’s team as one of the best in the world, but does it validate your process as well?

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RB: These tournaments are a test of your system … and we got to see at the top levels, that clearly those systems hold, and so that’s very important for us as we move forward. I think you can put groups together on paper, but you want to know that it works and that the personalities work, and that the hierarchies make sense and that the players feel comfortable because it’s a player-centric program. Nothing gets done without the players. It’s all about them, so it’s “How are we treating them? How are they being handled? Are we putting them in the best positions to be successful, physically and psychologically? Are we doing everything we can to help do that?” And sometimes the things that people think might work together, they don’t work together. But, clearly, we saw that the synergistic nature within our team was great … but bottom line, though, we did not win this tournament. We did not win. And so while we are very happy about accomplishing at least two of our goals – to qualify for the Olympics and to finish on the podium – ultimately, if you’re really a competitor, you’re trying to get onto the top of the podium. So that was always a goal for us. And even though we made history, we fell a little short. So we’re going to very clear as we go through the review on what are the things that we need to give ourselves the best chance to stand on top of the podium.

SN: You needed to get past Serbia to play for a gold medal, but they were the better team that day (Canada lost 95-86 in the semifinals to the eventual silver medallists). What does that loss tell you?

RB: The great thing about these tournaments is that you’re playing all these different countries, and they have all these different styles, and you have to adjust to each of the styles. And so I think it’s one of the reasons why we started some of the games slow, because you’re kind of getting the rhythm of that team and kind of feeling out them out, and then, eventually as you get their number, you lock in, and we were able to kind of get the separation from most of the teams.

Against Serbia, I think obviously our guys were in foul trouble, which impacts your aggressiveness and, as a result, (Serbia) gets comfortable, and then they start getting confident, and then now they start making shots all over the place. And then I felt like in that third quarter their lead was seven and you just need to get a stop. Yeah, we were getting baskets, we need to get a stop … and I didn’t feel like we were able to get those stops. And so we’ll look into it systematically and figure out what happened there. And — I don’t make excuses – but I didn’t love that they had two days in between their game against us and we had one and had to travel (from Jakarta to Manila) because when you looked at our guys, we looked a little bit sluggish, to be quite honest. We looked a little bit tired there. But they beat us fair and square, we’re not going to make any excuses. They beat us, and when we needed to make the plays, we just didn’t, so we’ll, we’ll evaluate it. We’ll deeper into it. Figure that out and work to be better for it.

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SN: You started with Canada Basketball in 2012. What are some of the things that have led to this success over that time?

RB: Starting from the beginning, the area that I really controlled was the age group stuff, and first thing I understood was that we couldn’t be waiting until kids got to high school to identify them. By Grade 9, they are already in competition (at the U16 level). How could we possibly compete if the players are just learning about FIBA at that point? So I said, “We gotta go down in age,” and we built out the Junior Academy program. it’s the first time Canada Basketball had ever gone down into elementary school age groups (to identify and help develop players), but that’s what we had to do. And R.J. (son RJ Barrett) was part of that group and Ignas Brazdeikis (who started at the World Cup for Lithuania) and (Indiana Pacers guard) Andrew Nembhard was also. Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) was coming to tryouts at U16s. He was a late developer, very skinny, very slim, we weren’t sure what position he was going to play, and then he played for us at U18.

And then I took a lot of flak for putting him and RJ on our senior team in 2016 (for the Olympic qualifying tournament), but I wanted them to get that experience, not necessarily for them to play. But to experience it, get them into the system, feel that man sweat because you believe that it’s going to pay some dividends for you down the line. And so when you look at them now, seven years on, they’re now starring in a World Cup.

So, we have been stoking the development of these players and obviously their clubs have done a good job, their high schools and everything else, but we have had a hand in the growth and development of these athletes. And from 2012, when I started, it took us five years to win a World Championship (at the U19 level in 2017).

SN: But it’s taken longer at the senior level. (Barrett took over as general manager from Steve Nash heading into the 2019 World Cup.)

RB: We had a number of things go the wrong way for us, but the bottom line is, nobody cares. … The teams we play in these tournaments, they show up and whatever comes through the door, they’re gonna try to kill it. I think our guys did the best that we could and obviously we did not perform well (Canada finished 21st at 2019 Worlds and missed out on qualifying for the 2020 Olympics), but it was just a process of us growing and as we got into this new quadrennial, after the (2020 Olympic qualifying), we just said, culturally, we’re going to make a change, and I think that that change … is paying dividends now. 

SN: This is the shift to the “summer core” concept?

RB: Yes, and it showed this summer. We’re in a space now where we just brought in a new coach, and the players didn’t know him and he didn’t know them, and yet, all of these players are still here. And I think that that speaks to the culture that has been built.

And that culture is: No one is bigger than the country. Not myself, not Jordi, not (Canada Basketball CEO) Michael Bartlett, not any of our players. Nobody is bigger than the nation, and we’re here to serve the nation. And when Nick left, all the players were like, “We love Nick, but we’re here for the country, we’ve got a job to do, let’s go,” that, for me, was a huge telltale sign of the power within the culture that we’ve built. And I think it’s probably the thing that one of the things I’m most proud of.

SN: This didn’t happen overnight.

RB: I believe we’ve been doing good things for several years now, but the bottom line is until you actually get some hardware to show for it, it’s hard to get the belief and the support of everyone. But you don’t just end up on a podium. It doesn’t just happen. There’s indications along the way, like 11-1 (in World Cup qualifying), the best record in the world, beating Argentina with their full team on the floor last summer, and not just beating them but beating up on them going away, this is like a top-(four) team in the world at that time that’s getting effectively outclassed.

And so those things are indications clearly that we were moving in the right direction. But you got to get to these tournaments, and you got to hit a podium somewhere. And now that we’ve done that, I think that it helps us to say, “OK, what we’re doing is working, so let’s continue to build. Let’s tweak, align and move forward again.” … And hopefully the corporate community sees what we’re doing and steps forward, because we’re going to need more support than ever before.

SN: From the outside looking in, it seems like you and Michael Bartlett have established a strong working relationship. How has his presence helped over the past two-plus years?

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RB: He’s been tremendous. I don’t blow smoke. I tell you like it is, and he’s been great for us. And I think probably one of the biggest things that he’s done is he said “Let me come in and help remove the issues that stopped our team from being successful. From an organizational level and from a resource level, what can I do to alleviate and remove the challenges that impact you guys when it comes to winning?” Because his belief and his leadership has been that if he can remove those obstacles, we could win, or at the very least, we could see exactly what we have. And then reaching out to get money to then — on top of that — build competitive advantages. Not just move the obstacles out of the way, but invest in that’s going to give you a competitive advantage when you go to fight these other teams. He’s like “What is it? Tell me, let’s figure out how much it cost and then let me go up see what I can do to get it.” Mike was all over that. Are we where the United States or Spain is at this point in resourcing? Absolutely not, let’s be real. But we are not where we were. It’s been continual growth from (former CEOs) Wayne Parrish to Michelle O’Keefe to Glen Grunwald, it’s been growth and now to Michael, who has taken us now to another level. Michael Bartlett has been very, very supportive, and I think it’s one of the reasons why we stand where we are today.

SN: Do you expect the roster to change from the World Cup to the Olympics?

RB: I think that Canada basketball has built a culture where we’re committing for athletes, and we’re asking for their commitment. And so, for us, we’re going to continue to respect that commitment. And we’re going to continue to expect that commitment from our players. And, to be honest, for me to be able to tell you “We’re going to add this or we’re going to add that.” … You just can’t; it’s irresponsible. You have to kind of give it time and let’s see if everybody getting through the season healthy. And then, what’s going to happen next year with the NBA Playoffs? Are one of our two of our guys going to end up in the finals? And then we start training camp the next week? (The Olympics are from July 26 to Aug. 11.) So, are they going to be ready and willing to go all the way through or physically able to go all the way through (the summer)? So, there’s a number of questions that over the next few months we’ll have better answers for, I think.

(But) maybe to answer your question more pointedly, our focus is not to create an All-Star team. We need to create the best team. And I think the proof of that was this summer. Our team was not an all-NBA, All-Star team. We had guys mixed in from the summer core and the winter core. There were some guys that just set screens; some guys, they were there just to pass the ball. Some guys weren’t going to play a lot, but they were there to scream out assignments and coverages to help guys execute the game plan. Some guys, the majority of their energy was in practice to make sure the practice level was high. And you can have subtraction by addition, too. So, we’ve got to be very careful, and very thoughtful and very strategic about how we’re going to build this team.

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SN: So where does a guy like Andrew Wiggins fit? Jamal Murray has been part of the core, but Wiggins hasn’t, though he’s been part of the program in the past.

RB: Well, first of all, I love this kid (Wiggins). He’s not a kid anymore. He’s a grown man with children and everything else, but I’ve shared that in our program our arms are open. But we asked Andrew Wiggins to (be part of the summer core) and he couldn’t commit, so I haven’t even begun to have those types of conversations. I think that our focus now has to be on our guys that are here that have committed to play that are there and really just had some tremendous performances. Like, if I’m not mistaken, Dillon Brooks plays the same position (as Wiggins). I mean, the guys that we have, there are no slouches. So, let’s go through the season and let’s see where we are and see where everybody is physically, and I think the direction that we will go will play itself out. I’m not dodging anything. I just, I think it’s premature to answer that question. I think we’ll know more in the coming months.

SN: Did you expect this kind of breakout from Dillon Brooks? (The Houston Rockets forward scored a Canadian-record 39 points in Canada’s OT win over the USA in the bronze medal game and was a two-way force throughout the tournament.)

RB: Well, first of all, I think Dillon Brooks can play. Let’s not ever lose sight of that. Like, I don’t know what people are writing. But he can play … and if you’re Canadian and you want to play for your country, our arms are open, man. I called Dillon after the season, and we spoke because the guy I saw on TV, and all the things that people were writing, I mean, I was like “What is going on? Because this is unrecognizable to me. This is not the guy that I know.” And we spoke and he let me know really from the very beginning that he was in, that he was going to be there, and that he was good. And that’s all I needed to know. And Dillon was at the national training centre from Day 1 every single day religiously working on his shooting, working on his body. He deserved this result, he worked like crazy, that’s why the guys were so happy for him. … Whatever happened during the NBA season, it’s very clear that (this summer) he was refocused and ready to go.

And the other side of it, I think, is there’s gamesmanship involved in sports. And we’re Canadians and everything else, and we’re nice, but I’m just gonna tell you, just to be clear, you don’t beat (elite teams) being nice. Like, these guys are coming at you. You have to be aggressive, very aggressive, very assertive if you’re going to play and win in those games. You have to be “We’re here to beat you” and I think Dillon really embodies that. We love Dillon.

SN: One more: is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the best Canadian player of all-time now, and if not, do you think he will be?

RB: I don’t know how anybody can question that he’s in that conversation. I just think it’s unfair to talk about that now. He’s just 25. He’s just building his career and seeing the accolades that come along with his talent, and he’s still probably two or three years away from his prime, so let’s see. But I mean, clearly, he’s in that conversation.

SN: I lied, one more: How will the success this summer help the program going forward? Can it be sustainable?

RB: Winning is the greatest recruitment tool that you have. When the whole world is watching and you’re seeing your flag being raised, and you go through the United States to do it, that’s pretty good. Nobody should have to recruit you when you see that. And those are the guys that ultimately we want. I’ve been to the Olympics, I know takes to get there. I know how many guys that I had to go through to get on that team (in 2000). The competition was tough. So, if you want to get (to the Olympics), you got to go through some hoops to get there, and it starts with your desire to do it. And then it comes to full-on competition in training camp. “Let’s go head-to-head up for the spot.” So anybody that doesn’t want to do that, that doesn’t want to engage in that, well, as you as you look forward into the future, that’s what it’s gonna be as long as our pool of guys stay healthy and they stay in the game and they keep going, and that eventually make for a better team: the more choices you have and more guys you have that are competing and fighting, all the way up. You take the cream and here we go, you make the best team you can. So, I feel good about where we are. I feel good about what we envisioned coming to fruition here. So, yeah, man, we got a several months now to kind of put this together. And we’re gonna enjoy this one for now. And then get ourselves together to push for that ultimate goal at the Olympics, to stand on that podium.

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