The massive air-handling unit in the corner of the North Augusta Middle School gymnasium suggests that the low-ceilinged court should offer some respite from the 37-degree-and-rising temperature outside. But this being South Carolina in mid-July, it’s not up to the task. The huge industrial fans brought in as reinforcements roaring along the baseline don’t help much either. And on the floor, it’s even hotter. It is the preliminary phase of the 8th Grade Finale, a tournament bringing together the best 14-and-under Nike-affiliated teams in grassroots basketball for a de facto North American championship. One of the favourites is Team Ennis from Toronto, but by Friday afternoon they are playing their fourth game in 20 hours and the Canadians are sluggish, tied with the Albany City Rocks early in the second half. From the sidelines Rowan Barrett Sr. scans the floor and states the obvious. “They’re tired, man,” he says, but part of him approves. Athletes need tests, and travelling to the Deep South in the height of summer for some Darwinian hoops is a test of resolve and a rehearsal for bigger trials to come. “If you speak with most anyone in sports science, they’d look at the schedule at these tournaments and say they can’t be good for the athlete,” he says. “But all the best guys have gone through it. If it is done in moderation, you can have the desired result. You have to experience it.”
Barrett is here on a busman’s holiday. As the executive vice-president and assistant GM of the senior men’s national team, the long-time pro and former Olympic running mate of Steve Nash keeps tabs on the bulging pipeline of talent feeding into the NBA and the national team, which is bringing the country to the brink of a golden era. There are a number of future national-team hopefuls on Team Ennis, and foremost among them is Rowan Barrett Jr., 15 years old, a six-foot-six (and growing) wing who wears braces, styles a high-top fade that recalls the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, plays piano, speaks French, finds time for church and already has his future figured out: High-major NCAA school, first round of the NBA draft and then the league. It’s the new Canadian way, a path forged by Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, among others. “All those guys have done it,” says Rowan Jr.—RJ to everyone. “So it just makes you more confident that you can do it.”
But for the moment, the South Carolina heat seems like challenge enough. During a stoppage, RJ wanders to the far end of the court, where the industrial fans offer some comfort. He stretches his arms, demonstrating a wingspan that will measure well at a future combine. It looks like he’s ready for flight, which in basketball terms he is. The only questions are how high he’ll fly and how much turbulence is ahead.
Every story about a son is a story about the father. This is particularly true in the case of RJ. His skill and gifts would generate buzz if his last name were Smith, but he is a Canadian-hoops blueblood—Steve Nash is his godfather and bought his crib. So while RJ may be destined for great things, for now he is still Rowan’s son. “Everyone knows [my dad],” says RJ, who wears No. 6—a twist on his dad’s No. 9—as he carves his own path with his father’s guidance. “Everywhere we go, people are always talking to him. It’s just something you have to live up to.”
To be fair, a just-turned 15-year-old who stands six-foot-six doesn’t starve for attention. When Aaron Blakely arrived at Vaughan Secondary School last summer for the Team Ontario under-15 tryout he was running, he’d heard plenty about the younger Barrett, but hadn’t met him. “I walked into the gym and there were about 40 kids and I instantly knew who RJ was,” says Blakely, an assistant coach to Dave Smart with the Carleton Ravens and a top club coach. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and he stood out. It wasn’t just his athleticism, which is superior, but it’s the way he carries himself, his maturity. And he can really play.”
It was a talented group, with a number of players who ended up on Canada’s under-16 national team this summer, RJ among them. But over the course of Team Ontario’s time together, RJ moved to the front of the class. His final exam came in the gold-medal game at the national championships in Edmonton in July against Team Quebec. The teams were tied at the half and Quebec’s Junior Farquhar—another electric prospect—had finished off the first with a big dunk. Momentum was shifting. “These are 14- and 15-year-old kids, and they’re facing some adversity,” says Blakely. “And then RJ goes out and has 27 in the second half, finishes with 37 for the game. We go from being tied to winning by 40. We went as he went, and he was in attack mode.”
Watching on a shaky Internet stream from Europe, where he was on a tour with the national team, was RJ’s dad. “What can you say? It was late, and you’re sitting there and you’re watching him dominate against a very athletic group, guys older and stronger,” says Barrett. “And you’re watching him go and go and go like a battering ram. Kids don’t put it together very often, but there are moments, flashes, where you go, ‘Wow, that’s who he can be.’”
It was the signature moment of a breakout summer. Playing with his club team, RJ shone as they racked up a 16-3 record playing across the U.S. “He’s long, he’s a lefty, he’s skilled. He looks like he can play the one through the three,” says Jason Pratt, senior analyst for Future150.com, a ranking service that targets kids beginning in Grade 7. “We love him.”
And sure enough, RJ was tabbed as the second-best kid in his age group in North America before he’d cracked a book at St. Marcellinus Secondary in Mississauga, Ont.
It’s tempting to say, “Like father, like son.” Except that’s not really accurate. Barret Sr. and Jr. are basketball prodigies from the same area code, but they are worlds apart, like Tang and BioSteel. Stretched out on the bleachers between games, Barrett Sr. has gone back in time. Asked about his basketball beginnings he starts talking about track, and how he wanted to be the next Ben Johnson or Mark McKoy—about standing on the line at Scarborough’s John G. Diefenbaker Public School and waiting for someone to say “Go.” And suddenly his 42-year-old self is hunched over, his arms slicing through the air. Suiting up for St. John’s University against Allen Iverson and Georgetown at Madison Square Garden or a starring role at the Olympics in Sydney or a long international career? Not on the radar. Nothing was, back then, except the next recess, the next race. “They had the lines on the playground at school—a 100-metre straightaway,” he says. “And every single day, religiously. Every. Day. We’d line up and it would be ‘On your mark, get set, go,’ and we’d be dipping at the finish line. It would be, ‘I got you, I beat you.’ It was awesome.
“When I think about my formative years, we had tetherball,” he says, invoking a game that was once played everywhere and now, seemingly, nowhere. “And when it got wrapped near the top you had to jump. You had to stop that ball from getting wrapped. Now when you look at it, developmentally, you had the hand-eye, the jumping in tetherball, and then you’re doing sprints. I played soccer, so I had the stamina, the angles, the give-and-go actions.”
And basketball? At the same age his son was getting ranked and live-streamed and featured in YouTube videos headlined “Best prospect since Wiggins,” Barrett Sr. had barely started. “At the end of elementary school, we played in a school league, had some games. Didn’t practise much,” he says. “It was like anything else, track and field or whatever. Very little practising . . . it was fun. All my friends were there. It wasn’t like, ‘I love this sport, I’m going to do this sport.’ It was just another sport.”
Barrett’s beginnings aren’t all that different from many his age who grew up in Toronto as the city was shifting from a bastion of WASPiness to the cultural polyglot it’s become. He is the only child of Jamaican parents raised in a home where school was first and sports were fine as long as they didn’t distract from school, which is where you played almost all your sports.
He attended West Hill Collegiate Institute and won the city championship in Grade 9 even though, as Barrett tells it, he was still learning some of the rules. He showed enough promise that a couple of older kids at West Hill—Leroy and Delroy Williams, high school stars at the time—suggested he finagle his way to Five-Star Basketball Camp in Pennsylvania. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the pinnacle of the youth-basketball scene. It was where Michael Jordan went when he was in high school, as did nearly every other NBA star you could name. “It was $500 to go to the camp,” says Barrett. “I said, ‘Mom, I don’t want any birthday presents, I don’t need any Christmas presents, I just need one pair of shoes and I want to go to this camp,’ and she said OK. For her, it was the first time she remembers me really zoning in on something that intensely, so she allowed me to go.”
It was a completely new world. With his schoolyard athleticism, it didn’t take Barrett long to get noticed, even if his skills were raw. While the elite crowd was in the NBA Division, he was instantly moved into the NCAA Division, one tier down. He returned home with a booklet of ball-handling drills and a bucket of confidence. “It was an awesome, awesome experience,” he says. “I started to see some success and then I grew.”
Between Grade 9 and Grade 10 he went from five-foot-11 to six-foot-three on his way to his adult six-foot-five. He could dunk before the growth spurt, but after it, he was able to hammer it down in traffic. “I worked on my ball-handling drills, but I had no understanding about shooting or how to develop a shot,” he says. “I just knew that I could run faster and jump higher than everyone I played against, so I worked with that.”
Good plan. For all the excitement about the new generation of Canadian talent, what came before them gets lost. The best players in Toronto then are legends now, their feats preserved in the memories of those who happened to be in the gym then. And Barrett—known by his nickname, Ducky (big feet)—was one of the alley-oop catching legends. “Whatever tournament he was in, whether it was the Runnymede tournament, the Early Bird tournaments, Jane-and-Finch tournament, Rowan was a star,” says Drew Ebanks, who played point guard alongside Barrett in high school and now runs On Point, a website that caters to the burgeoning Canadian basketball scene. “I remember going with him to the Toronto all-star game at old Varsity Stadium. People hollering at him and girls and just all the attention for him. When you get a guy like [iconic St. John’s coach] Lou Carnesecca come and recruit you out of Toronto, that right there was huge news.”
Barrett’s four years south of the border brought mixed results. Carnesecca retired before Barrett’s freshman season, and soon after, the Johnnies recruited Sports Illustrated cover boy and New York City high school star Felipe Lopez at his position. Barrett had a good senior season, but it was cut short by a foot injury that he feared would end his career. He went undrafted and unsigned after a couple of stints at NBA training camps with the Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers, and was working for a bank when he made the national team. That launched him into a successful run overseas that he extended by carefully honing the skills he wasn’t exposed to as a kid, turning himself from an athlete who played into a player who was athletic.
Had that transformation happened sooner, who knows? “Rowan was a very good player. I think in this climate, with the support we have now, he’d play in the NBA,” says Steve Nash. “We didn’t quite have the systems to catch guys like Rowan and get them over the line.”
Back in South Carolina, the refs have whistled for play to restart, and RJ seems revived after cooling off. He single-handedly turns a nail-biter into a blowout—blocking shots, making steals, grabbing rebounds, pushing the break and drawing fouls against overmatched defenders. Dad nods approvingly, like a director enjoying the screening of the dailies. “He’s an attacker,” says Barrett. “That translates.” RJ’s dangerous in almost any form. He’s a long and quick perimeter defender. A comfortable passer and an improving shooter who shot 41 percent from the three-point line at the FIBA Americas Championship in Argentina in June, his first international event. “He has 50 weapons he can kill you with,” says Michael Meeks, Canada Basketball’s manager of youth player development, who has worked closely with RJ. “Sometimes the challenge is figuring out which one to use.”
Right now, it’s the hammer: the game slows and RJ is just over half-court by the left sideline, building his rhythm with a back-and-forth dribble between his legs. His defender tentatively crowds him, the opposing coach’s voice ringing out: “Take it from him, Mike, take it from him.” Mike does not take it from him. Instead, Mike gets taken as RJ dribbles past him into the paint, rising so high that when he dunks, the ball goes almost straight down, ripping through the mesh. He finishes with 28 points, 12 rebounds and three steals in 28 minutes of work.
Barrett says he never set out to raise a basketball player—it was RJ who made that call. “I remember when I was playing in France, we had this playroom and we had everything in there,” says Barrett. “We had a microphone in there, a football, a soccer goal, tennis rackets. But we had a little mini-hoop, and he kept gravitating toward that. Pretty soon, that was all he was playing with.”
Barrett retired at 36 and settled in Mississauga with his wife, Kesha, and their two young children. RJ played soccer and basketball but kept bugging his dad for more of the latter. His dad hesitated. “My wife was pushing the issue: ‘Look at him, he loves the game, you have to train him.’”
The potential was clear: Kesha, who works for CIBC, was an NCAA sprinter and long-jumper when Rowan met her at St. John’s, and RJ’s aunt, Dahlia Duhaney, was a world-champion sprinter who ran in the Olympics for Jamaica. “But you know it’s such a long road,” says Barrett. “What’s the rush?”
By the time RJ was heading into Grade 7, though, he made the choice himself. He had goals. “Soccer was one of my favourite sports,” says RJ. “But I didn’t feel I could do that and basketball at the same time. I didn’t want to miss my tournaments.”
And no, RJ has never played tetherball. “I’ve heard of it,” he says, helpfully.
RJ’s timing couldn’t have been better. His decision to focus on basketball coincided with organizations like Ontario Basketball (OBA) and Canada Basketball deciding to drill deeper into youth development. At the same age his dad was dominating schoolyard sprints, RJ had been identified by the OBA and was part of Canada Basketball’s Junior Academy, a pilot program started in Ontario in 2012. It brought together the best players in his age group for a number of weekends over the winter as well as a week-long camp focusing on training and conditioning principles, technical skills and the nuances of the international game.
The best athletes from the Junior Academy get additional training from the OBA, compete for the provincial team and are absorbed into Canada Basketball’s Targeted Athletes Strategy and age-group national-team programs. They receive weekly individual skills work and consultation from Meeks, a long-time European pro who starred on the national team alongside Nash and Barrett. It’s a fast track, one that wasn’t even fathomable a generation ago. “I was nowhere near the kind of player [RJ] is at 15,” says Barrett. “I played inside, for the most part, until I was much older. He’s grown up with a ball in his hands—he’s played a lot of point guard. He can read the floor. Developmentally, he’s had experiences I didn’t have.”
The scene is changing rapidly. Even five years ago, Andrew Wiggins felt the need to spend all but one year of high school in the U.S., a common path for many of Canada’s current NBA players, who pursued what they believed would be better competition and training. In this respect, RJ’s timing could be just right again. This fall is expected to mark the inaugural season of the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association, a project initiated by the OBA to provide the province’s best basketball talent an opportunity to train and compete without leaving home as teenagers. The OBA requires interested schools to have certified coaches and a commitment to Canada Basketball’s Long-Term Athlete Development plan, among other standards, and RJ’s current school, St. Marcellinus, has applied. The eight-team league will play on weekdays, leaving weekends free to travel to the U.S. for showcase tournaments. It’s an attempt to bring some administrative rigour to a situation that often left the parents of aspirational kids having to make tough choices. “The question everyone was asking was, ‘Do our kids have to go to the United States to become high-level players?’ and I think the answer is clearly no,” says Barrett. “Some athletes—like an Andrew Wiggins [who won a provincial championship in Grade 10]—who dominate the highest levels of our high school system early on might need to seek a different environment to continue their growth, but that being said, if we in Canada can create elite training standards and environments, then we can help many of our kids to decide to stay home.”
RJ is one of those kids, but he’ll have choices, too. Among the spectators at Team Ennis’s games over the weekend in South Carolina was Rae Miller, an assistant coach at Montverde Academy, a Florida private school that has emerged as the best high school basketball program in the U.S. They’ve done it in part by recruiting an international roster of talent that rises to top Div. I schools and beyond. D’Angelo Russell, taken No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in June, played at Montverde, as did Ben Simmons, who may go No. 1 in 2016. They’ve identified a rich vein in Canada. Barrett’s under-16 national-team teammates Simi Shittu and Marcus Carr are expected to enrol this September, and the academy has its eyes on RJ and national-team point guard Andrew Nembhard for Grade 11. The game Miller watched Team Ennis play was a blowout, with Barrett and Nembhard spending long stretches on the bench. It didn’t matter. Miller wasn’t there to see them play as much as he was there to be seen by them. Mission accomplished.
As for Team Ennis, they fell short of the ultimate goal, losing in the final to the West Coast City Stars, long a grassroots powerhouse. But the weekend had all kinds of highlights: In the dying seconds of a close quarterfinal matchup against Team Texas, the fifth-ranked squad in the U.S., RJ caught a pass from Nembhard on the wing, blew by his defender and threw down a two-hander in traffic, getting fouled and finishing the three-point play to ice the game. But even more memorable might have been the semifinal against the Chris Paul–sponsored Team CP3—the reigning national champions—who had Paul himself on the bench. The Clippers star figured he had RJ scouted, shouting, “Don’t let him drive, don’t let him drive,” which was sound advice until RJ drilled a step-back three to end the half. “I didn’t know he was there at first,” says RJ. “And then I was like, ‘That’s Chris Paul!’”
Chances are, RJ will be seeing more of him in the near future. Paul was there because just a few miles away, his elite under-17 team was at Peach Jam, the championship weekend for Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, or EYBL. It is the epicentre of the sneaker-industrial complex that runs beneath big-time youth and college basketball and falls on the first weekend of the NCAA’s open period, when Div. I coaches begin their most intense recruiting. It was in the Peach Jam finals where Wiggins hung 28 and 13 on Julius Randle while playing for CIA Bounce, cementing himself as the No. 1–ranked player in his class before he enrolled at Kansas. There are four courts surrounded by an elevated running track, the rails of which are packed with fans, parents and players craning to see the next big thing. But it’s the row of chairs that circle each court reserved for NCAA coaches that provide the cachet. This year, like every year, Coach K from Duke, Coach Cal from Kentucky, Coach Self from Kansas and hundreds more were on hand to make eyes at the best prospects in the country. It’s an intoxicating atmosphere, and RJ and his Team Ennis teammates drank it all in. “Our team is very good,” says RJ. “And I think as we get better, we could definitely play in Peach Jam. It would be very cool. Everyone is watching, all the college coaches. It’s where we want to be one day.”
It’s an event that didn’t exist when his dad or even Steve Nash—the best Canadian player of all, who only took the game up with any urgency in Grade 8—were his age. And each of those large-looming figures recognizes the contrast: They made a career out of a game they played for fun, and are now part of a system helping kids who already want to make it a career. “In some ways, it’s amazing, what [RJ] knows at his age. In other ways, my fear is there is too much structure, too much pressure, too much attention, too much spotlight, and he doesn’t get a chance to make mistakes and be a kid,” says Nash of his godson, although he could be speaking about almost any elite athlete from the post-tetherball generation. “But that’s the way the world is, and you have to adapt and account for those things. The biggest thing is it has to stay fun for him. If it stays fun, the sky’s the limit. If he gets caught up in the machine and it’s no fun anymore, that’s when it becomes hard to reach your potential.”
In this, RJ has the advantage of a solid family. “You can tell that Rowan just gets it,” says Blakely, the Team Ontario coach. RJ has also seen first-hand how the likes of Nash, Wiggins and Joseph carry themselves and hone their craft. He’s under no illusions about whether they listen to the hype or if they earned it by accident, so he gets in the gym. “It’s always fun, but there are points when it’s a lot of work and you might not want to do it,” RJ says. “But at those times, I say, ‘If I take a rest now, someone else is working and they’ll have an opportunity to be better than me.’ So I just go and do the work.”
So far, it’s paying off, with the most exciting parts of the journey just around the corner. RJ slept most of the 15-hour drive from South Carolina, and the next day is at a studio in downtown Toronto. The photographer wants him to start out of the frame and leap as high as he can, which is very high. The strobes go and the flashes flash. The crew gathers around to examine the shot, a perfectly timed image of young talent in flight. RJ sneaks a peek too and can’t help himself as he slides over to where Barrett Sr. is watching and whispers: “Dad, we got to get those pictures.”