TORONTO – RJ Barrett couldn’t help but take a friendly jab at his father when asked about his impact on his basketball career.
The 17-year-old son of Rowan Barrett – a former standout on Canada’s men’s basketball team – arrived at Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Monday night with a gold medal around his neck from the FIBA under-19 World Cup in Cairo.
The Canadians toppled Italy 79-60 in Sunday’s final after upsetting the powerhouse United States 99-87 a day earlier, handing the Americans their first loss at the tournament in six years.
RJ, a shooting guard from Mississauga, Ont., averaged 22 points per game (and poured in 38 against the U.S.) to earn MVP honours while leading Canada to its first ever world title in any age group.
“I mean, I don’t think my dad can say he beat the U.S. so I’ve got that on him,” RJ told a throng of reporters, glancing at his father a few feet away with a sly grin.
The elder Barrett had been beaming moments earlier as his son made his way through a crowd of chanting fans, friends and family to embrace him. He didn’t seem to mind the jab, but RJ switched gears anyway, speaking instead about the lessons he’d learned from his father.
“With my dad, when I was growing up I saw the amount of work that he put in,” RJ said. “There’s always people coming behind trying to take your spot and I don’t want anyone to take my spot.”
A star on the rise, the younger Barrett is shaping up to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
He called the FIBA gold medal – rectangular in shape with hieroglyphics on the back as a nod to the host nation – the top honour he’s achieved in his basketball career to date. But there’s a lot more he wants to achieve.
Head coach Roy Rana believes his top player has the tools to do that.
All smiles and clutching the FIBA trophy while speaking with reporters, Rana showered Barrett in praise.
“When he steps on the floor he performs at such a high level,” Rana said. “We’ve seen some special performances in world championships before. … This one will go down as one of the best at any FIBA event.”
The team’s flight was delayed nearly three hours, but when it arrived in Toronto, the players and coaching staff were greeted by loud cheers from friends, family and fans who had gathered to welcome them back.
Children waved small Canadian flags as the players walked through the arrivals area.
Rana said the historic win still hadn’t sunk in over 24 hours later. He said his team will enjoy their success but not rest on it.
“Expectations have changed,” he said. “The pressure is heavier but maybe that’s a good thing. They embraced that.”
Both Rana and Barrett spoke at length about the significance of their win against the U.S., a team that had dominated the event, and every other in basketball, for decades.
That victory felt even sweeter for players like Danilo Djuricic and Lindell Wigginton, who play collegiate ball in the U.S.
Djuricic, an 18-year-old forward at Harvard, felt the performance put Canada on another level.
“There was a lot of debate about whether Canada can hang with the U.S. and we proved it in the semifinal,” the Brampton, Ont., native said. “Knocking them out and going on to win the championship, we’re showing Canada can hang with the best in the world.”
Wigginton, a Halifax native and point guard at Iowa State, put it more succinctly.
“We got bragging rights,” he said with a smile. “We can talk about that for the rest of our lives.”