Playing for Team Canada is about sacrifice.
There is no massive Olympic payday for the men and women who dawn the red and white. For most of them, it's just a risk that God forbid something happens while they represent their country and — much like Paul George in 2014 — their professional careers are briefly or permanently derailed.
"I don't use the word sacrifice lightly. It's a very, very real thing and not every player, not every situation is the same," said Rowan Barrett, the general manager for Canadian Men's Basketball. "These men have lives that they have to live."
Outside of North America, there's a basketball culture that requires players to represent their country on the world stage. It's why year after year the same core group of players show up for Argentina, Australia, Spain, Greece, and a handful of others.
"You know as well as I do if Jonas [Valanciunas] decided not to play [for Lithuania] then he wouldn't be able to walk down the streets of Vilnius very very comfortably," said Nick Nurse, the head coach of the Canadian Senior Men's National Team and former coach of Valanciunas with the Toronto Raptors.
That's what Canada is trying to build. On one hand, they'd like to have the depth of talent like the United States where if one star opts out of playing there are dozens more to choose from. On the other, it's about having those star players return every few years to dawn the red and white for nothing more than a love for their country.
That's what Canada hopes to have in R.J. Barrett, the 21-year-old New York Knicks guard and son of Rowan Barrett. Not only is R.J. one of Canada's most talented young players, but he's the kind of person that's willing to sacrifice for the organization. It was just three days ago, on Monday, that he spent his 21st birthday in quarantine before joining the team. Now, he's preparing to represent his country for the fourth time on the international level having played at the U16, U17, and U19 levels in 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively.
"I think it’s just helped because... I’ve always been able to be smart and be able to play the [international] game," RJ said Thursday. "I know I have a lot to learn, but I feel like I have an advantage just in terms of I’ve played FIBA so much that I can see certain things ahead of time, like make certain placement passes. That’s all a tribute to how I grew up. It’s a tribute to the programs and everything."
The FIBA game is totally different from the NBA game. Not only are the rules somewhat different, but it's a far more physical game. Foul calls come far less frequently and the toughness inside is something NBA players occasionally struggle with.
"Sometimes you might play pinball with a couple bodies in FIBA and there is no call," Nurse said. "Even though these guys aren't making the quickest, flashiest moves to the paint or to the rim, they're doing it with strength and craftiness and experience."
That's something R.J. said he's ready for. Frankly, it's something R.J. said he's used to. Growing up in Canada he's become so accustomed to the international game that the NBA game required some adjusting.
Now Canada wants to produce more R.J. Barretts. Nurse knows that the easiest way to do that is to win and win and win some more. It's that feeling of winning of competing and medaling on the international stage that brings these international stars back year after year. It's why R.J. is still playing for Team Canada. He said that feeling he had winning gold at the 2017 U19 World Cup made an indelible impact on his life.
“That’s one of the most, probably is the most special basketball moment of my life. I always cherish that," he said. "I’m trying to bring that feeling back to Canada, bring a medal back home.”
This Canadian Senior Men's National team is by far the most talented group of players the country has ever assembled. With R.J., Andrew Wiggins, and tons of other NBA talent they have a chance to do something special not just at the Victoria qualifiers or the Olympics, but they have a chance to inspire a generation to keep coming back the way R.J. has year after year.