Raptors’ RJ Barrett returns to ‘sanctuary’ of basketball after brother’s death

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TORONTO — The phone call came early, while RJ Barrett was still in his hotel bed in Denver, still able to relish one of the better games he and the short-handed Toronto Raptors had played all season, still able to hope against hope that things were going to be OK, that his brother Nathan would get out of the hospital back in Toronto and everything would be normal again. The nightmare would be over.

Instead, it was the call he’d been dreading.

“Even while I was playing, I knew it was kind of happening, and then after the Denver game, I got woken up early and I had to get back to Toronto really fast,” Barrett said Friday, after his first practice with the Raptors since his brother passed away on March 12. “So, I got there, and I was glad I was able to get there right before he passed.”

Nathan Barrett was 20, living in Florida, studying be a pilot. He fell ill early in February, came home and was in intensive care at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital ever since as he fought a batter he couldn’t win. The family hasn’t specified the nature of the illness.

For RJ Barrett, the last few months have been a whirlwind. There was the shock of being traded from the New York Knicks, who drafted him No. 3 overall in 2019, and then the excitement of suiting up for the Raptors, the team he grew up watching. The satisfaction is showing that his game had more room to grow and shine than maybe some realized playing in New York, and the challenges of finding a groove with a new team suddenly pivoting to a rebuild. 

But then Nathan got sick, and for all his strength and resilience, couldn’t recover, and everything else became secondary. And for the moment, all basketball means is RJ has a place to come to where he doesn’t have to think about his younger brother, what happened and why Nathan can’t answer the texts RJ still sends or the calls he still finds himself making.

“Basketball is my sanctuary, so this actually brings me peace,” said Barrett, who hasn’t played since that night in Denver and is ramping up for a return that may or may not come with nine games left in what has turned out to be a lost season for the Raptors. “It helps me every day to be here, and also just be on a schedule and just be around the guys. Hanging out with your teammates … they’re funny, you get to hang out with them, you get to go practice and even support the guys when I’m not playing. Whatever it is, just being around has been helping a lot.”

His team and his teammates want to help. The Raptors organization were all on hand for the funeral last week in Mississauga, Ont. They’ve tried to provide some version of normal in a time that can never be. Teams are families too — or at least the good ones are — and in the Barretts’ time of need, they’ve tried to do their part.

“A lot of times when we bring in at the end of the practice, at the end of the game, before the start of the game, we bring it in and say, ‘family’,” said Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic. “And a lot of times it can be taken lightly …  I [do] not take it lightly. Those guys, all the players, staff, medical performance, front office, everybody working for the organization and the Raptors organization, we are one family, we represent the Toronto Raptors.

“And, for me, it means so much when one of the players is going through tough times, that we can be out there in support. And for RJ being with his teammates, being on the basketball court, for all of us, it’s escape, and especially in this situation, [RJ] knows that we have his back that we’re going to support him with everything he needs and that we are his extended family.”

But it doesn’t change the fact that RJ’s immediate family is missing one very important piece. That’s what makes all of this so hard. Time moves on, but memories will forever linger.

“He was the best. He was the best, man,” Barrett said of his brother. “I got basketball, but he got everything else. I can’t draw, I can’t do anything else … but he had everything else. Whatever he wanted to do, whatever he put his mind to, he could do. Literally, the last thing he was doing, he was in pilot school. So, whatever he put his mind to, he was able to achieve.

“He was really athletic. He was my little brother and I would beat him at everything. [But] he was always stubborn, really aggressive all the time. He was smaller than me, so he kinda had to be that way.”

RJ Barrett can be stubborn too. He’s forged a path in the NBA, overcoming his share of doubters along the way, relying on his own willfulness, a Barrett family trait, it would seem. He’ll drawing on that as he tries to keep moving, even as he and his family are still grieving. Being back at work for a few hours each day, honing his craft in the company of friends, teammates and an organization that cares for him, things can feel almost normal for a minute, maybe longer. The ability that elite athletes have to compartmentalize coming in handy.

“It helps, you know, you come here come to an environment where everyone wants to get better. Every everyone loves basketball here,” he says. “So, that helps. And then also just getting a workout and getting a sweat, and just coming here where the only thing that matters is getting better, playing basketball winning basketball games … you’re able to compete and kind of just take your mind off things for a little while.” 

But only for so long. After practice is over, the rest of the day beckons and Nathan isn’t there to answer that call or reply to that text. Getting used to that will takes some time.

“I’ve had some people in my life pass, but this one hit a little harder for me, yeah, this one is definitely a little different, so it’s a lot tougher,” Barrett said. “I just think that I’ve gotta push forward every day, gotta be able to try to figure it out. Because, also, if I know my brother, he would want me to be here, to be playing, to try to continue to make the Barrett legacy grow.”

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