TORONTO — RJ Barrett made his way from the court as the Knicks morning shootaround came to an end and through the tunnels to a news conference where a horde of local media awaited him. As cameras chronicled his every step, Barrett slowed to peek at locker rooms and hallways he’d seen on television growing up in a Toronto suburb.
For Barrett, who has lived his basketball life on a huge stage and currently claims Madison Square Garden as his home court, this still meant something special. This was his first game back to the place he grew up since joining the NBA and while an illness kept him out of the lineup Sunday night and on the sideline at practice Tuesday there was no way he would miss this.
The family and friends were there, as was a warm welcome from the crowd at Scotiabank Arena and even a video tribute commemorating his time with Team Canada. But that was as good as it would get for Barrett as he and the Knicks were overwhelmed in a 126-98 Raptors win.
Barrett shot just 5 of 17 and finished with 16 points, but he was hardly alone in his struggles against the defending champions. The Knicks had one brief flurry, building an 11-point lead early in the second quarter. But by halftime they were down by 12 and 20 entering the fourth quarter. The deficit grew to as many as 34 as the Knicks lost their fourth straight, falling to 4-14 on the season.
Julius Randle led the Knicks with 19 points and 8 rebounds.
Pascal Siakam led seven Raptors in double figures with 31 points.
At least for Barrett, the reception felt good.
“It was great,” Barrett said. “I said I was going to have fun. Tried my best out there. Hopefully, I get to play here again many times . . . I had way too many emotions. I was so happy all day. Literally, the whole time before the game I was trying to calm myself down for like two hours. It was great to be back in Toronto.”
The other side though is that he returned to his homeland with a struggling Knicks squad, already piling up more losses than he had in the last two years of college and high school combined.
“I’m playing basketball,” he said. “That’s the light that I see. I get to play basketball every day. So I just come in and put my hard hat on and do what I can to help the team every day.”
Barrett estimated he had 300 friends and family coming to this game, which accounted for the cheers every time he did connect and for the sympathy felt as the game turned one-sided. He still had trouble understanding how, at 19 years old, he was the attraction in this city where just a few years ago he’d been sitting in the stands watching himself.
Now the Canadian media crews were asking him about being the role model for the young kids who watch basketball in this country.
“I don’t really think about it too much like that because in my mind I’m still a kid,” he said. “And I still look up to like, if I see LeBron has a triple-double, I’m still talking to my friends like, ‘Yo, this is crazy.’ But then I’m playing against them. So things haven’t really registered for me yet. But I’m just really humbled and honored that people think of me that way.”
Barrett also announced that he would be playing in the summer for Team Canada — for which his father Rowan Barrett serves as the team’s general manager.
“One hundred percent, I definitely plan on playing for my country this summer,” Barrett said. “I’m very proud to say that. Try to play every summer, as much as I can, so one hundred percent planning on playing.
“It’s great. I feel like it’s a way to serve and give back to your country. So many people, especially being a basketball player, an NBA player, so many people give to me, give to us, every day. So for us to give back and make our country proud this is one of the ways we can do that.”
“I love it,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “I think those experiences really help those guys. It gives them an opportunity to see how other really good basketball players work and compete and you end up playing against the best in the world. So I’m really happy for that.”