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. 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 game against the defending champion Raptors.
“For me, I’m very excited,” Barrett said. “It’s basketball. It’s a game. Got to go play free and have fun.
“When I think about coming back here to play my first game, coming to the arena just now for shootaround, I think about all the times my dad took me to a playoff game or I was able to come watch . . . I was able to sit courtside and watch the Hawks play one time. To see all of that and now for me to be able to play this game, it means a lot to me. I’m very excited. I’m going to have fun.”
“I just know anytime you go home, you want to perform,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “You want to play for your family and friends. I just got to make sure I keep his adrenaline down. I don’t want him running around throwing the ball all over the place.
“Today it felt like we were just in any gym, any other shootaround for him today. I’m expecting him to play well . . . He’s a very steady kid. All the guys I worked with, one thing I take from guys. If you tell them something and they apply it right away, that’s usually a guy that’s pretty special. He’s one of the guys if you show him something, he’s got it. But you have to have a certain amount of focus and maturity to do that. He has that.’’
Barrett estimated he had 300 friends and family coming to the ScotiaBank Arena for this game and 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 100 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.”