On the Ball with Leo Rautins
OffBeat magazine, circa 1990
Leo Rautins is the best basketball player to come out of Canada. Ever. After a standout high school career, Rautins was offered 150 scholarships to American universities. He played one season at Minnesota then transferred to Syracuse. Upon graduation, “White Magic” played for Philadelphia, Indiana and Atlanta in the NBA. This season he was cut in training camp from the New Jersey Nets. Over the summer, Rautins was in town for the Canadian team training camp (he has started on the national team since grade eleven). While here, he was a guest on CFUV’s On the Ball. Here is some of that interview:
Guy MacPherson: How does Ken Shields compare to your coach at Syracuse, Jim Boeheim?
Leo Rautins: Jim Boeheim was very emotional. He was a big screamer. I had to develop a thick skin but he’s mellowed over the years. Coach Shields just comes up and talk to me and respects me as a person. If he doesn’t like something, he just pulls me aside and says, “Well, listen, why don’t you try this?” I like that. [Former national team coach Jack] Donahue treated me the same way. Some players he would yell at, but he knew I responded better to coming up and saying, “Leo, why don’t you just try this?”
GM: Let’s go back to your high school days in Toronto. You were a legend – 6’6” in grade 9 and could dunk. Is it true you used to drive down to the States to get in pick-up games because they weren’t good enough in Toronto?
LR: I’d go anywhere. I played on four teams in high school. I’d play three games a night. I’d play my high school game right after school then go play a couple of men’s league games. Buffalo was a two-hour drive and I’d fill up the car with my friends, scoot down there and play whenever I could. Basically, I just played at every free opportunity I had. I used to work on my school work during lunch or I’d do it before school. Or there’d be a lot of late nights getting it done. I think you can do it if you set your goals. I had to. I wanted to play. I wanted to be an NBA player and I wanted to be able to pick and choose which school I went to in the States. So you have to set your goals and you can’t go without academics. I found the time and I did the work, but it was tough because we played all the time.
GM: Wouldn’t a school in Canada have interested you?
LR: Well, it’s a funny story. For me to do what I wanted to do, I don’t think I could have done it in Canada. Okay? It just wouldn’t be possible. To play in the pros you need exposure. You need to have enough people talking about you to become a first-round pick. However, I would listen if somebody wanted to talk to me and at least sell myself. If I’m supposedly the best Canadian high school basketball player, they should at least make an effort to come and get me. Only one Canadian school did – Simon Fraser – and they play an all American schedule (just about). I was really disappointed about that.
GM: Do you think it was because they knew you’d be going south?
LR: Okay, let’s take an example of Clarion State. I can give you a list of schools like that. They didn’t stop recruiting me. They knew there wasn’t a chance in heck they’d get me but they were ready to charter private jets, do all-out recruiting pitches to get me. But no Canadian school would even pick up the phone and say, “Hey, listen, why don’t you just give us a shot? Here’s what we have.” They could have done a lot of different things like tie in the national team. There are different ways they could have sold me coming to play, but no effort made.
GM: So you chose Minnesota, stayed there for a year, then filed. What was the problem there?
LR: Again, I didn’t just want to be a jock. The degree was very important to me but in Minnesota the school was highly de-emphasized. The academics were not a big part of the program. As a matter of fact, you were pretty much told what to take and when to take it, and the grades were taken care of. A lot came out after I had left there. There were lawsuits and grand jury hearings and so forth. And my coach, Jim Dutcher, eventually had to quit the program because of all these things. So the bad news about Minnesota came out and kind of justified why I left there. Plus we hust had some wild people there and it wasn’t the environment I wanted to be in. I think basketball-wise, had I stayed there, I could have had a good career. I started my freshman year and with all the trouble we had on our team, I still had a solud year, making the all-Big Ten rookie team. But it just wasn’t the place for me. I had to get out of there.
GM: What was it like as a rookie in the NBA playing with Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney on the defending world champion Philadelphia 76ers?
LR: They were great. We got along very well as a team. There were never any problems. One advantage coming to a veteran team is you learn quite a bit very quickly. They’re very helpful. Training camp alone is like learning about the NBA in two weeks. These guys will sit there and pull you aside. Doc will come up and talk to you, tell you what’s going on, not only on the court but off the court as well. Anytime you’d need to talk, they were always very open. So I think that, in that respect, to start out with Philadelphia was great because I learned quite a bit very quickly.
GM: Charles Barkley has said that Julius Erving was kind of aloof, not very approachable. He said there wasn’t much team camaraderie when he got there. But you found that to be different.
LR: Well, I don’t know what Charles is looking at. I think Charles is a little wild, very outspoken. Brash, I guess would probably be the best word. And I think that maybe he was a little taken aback by Doc because here’s a man… How many people have such an image as he has? I mean, he’s absolutely untarnished. He’s perfect in terms of on and off the court. In real life, when I met him, I thought he was even more than that (if that can possibly be). He was just a class act. You have a guy who’s literally a legend sitting in your locker room and he’s the politest, nicest person there. And I think maybe Charles had a problem with that because how can you have an attitude if maybe the greatest in the game is sitting three seats down from you saying, “Thank you. Yes, sir” being just as polite as can be? But for me, Doc always put things in perspective. When I got hurt, he came up to me and said, “Listen, now that you’re hurt, you have an opportunity to get other things in your life organized. And maybe it’s a chance for you to sit back. Maybe other aspects of your life aren’t being taken care of. Well, this is an opportunity to do it.”
GM: One view of the NBA is that the coaches don’t make that much of a difference. Roll the ball out and let ’em play. Is there much coaching going on in the NBA?
LR: Oh, there definitely is. College ball is a coach’s game, not a player’s game. Look at Michael Jordan at North Carolina. He was put on a leash. In college you can take a mediocre team and be competitive simply because you put guys that aren’t good players out there just to get in players’ way. You can do a lot of things and get away with a lot of things that in the pros you just can’t do. The pros is where the players play. And if people say there’s not a lot of coaching, they’re wrong. There’s a tremendous amount of plays and sets. Defensively, guys are going to score. I mean, you can play a great defense against Michael Jordan and you’re not going to stop him. All you can do is try to contain him and make it a little bit more difficult for him. So defensively there’s a tremendous amount of strategy on how to play. And offensively there are so many plays and sets and picks.
GM: It’s tough for Canadians to make it in the NBA, isn’t it?
LR: No, it’s not tough for Canadians; it’s tough for anybody. It has nothing to do with being Canadian, though a lot of people like to think that.
GM: But you were saying earlier that you need that name and that recognition from playing in the U.S. If a player of your caliber or better played in Canada, it would be difficult for him to make the NBA.
LR: But it would be no different from a very good player playing in a small college in the States that nobody had heard of. Today it’s more sophisticated. Today they would know about a great player in Canada. Six or seven years ago they wouldn’t. Today they would. The scouting is basically world-wide with international basketball. So it’s nothing to do with being Canadian. A lot of it is luck and timing. You just have to work your tail off.
On the Ball is CFUV’s weekly sports discussion show. Guests from the world of sports, including basketball, volleyball, hockey, baseball, football, and everything in between, speak with a host each Thursday from 1:30 to 2:00 pm.