At 16, he was the youngest player ever to make Canada’s National Basketball Team, and he is regarded by many as the best basketball player ever to come out of Canada. Leo Rautins, a native of Toronto, has pursued a lifelong career in basketball on and off the court.
After a year at the University of Minnesota, where he was selected to the All-Freshmen team, Leo transferred to Syracuse University. Along with numerous athletic awards such as the Big East Tournament MVP and All-American honors in his senior year, Rautins earned a degree in Broadcasting and Journalism from the prestigious S.I Newhouse School of Public Communications. In 1983, Leo became the first Canadian drafted to the NBA in the first round – the 17th pick of the Philadelphia 76ers. Leo played for Philadelphia and Atlanta before venturing on an 8-year career in the professional leagues of Italy, Spain and France, where he achieved All-star status. Leo is currently a television analyst for the Toronto Raptors and is one of three finalists in the running to become the head coach of our Senior Men’s National Basketball Team.
BBM: Coming out of high school, how many universities were recruiting you?
LR: Probably close to 100 universities in the States and one
Canadian school. Pretty much every major university in the States wanted my services; Indiana, Michigan, Marquette, Minnesota, Florida, Florida-State, Syracuse, Georgetown, Villanova and Temple just to name some.
BBM: Only one Canadian university? Which one was that?
LR: Simon Fraser. That was the only university that even attempted to recruit me in Canada.
BBM: What made you decide to go to Minnesota?
LR: At the time, the Big 10 was the best conference, I went down for my official visit and saw Williams arena and it was just an
unbelievable place. I believe it was the largest on- campus arena in the country. We would get 18000 fans going crazy. We had Kevin McHale, plus we ended up having the best recruiting class in the country that year, beating out North Carolina. Minnesota was just a great program and a great opportunity.
BBM: So why did you decide to leave Minnesota and transfer to Syracuse?
LR: There were a lot of things that I didn’t like. Number one, you didn’t have to go class. Academics were really downplayed, and there wasn’t a lot of discipline in the program. Basketball wise, I could have stayed there and probably had a better career than the one I had in Syracuse. But there were just too many things that weren’t right and I needed to get out of Minnesota. Quite frankly, I needed to be on a team that was centered around me and Syracuse met those needs.
BBM: What was it like playing with Kevin McHale?
LR: Kevin McHale was unbelievable. From the first time I saw him I couldn’t believe the things that he did naturally, his moves, his footwork, and where he kept the ball for a big man, he never brought it down. Whoever taught him how to play should be put onto a pedestal, because his skills where just ridiculous. It was pretty nice coming into a program and playing with player of that caliber.
BBM: Can you describe what was going on through your mind when your name was called on draft night?
LR: Haaaaa, I was exhausted! The day before, Philadelphia wanted to do a physical, because if I was available they were going to take me. My flight got canceled. All kinds of stuff happened, so by the time I got back I was totally wiped out. It was a wonderful
feeling. It’s something that you always dream about and what you spend your whole life working for and when it finally happened, it was a beautiful thing. But at the same time, all I kept thinking about was going to sleep. I was on the phone doing interviews for so long. There was media from all over Canada, and the Big East, and it was interview after interview. Regardless, it was a day that I waited for a long time.
BBM: When you joined the 76ers they were the defending
champions and had a stacked squad, did you ever think that you were going to get a ring with them?
LR: Oh yeah, when I was negotiating my contract that was one of the things that I took into account. I was like hey, I’m going to get some championship money; this is going to be great. But little did I know, we ended up getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the New Jersey Nets. Oh man, that 1983-84 team was really talented, we had Moses Malone, Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones.
BBM: Why did you get traded to the Atlanta Hawks?
LR: I actually got traded to Indiana. It was more a salary cap deal, because there were no exchanges, I just got traded there and got released a short time later without playing a single game and I couldn’t figure it out. But that took me out of Philadelphia’s salary cap because they had to sign Charles Barkley and Lyon Wood. I later signed with Atlanta.
BBM: Your NBA career was cut short because of injuries. How did you injure yourself?
LR: I came down on Bobby Jones’ foot during the first week of practice. I went to block his shot and came down on his foot and tore my ankle pretty badly. That’s how it all started, and because it wasn’t treated properly, it ended up hurting me in the long run. For example, Kobe Bryant was out for 6-8 weeks for the same thing that I did, but the difference is that I played two days later and by January I had half of a grapefruit sitting on my ankle. I later consulted a doctor outside of the team, only to find out that my lateral ligaments were torn. I had a stress facture that developed from me playing on an injured foot. It was a nightmare, but that was life at the time. Basically they said I had multiple injuries, but really it was only one nagging injury that wasn’t treated properly. That pretty much put a label on me as damaged goods and you don’t want that label in the NBA, especially in those days, because there wasn’t any injury reserve lists, or guaranteed contracts to protect you.
BBM: Quick question, who is the toughest player that you ever played against?
LR: Oh boy there was a lot to choose from back in the days. I mean you had Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Dr. J., I played with Dr. J everyday. There were quite a few guys, Marques Johnson was another one, man there was a lot, I don’t thing I can single out one player. Also, I was there when Jordan came into the league. There are just too many names to list, but the ones above were a nightmare to play against.
BBM: Speaking of Jordan did you get a chance to play against him?
LR: I played against Michael in college, in the NBA and internationally against the dream team. In my opinion, he is the greatest player that has ever lived. I had the opportunity to play against Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins and those guys were all great players, but Michael Jordan is the best. Every player no matter how good they are has a weakness or something that you can exploit, but with Michael Jordan there was no weakness, there was nothing you can do. He found a way no matter what you did. I don’t think we are ever going to see another player like him again.
BBM: If you had to pick one word to describe Michael Jordan what would it be?
LR: (After a long and I mean long pause.) One word is tough. He was a killer, he did whatever it took, whether it be from a physical or mental standpoint he would do it. The word killer is a word that has a lot meaning and I mean it in the best possible way. He would just destroy his opponents anyway necessary to win and believe it or not he did it with as much class as you can possibly do it with.
BBM: Did you get a chance to play with Charles Barkley?
LR: I got traded because of Charles and I know Barkley really well. We have had great nights together. He is a really good guy.
BBM: What’s his height? Is he really 6-8?
LR: Nah he is about 6-5. This is a player that I don’t think we’ll ever see another guy like him again. He was 6-5, about 260 pounds. He was an animal. He could play above the rim. He could beat you down the floor. He was strong as a horse and a great competitor. More than anything he is hilarious, and very generous and outgoing and a real person. There are very few guys like him.
BBM: How many years did you play in Europe?
LR: Off and on, I played almost 8 years?
BBM: Which countries and cities did you play in?
LR: I played in a bunch of cities in Italy, Spain and France. Europe was great. I had a really good time there.
BBM: When did you retire?
BBM: Were injuries the main reason why you retired?
LR: I was toast. My knees had their share. I think I have had 15 operations between both of my knees. I have had foot, back and elbow surgery, you name it. I actually played with the Canadian team in mid 1992 and hurt my knee, which forced me to have surgery on it. After surgery, I went over to Europe a little too soon and my knee wasn’t ready, which forced me to go under the knife again. Pretty much after that surgery they just said you are done. I came back home and got looked at by some specialists and they told me I was done.
BBM: What was the most memorable moment in your NBA career?
LR: I don’t think it’s a single moment, I just think that I learned a lot from being around Dr. J, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks and the rest of those guys. It was just a great learning experience being around those guys and that atmosphere.
BBM: You are regarded as the best Canadian basketball player to come out of Canada, what are you thoughts on that?
LR: I think that Steve Nash has that title now. The fact that people think that or remember my career is a great compliment and it’s much appreciated. You get different players at different times. I’m thrilled with what Steve Nash is doing, the way he is playing right now, the way he handles himself and represents Canada. I’m thrilled of what Bill Wennington did, Rick Fox and Mike Smrek all achieved greatness. Anybody that remembers my career in a fond way and what I have done is much appreciated.
BBM: What are your views on Canadian basketball, excluding the Toronto Raptors?
LR: I think that it’s improving by leaps and bounds. I don’t know, you can’t exclude the Raptors because the NBA has been enormous. The fact that there is basketball on the TV all the time, games that people can see, more kids are playing, which is all helping Canadian basketball to improve tremendously.
BBM: What are your opinions on the moves made by Canada Basketball?
LR: Hopefully if they hire this guy named Leo Rautins, it can move in the right direction. The game has grown and gotten better at all the levels, but it stopped at the National Team. It’s almost like there is a ceiling there. The National Team should be the beneficiary of the game growing at every level and that hasn’t happened. And with the right people, I know it will happen, because there is too much talent in Canada.
BBM: What are some ways to improve & promote our national teams?
LR: The best way to improve is to win and the best way to win is to get all the players to play. Then we have to promote it. The team should be exposed throughout country. There should be international games in Canada that our fans can attend, television needs to be brought to picture, there should more competitions and more camps.
BBM: With Steve Nash not wanting to play with the national team who is going to be the next face of our national team?
LR: I think it’s too early to tell. There is just a tremendous amount of talent out there and in 2008 we are going to see a group kids that are very talented and really want to play. As far as who is going to be the rising star, I don’t know. I just know that Canadians will be surprised with just how much talent we have in Canada.
BBM: Have you had a chance to watch some of the university / colleges games?
LR: Oh yeah, I have had plenty of opportunities over the year’s. I have seen different games, different players and so forth. I see the game only getting better.
BBM: Everybody wants to know, what do you think of the Vince Carter trade?
LR: Personally, I would’ve done it a lot sooner. But it is what it is. New management came in and made the necessary changes. Vince wasn’t an easy player to move as much as people might think he was. Everybody might say we need to get more, but Vince wouldn’t play, he didn’t work hard and he just didn’t perform to his expectations. And for a great deal of time, he was just cashing a pay cheque, which makes it very difficult to move a player like that. He basically screwed the team that gave him his financial security for his life and for his children’s life and it’s a sad situation. I think Vince in someway represents a lot of the bad things about pro athletes and pro sports today and how he handled and treated the Toronto Raptors and all the fans that paid good money to come see him play.
BBM: Why can’t the Raptors keep the marquee players here in Toronto?
LR: That’s not something that is only happening in Toronto, and part of it is a spill over from previous management.
BBM: Who is your favorite player in the league?
LR: Honestly I have to say Steve Nash. He plays the game the right way and for the right reasons. His team wins. You take him out and they can’t throw the ball in the ocean. He works his tail off and keeps his mouth shut, he says the right things. I don’t think there is a better example of how to play the game and live your life as pro athlete.
BBM: Who is going to win the championship this year?
LR: You have to lean on San Antonio because they have been there and the team has only gotten deeper, so they get the advantage. With some deals, Miami can get there with Shaq. And I’m a firm believer that you don’t count out a champion, in Detroit. They showed us last year that they can dominate a game defensively and once they get over the championship hangover they might just be there at the end.