Leo Rautins: Success on the home court

By Adam Freill

A player, coach, broadcaster and fan, Leo Rautins knows what it takes to achieve success, and he’s more than willing to share the insights and advice that have made him a leader both on and off the court.

Rautins, who has been reporting on the Toronto Raptors since their inaugural season, started playing basketball in the schoolyard courts of Toronto back when few in the city followed the sport, and long before there were the kind of NBA championship dreams that were fulfilled by the Toronto Raptors last season.

“Growing up in Toronto playing basketball, there were not a lot of resources,” says the 6-foot-8 baller who was an NBA first-round draft pick and is a former coach of Canada’s national team.

“But the people around me were tremendous.” From his older brother – also an NBA draft pick – egging him on as a kid, to coaches like Jack Donohue and Leo’s peers in the NBA, Rautins appreciates what others did to set him on his path, which is why he’s more than willing to pay that forward.

“Everything you accomplish is a waste if you can’t share it,” he says. “I made a boatload of mistakes in getting to where I got. If I can now take that information and shorten your route, I think that’s what it is all about.” Which just goes to show that sport is about much more than just what someone is capable of during a game.

“You are going to be remembered a hell of a lot longer for the type of person you are than the type of player you were,” he says, “so above all, be a great human being.”


Teamwork is critical

In business, like in sport, teamwork makes it possible to perform at a higher level than that of an individual. “You can achieve far greater success as a group,” says Rautins. “If everyone is willing to work in coordination and set their egos aside, you can accomplish incredible things.” The right formula, he says, allows a team to “maximize the strengths of some people, and hide the weaknesses of others.”

Of course, formulas are always easier on paper than on the court. “There are so many little things that go along with the talent and expertise that you bring to the table,” says the sports analyst. “You have to look at the chemistry of the environment. “You can be the most talented guy in the world, but if my group or team can’t absorb some of the issues, then we can’t do it.

We are ultimately going to fail.” He cites the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s and their ability to harness the skills of players like Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen, while adding the abilities – and the larger-than-life persona – of Dennis Rodman as they sought to firmly establish their spot as a basketball dynasty.

“They were able to absorb his differences – his distractions, if you want to call them that – and still be extremely successful,” says Rautins.


Giving a kid a chance

There are small moments in time that can make all the difference in the world to one’s life. For Leo, his moment came in a gymnasium at the ripe old age of 16. During an open tryout for the Canadian national team, coach Jack Donohue saw something in the young athlete.

“I got cut by an Ontario junior team six or seven months earlier, so I wasn’t even going to go because I thought it would be the same old story: ‘Who is going to take a 16-year-old?’” says Rautins.

Thankfully, Leo’s father woke him up on the morning of the tryout and encouraged – some may say prodded – him to attend by explaining that the day’s best game in the city was going to happen at that tryout, so he should be there too.

“I played for five minutes – and I’m not exaggerating. All the sudden Jack calls me over and I’m thinking, okay, here goes, ‘Thanks for coming out… you’re too young… shake your hand, and goodbye.’ But he goes, ‘I want to invite you to national camp.’

“My life just changed right there. In five minutes. It was amazing.”

Like most young athletes in his sport, Rautins wanted to be an NBA player, but it wasn’t until Donohue said the words, “You will be an NBA player,” that the hopes, dreams and beliefs really took hold with any significance.

“When a guy like that says these things to you, and believes in you, it changes you whole life.”


Coaching, and leading, often involves making a sale

It can take a well formulated plan to be an effective coach, manager or boss, but that’s only part of the picture. A plan is only a set of instructions until others buy into it and put the words into action.

“Your job is to push the right buttons and sell it,” says Rautins. “If I can’t make you believe my idea, then it is not going to go anywhere.

“I have to sell you on the idea of how much better you can be, and how much better we can be. The success that we can have as a group will give you far more recognition than anything you ultimately do individually.”

And even the most gifted athlete can’t tell how fast they are without a stopwatch or how high they can jump without measuring.

Improvement requires planning. “Jack Donohue used to say, ‘A dream is just a dream until you write it down. Then it becomes a goal,’” says Rautins. “Set your goals. You can do anything you want.”

Of course, too heavy a practice workload can be overwhelming to developing players, so his advice is to have fun along the way. “When you approach whatever you are doing with joy, it is not work. It is not a grinding practice,” he says. “Strive to find what can be fun for you, and what you enjoy doing, and do it.”


A hometown kid witnessing history


Rautins wears his Toronto upbringing as a badge of honour, so watching the Raptors claim their first ever NBA crown is something that he’ll cherish for years to come.

“I’m a Toronto kid. I grew up here. It’s not just that I’m a Raptors analyst; this is my city. I played ball here when nobody cared what basketball was,” he says. “There are so many emotions that come into it that it was just amazing as heck to go through the whole thing. It’s been absolutely amazing.”

And he has seen it all, being there with the team since Day 1. “Going from 16-win seasons, to becoming a playoff contender, to being in the championship; I really believed that this team could win,” he says. “As the playoffs were going, I became 100 per cent sure that the Raptors could win, but when it actually happens – talk about surreal.”

Going into the 2019-20 season as defending champions, Rautins is excited, not just for the NBA team, but for what the victory will do for the sport he loves. “The NBA has changed the game in this country, dramatically, and now I think what happened is going to be the next step,” he says, adding that Canada has already become the second-most represented nation in the NBA.

“I can’t wait to see what this is going to mean to this country and this game.”


Being realistic, and harnessing potential

Teamwork will make a collective of individuals better, but there’s still a baseline necessary to be able to compete. “I went to a couple of coaches when I was coaching the national team, asking for some words of wisdom,” says Rautins.

“One of the most basic things was, ‘If you don’t have talent, you are not going to win.’”

That may seem hard-edged to some, but it is a harsh reality in an extremely competitive environment like the NBA. “You need a certain amount of talent and a certain level of excellence to even be in the conversation.”

Of course, with the right attitude and work ethic, it is possible to raise the level of one’s game.

“I want to know, what’s your compete level?” says the coach. “Your talent level is critical, but can your talent level be raised?”

Spotting potential in a young player, and finding the right buttons to push so that he or she can make the most of it, is what coaching success is all about. “It is not about me. It is about me making you better; seeing what you can become; seeing what we can become. Coaching, or being the boss, is not about me.”