James DePoe has seen a lot in his eight-year stint as team manager for Canada Basketball, and now his long journey has finally led him to gold.
U19 Team Canada won the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup marking a historic moment in the Canada Basketball timeline. The Men’s National Team has never won a FIBA event at any level until this group defeated Italy on July 9 in the Finals.
En route to the Final, Canada had to go through the powerhouse that is the USA. 17-year-old, R.J. Barrett put together one of the best performances in Canadian Basketball history to push Canada past the defending champions.
DePoe started with Canada Basketball in 2010 when he volunteered to help out during training camp. In a last minute situation, the team manager couldn’t go with the team on their world tour, leaving a role for DePoe to excel in.
North Pole Hoops caught up with DePoe, the current Humber Varsity Coordinator, about what it took to bring a winning culture to Canadian Basketball, an insight of the team and players off the court and what this gold medal means for the game up north.
What was the mood or expectations in training camp heading into the World Cup?
Going in our expectations are high and it’s an ‘anything can happen’ type of attitude. I read a story today, I think it was R.J. who said, “Coach Rana never strayed, the message was always this a championship caliber team, this is a team that can win a medal.” They believed it and they lived it.
How did the pre-tournament matches help with that?
I think the pre-tournament in France was great. Our first game we lost to France. We were up nine at half and we end up losing. The third quarter we went a little flat, they made some adjustments and they turned the tide. We end up losing by six but still a very good game against the European Champs in France. Then we beat Lithuania and Spain quite easily. What was important is that we could rest some guys and try different lineups.
We saw the team cohesion on the court through amazing team wins like in the Final but how did they get along off the court?
They were brothers. There was always a lot of joking around and you see as the trip goes on they all spend time together, but certain guys are closer than others. We kept the same room pairings all the way through from France to Egypt. Some of them have known and played with each other prior on different teams and their comradery is incredible. They do genuinely care about each other, which is also why you’re able to perform like that on the court. When you trust and believe and care for your teammates personally, you’re going to go out and do whatever you need to get the job done.
In a group of 12 young men you’re always going to have a range of personality types. You have some quiet ones and you do have some lonely types but it’s all part of the balance of the group. And then you have Abu. Abu is completely hilarious, outgoing and a vibrant personality all the time. Abu is Abu. His father is wonderful. If you ever meet his father you would know where he got it from. Being from Sudan he had a lot of family there supporting him and it was great to see that family support.
How did this team feel different to you compared to years past?
Not peaking too early. There was a little bit of unknown. Leaving France we were still evaluating things, we didn’t know what we were going to be or what we were going to get. Even finding a captain. We had names but who was really that guy or vocal leader or who was that person who could command the room with their voice and sometimes it takes time. That’s what was different about this team, their arc of development as a group came together at the right time.
They really accepted their roles as defined by the coaching staff in their one on one meetings and the coaches continued to meet with guys, everything came together and they started to believe. They accepted their roles and they really played for each other and they had a tremendous amount of pride. It wasn’t about “what is this trip going to do for me,” “can I lead the world championships in scoring,” this was all about Canada.
Accepting their roles and buying into the system. The players spoke a lot about this in their interviews after coming back home. How difficult is that and how long did that take?
It’s not necessarily difficult. So there’s learning the x’s and o’s and learning how we’re going to play but a lot of them have experience with the Canada Basketball technical way of playing, that certainly helped. Most of the players are coming from a situation where they are relied on for more or different type of things, so that took all of our ten days of training camp and the three games in France. The coaching staff did a fantastic job continuously communicating with each player.
Roy talked about it at length many times over the length of our four weeks together and continued to pound the message that they were a championship caliber team, that they can win a medal, that they can make history. In such a short time those messages become so important. We’re doing sports psych, team building and you just fit all of those things in with a consistent message to believing into what you want to accomplish.
One of your big leaders throughout the tournament, R.J. Barrett, the world now knows his name and his game but who is he as an individual?
R.J. is an incredible young man. He’s the epitome of a respectful, humble, hard working young athlete. He’s got everything ahead of him. He really has the right mindset and character to become great. He’s not afraid of anything or anyone as we saw. He still has a little bit of kid in him, joking around and having a good time, like his 17th birthday took place in our training camp, which is remarkable. R.J. is a testament to how Rowan and Ms. Barrett raised him. He’s so mature and appreciative of everything. Just seeing a kid at 17, obviously with phenomenal basketball ability but then psychologically being able to go to another level when your team needs it. He’s an unbelievable talent and an even better person.
So moving to the France game. Obviously just winning that game and going into the Semi-Finals was history for Canada basketball. After that there must’ve been a high but you had the US the next day.
From the previous Sunday losing to Spain, we knew we were on the tougher side of the bracket and the guys amongst themselves were talking about it all week. So after the loss to Spain, the next day we got to decompress, we went on the four-hour excursion to the pyramids and there was no practice, nothing to do with basketball. After that the boys focused even more with a USA meeting on Saturday night in the back of their heads. Nobody was afraid though, they were not lacking in confidence.
After the France game it was business as usual. There was minimal celebrating, back to the hotel, get up early the next day and let’s get back into it.
Did Coach Rana say anything different in the locker room before the US game?
No, it was just the usual pre-game talk. It was nothing different other than his continued message of believing and being tough and reiterating what the game plan was. All he had to say was let’s go get it.
And at halftime?
At halftime, he took it up a notch a little bit and just made sure they were at a good level mentally and we were. They boys were pumping each other up saying “we got them, don’t let up, don’t let up.”
It was about heart and toughness, and we had it and they didn’t. We came out and punched them in the face and didn’t let them up. I’ve said it to a number of people, I think one of my greatest memories will be the collective looks on their faces time and again in the second half when they tried to fight back and we continually stood strong, They had a collective look of helplessness and that was very special.
And then R.J. takes over and has one of the best performances in Canadian Basketball history.
Now I can have flashbacks and reflect a little bit. I’m in the game, I have a courtside seat but I’m not looking at the game as a fan. Watching the FIBA highlight tape of all his 38 points and it’s just incredible like he was making jump shots, scoops, dunks, all kinds of lay-up, reverse lay-ups, he gave them everything. He gave them the business. They tried putting all their best defenders on him but he’s already crafty enough, his body control is incredible, he has a variety of finishes in the paint so when he’s making jump shots and getting to the free throw line, goodluck.
Then he fouls out with four minutes left and the game was definitely not over. He’s on the bench and he’s the number one cheerleader. He doesn’t go sit on the end of the bench and wallowing in the fact he fouled out. He’s not complaining or pissed off at the referees, he’s coaching, pushing, and supporting and that’s R.J. To me that is the most impressive part of his 38 points.
How big is it having players like Nate, Noah and Grant that can come off the bench and Danilo making those big three to close out that type of game?
All cliché’s aside, Roy said to the group, “At some point we’re going to need every single one of you 12,” and it’s tried true and tested. This goes all the way back to the belief and the buy in of roles because you have a guy like Noah Kirkwood, who on his club team is a star, but he was playing behind Lindell and Jordan Henry. As the tournament went on and on he kept getting better.
You mentioned Nate Darling, I think Nate Darling had an incredible tournament. I met Nate for the first time last year and the difference from last year to this year was his maturity, it’s night and day. The one year of NCAA did wonders. He was a kid last summer and now he’s a young man.
You can’t make it through an international tournament without having each guy play a part at some point and I think every single guy had a part in the seven games.
Nate throws it up for Grant and he finishes the alley-oop, the celebrations are already starting. Then the final buzzer goes off, describe that feeling.
You don’t really know what you do in those moments but I stood up and gave a really big fist pump and let out a really big “YES!” Then I go back into business mode, shake hands, I have to pack up. I think that’s what we all did. We had that moment and we went into the locker room and there’s the video of Coach McNeilly screaming and having a great time.
— Devon Imrie (@Devon_NPH) July 18, 2017
That locker room with the marble was gorgeous though.
Everyone keeps talking about the marble, which is hilarious because it looked better on his Instagram.
So they had that moment and they soaked it in but then it was back to business. We go back on the bus, “James can you turn on the Wi-Fi please?” So I turn on the Wi-Fi and they can get on social media and connect with everybody, then we go for dinner and at midnight they turn in their phones just like every night. I wake them up at 9-9:30 and they have to do the Omega Wave to track their sleep patterns and see how rested they are. Of course it’s always, “can we just keep our phones until 12:30?” “Do we really have to do Omega Wave?” but they stuck to it and they were committed to the process.
How important is it having Abu there as a leader, not only when Lindell gets injured but also just for team morale?
Abu is energetic and it’s a lot of “lets go, lets go,” a lot of hype and positive energy. He has his own routine, oh God he plays his music so loud before games and when he’s hanging out in his room. He borderline drives the guys nuts but there’s just so much love there. He’s just the classic type of guy you would hate to play against and you love having on your team, like you’re going to go to war with that guy. He’s on the floor, he’s rebounding, one of the best rebounders I’ve ever seen in my life, and his pursuit to go up and get it is relentless.
Abu’s special and I’ve known him for three years and we spent extra time together on our way home from Chile last year because we misplaced a passport, it’s a funny story but him and I got stuck behind for an extra 24 hours.
I have to know what happened there. A missing passport in Chile sounds like a great movie.
Well it could be but the short story is we lost and then found his passport. It was interesting to be in Santiago, Chile and we had to get a hotel room while everyone was back home. We miraculously found the passport, which was misplaced in a taxi and we got hold of the actual passport. That’s just Abu but I love that guy.
After winning against the US and feeling that high, what was it like bringing the team back down and re-focusing for the gold medal game?
It was easy. That’s the special part of this group, it wasn’t difficult. Roy kept saying to them in the room, “we have one more, one more.” We walked into the lobby to a rousing ovation from all the staff and the volunteers. Athletes and coaching staff, we’re all creatures of habit so you just get right back in the machine and get into the same routine. I think their confidence was sky high but they weren’t over confident. We did want Spain, because we wanted some redemption but that was a split second of disappointment. They had the mindset of nothing was going to stop them.
You didn’t have any doubts going in?
With all due to respect to Italy, just from our vibe of the group, the focused confidence that they had, there was going to be no denying them. We overwhelmed them from the opening tip and they just didn’t have anything to hit us back with.
It almost ended up being a rout, but at halftime you were up 15. Italy had just come from behind against Spain down 16.
Right and that was the scout Coach Weir had put together. Him and Roy kept drilling in the boy’s head that this is a team that does not give up. They will play every possession, execute every possession but they will only come back through your turnovers. The boys went out and executed the scout perfectly.
Now you’re a world champion. Canada are World Champions. How does that feel just hearing that?
I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet. It comes and goes in waves. When the game’s over, you go through the whole ceremony, I tried to keep my phone in my pocket and see everything through my own eyes. It was pandemonium after the medal presentation. There’s confetti everywhere and I’ve never seen that many selfies taken. I think every one of our guys took 100 selfies. People are taking pictures with me and I’m like why, I just do laundry.
I had a moment where I took a step back and sat on the media table and you just see sparkly confetti coming down and there’s people running everywhere and our guys with the biggest smile on their faces and everybody is truly enjoying the moment. Back in the locker room, poor Abu gets pulled in to do the doping testing so we’re waiting for him and then back on the bus, everyone is on their phone checking their messages. So it’s waves, waves of emotions.
In an interview with TSN radio, Jason Thom said, “Canada Basketball is no longer on the rise, it’s here.” What is your interpretation and view on that?
Coach Roy had said this a few times, “we’re not just happy and satisfied getting to a Quarter Final, lets strive for the podium, lets win medals, lets win championships.” We’re at the place where you have to instill that into your culture, winning has to be instilled. We are here, we have the players that are being exposed to high levels and really care about representing their country. This championship plants a flag and I hope it inspires the next generation. Keep working, keep playing and want to represent your country.
Thank you so much for your time James, I’ll see you later tonight at Crown League.
Anytime and yes definitely come find me.