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Father and son forge a bond on the court Add to ...

BASKETBALL REPORTER

About two hours before game time tonight, Andy Rautins will get a text message from his father, one former Syracuse University star reaching out to another.

And just as the Orange's team bus pulls up at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, Andy will give his dad, Leo, a call, just to let him know he's arrived.

Have any father and son walked such similar paths to the same place?

Leo Rautins, the coach of the Canadian national men's team and long-time Toronto Raptors broadcaster, burst onto the Canadian basketball scene as a star at Syracuse from 1980 to 1983. He carved out a career impressive enough to become the first Canadian taken in the first round of the NBA draft when he was selected 17th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983.

Now Andy's the star, poised to lead Syracuse, the No. 1 seed in the West Regional of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, to a plateau his father never reached - a deep run in March Madness and potentially a championship.

The elder Rautins won't be here. He will be in Ottawa to call the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men's basketball tournament for TSN, normally a gig he enjoys, but less so this time.

"It's killing me, not being there," he said.

When Andy was growing up, the two were inseparable. The second oldest of four brothers, it was Andy who couldn't get enough of the game that defined his father. While his brothers watched Sesame Street, Andy watched Red on Roundball, a film about basketball fundamentals by legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach.

"I mean, for six hours a day at age three," Leo says.

In the summers, Leo taught at basketball camps around upstate New York and Southern Ontario.

He always had a companion.

"Everywhere he went when I was younger, I went," Andy says. "Every arena he went to, every game. I think that's where my passion for the game comes from. We'd hop in the Porsche, throw in the Boss, Bruce Springsteen. To me that was special, just cruising to Bruce Springsteen, and whenever I got the opportunity, I always got out in front of the camps and shot some jump shots. I guess I enjoyed the attention."

A hint that Andy might be something special came at one of those camps when Andy, barely older than a toddler, stepped up and knocked down some free throws with perfect form, just as his father had demonstrated.

"He was always very visual," Leo says. "You could show him how to do a layup and he'd do a perfect layup. It was kind of weird."

Andy won a New York state championship at Jamesville-DeWitt High School, in a Syracuse suburb (Leo kept a home in Syracuse and in Toronto, where Andy spent his summers). But unlike his father, Andy wasn't a highly sought recruit as a skinny, 6-foot-4 shooting guard, last name notwithstanding.

When he first came to Syracuse, his name was a burden. There was speculation that he got his scholarship as a favour to a legend. Jim Boeheim is in his 34th season as the Orange's head coach, and Leo made Syracuse's all-century team.

But if the name was a burden at times, it was also a source of inspiration and education. The pair watched game film together, and how many kids with hoop dreams get worked out by someone who played more than a decade professionally all over the world?

"There was never any part of me that wanted to really outdo him, even though I did pass him in [career]scoring this year, it's not a big deal," Andy says, laughing. "Just thought I'd throw that out there."

But as with many relationships between father and son, the tables turn over time. For all that his father ever gave him, Leo says Andy has repaid him tenfold.

When Leo and his first wife, Andy's mother, divorced nearly a decade ago, it was his teenage son who was a source of comfort.

"He's definitely been there for me," Leo says. "The divorce was hard on everyone and I was worried about him, but he was worried about me, 'Dad, are you okay?' things like that. It's a strong bond, it's unique."

He's given his dad chills just walking out on the floor at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse's home court. He's given him some priceless father-son moments sharing some of that time with his youngest brother, Sam, 10, a ball-boy for the Orange this year (it's Andy's job to drive him home after games).

He's given his dad some valuable minutes at shooting guard on the Canadian national team, and will this summer again at the world championship in Turkey. And he's given his dad some massive gas bills; Leo figures he's put nearly 80,000 kilometres a year on his car making the six-hour drive between Syracuse and Toronto to see as many of Andy's games as he can.

And this month, beginning tonight, Andy might just give his father the thrill of his basketball life.

*****

ANDY RAUTINS

University Syracuse

Age 23, senior

Season statistics per game 11.7 points, 5.0 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals

Quote "He means the world to me, he really does," Andy says of his relationship with his father, Leo, the Canadian national team coach, Toronto Raptors broadcaster and former Syracuse star. "We speak two or three times a day, or we'll text. We'll talk about basketball half the time and the other half we'll talk about life. He's my best friend too. He's a great person, he's a great mentor and I'm thankful for everything he's done for me."

Next Rautins will lead the No. 1-seed Orange against the Vermont Catamounts in the first round of the NCAA tournament's West regional tonight at HSBC Arena in Buffalo. The Syracuse game follows the match between Florida State and No. 8 seed Gonzaga, which has three Canadians in its lineup. Syracuse also features Montreal's KrisJoseph prominently in its lineup. Joseph's older brother Maurice starts for Vermont.

Michael Grange

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