TORONTO – A week later Anthony Bennett says it still hasn’t sunk in.
The Toronto native made history when the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him first overall at the 2013 NBA Draft. While other Canadians have been picked relatively early in the draft – Steve Nash went 15th in 1996 and Tristan Thompson was picked fourth overall in 2011 – Bennett is the first to go No. 1, an accomplishment almost everybody felt Andrew Wiggins would be the first to achieve in 2014.
“I’ve been getting a lot of love from Canada, from overseas [and] everywhere basically just telling me congratulations,” Bennett, a 6-foot-8 forward said Thursday from inside the Jane and Finch Boys & Girls Club. “They just want to see me work hard and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
This is where Bennett, now 20, spent a lot of hours during the early years of his childhood. It was inside the one-floor baby-blue brick building where he says he used to come in order to keep on top of his schoolwork and stay out of trouble. He and his friends used to have races on the patch of grass outside and play basketball on the courts in Oakdale Park, only a short walk away. Even when he and his family – his mother Edith and two siblings – moved to Brampton when Anthony was 10, he recalls returning to the boys and girls club every other week to check in on how everybody was doing.
“A lot has changed,” Bennett says when asked about what it’s like returning to the part of the neighbourhood where he spent a lot of time growing up. “It’s the same setup, but new people, new faces. I’m pretty sure everybody is doing [his or her] job, keeping everybody out of trouble . . . I’m really happy I had this growing up as a kid.”
Growing up Bennett also had his mom Edith, who instilled into his mind the importance of hard work. Edith worked two full-time nursing jobs when Anthony was younger and he’d see his mom come home from one shift only to leave for the next one.
“I think he grew up and saw me working hard so he said he wanted to work hard and wanted to accomplish his dream,” Edith Bennett said. "He set his goals at 11 years old, what he wanted to do for high school, college and he said he wanted to be in the NBA.”
Thursday, he took what his mom taught him and tried to pass it on to the next generation. On a small stage just outside the boys and girls club Bennett spoke to a group of children from the area about what it takes to be successful. His advice was simple: Stay in school, work hard and get good grades because “getting that degree from high school or college, it puts you a long way.”
Being that Bennett is a Canadian talent, there was plenty of chatter Thursday surrounding the future of the Canadian men’s national team and the potential of Canada qualifying for the Summer Olympics for the first time since 2000. With players like Thompson, Andrew Nicholson and Cory Joseph already developing in the NBA, Bennett and Kelly Olynk getting set to make the jump and Andrew Wiggins likely only a year away from being selected first overall in the NBA Draft, there are many who feel Canada could contend for a medal should all their big names choose to compete on the international stage.
Bennett, for one is completely on board.
“I would just [like to] represent my country and hopefully win another medal,” he said. “I played with the [national] cadet team with coach [Roy] Rana for two years, went to Argentina for qualifiers, we won bronze and then we went to Germany for the world’s and won bronze as well.”
Is he thinking about the 2016 Olympics?
“Ya man, it’s going to Brazil, it’s crazy. I always wanted to go there. So just going there with a great group of guys, great coaching staff. Representing the country [during my career] is going to be a huge deal for me.”
Bennett was planning to catch a flight back to Cleveland Thursday evening and he’ll begin rehab on his left shoulder Friday. He had rotator cuff surgery in May after his rookie season at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) and was forced to miss all the NBA pre-draft workouts, which some felt would effect where he’d be selected in the draft. There were even suggestions that Bennett, who was seen as a top-five pick for most of the year, would fall to as low as 10th overall.
And while he didn’t drop in the draft, he now faces the tough task of trying to live up to expectations and perform under the added pressure that comes with being the first-overall pick. Bennett isn’t fazed though. Not only does he see a positive in the fact that he doesn’t have to be the Cavs' go-to star in his rookie season – that job belongs to point guard Kyrie Irving – but he also says he’s never really focused on others expectations.
“That’s what I’ve been doing for a while now. Going to Findlay Prep and everyone was saying we were the top team this, top team that but we just really stuck together and we knew what our goal was and that was to win a championship,” he said. “At UNLV everyone was saying I’m the next Larry Johnson . . . I stuck with the team, stuck with the coaches.
“Now it’s the same thing at a different level. Everybody is saying first Canadian, [and that I] made history. [Others] are saying it’s a bad pick. I hear it, but I don’t really pay attention to all that. It’s basketball and I just go out there and play.”
His mother may not be surprised with how far he’s been able to take his talent on the court, but she says she’ll always have trouble seeing her son in this light as opposed to just ‘little Anthony.’
“That’s how we all look at him as ‘little Anthony’ and to see one day that he just grew up you would say overnight, all these the accomplishments have just come to him,” she said.