WHEN Robert Sacré arrived at North Vancouver's Handsworth secondary as a massive Grade 8 student, the senior boys basketball coach definitely took notice.
Coach Randy Storey, however, didn't believe he was looking at a future NBA player. What he saw was a raw player who was big and athletic but definitely not polished on the offensive end.
"I didn't think he would end up in a Division 1 school, in a major university, when he was here in Grade 8," Storey says with a chuckle. "I always thought his offensive game was the thing that was just a little bit behind. His shooting at medium range, his ability to get off the floor quickly when he had a split second and confidently kind of make those jump hooks and shots."
Sacré, however, was still a physical specimen and made Handsworth's varsity team as a Grade 9 player. Following that year Storey took him to a camp at the University of Washington where Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar made an assessment of the young centre that took Storey by surprise.
"Lorenzo Romar was comparing him to other people that he had coached and seen who were outstanding college players, guys that had gone pro," says Storey. "And I'm looking at this and going, 'Are you kidding me?' Not that I didn't think he could do it, but I don't even think I knew exactly what we had at that point."
If Storey still wasn't convinced that his player was bound for big things, Sacré made the case himself later in that same camp when he was doing drills against current University of Washington players.
"They were doing a drill on the floor and I was sitting up with the assistant coach. He had this drill where he got matched up against Brandon Roy," says Storey. "(Rob) shot faked, one bounce to the right and shot a jump shot and made it against a guy who is a good NBA player now. I can remember thinking at that moment, well maybe these guys are right. Maybe this guy is one of the best prospects they've seen in Canada and maybe he's heading towards an excellent college career. Obviously that would make him a great candidate for pro."
Those predictions have come true. Rob Sacré did have an excellent college career with Gonzaga Bulldogs and on Monday he solidified a spot on a pretty good professional team - the Los Angeles Lakers. Picked dead last, 60th overall, in the 2012 NBA draft, Sacré showed enough during preseason play that the Lakers kept him on their official 15-man roster to open the season. The team played its first regular season game last night after North Shore News press deadline. Sacré, it appears, is in basketball paradise.
"I was so fortunate to come to a great team," Sacré told the Vancouver Sun after learning he would make it to opening day. "Some people get drafted last and they don't go to the most famous team in the NBA. I was fortunate enough to come to the best team, the most prestigious team, and I am honoured. . . . It really couldn't turn out any better for me. I feel so fortunate. I have Steve (Nash) here, I'm playing with some of the greatest players and the coaching staff has been so good with me. It's just been a perfect situation for me."
That he's come this far is a testament to the work that he has put in, particularly during the past couple of years. Sacré used to be able to dominate people with sheer size and athleticism but now he's added a lot more elements to his game, says Storey.
"I'm really proud of that. I always said that the best player I coached was not Rob, it was (Handsworth teammate and former national team player) Tyler Kepkay, because he works at his basketball three hours a day and he's just 5-10, instead of Rob who is seven feet. Rob's had numerous opportunities because of his size. But I really feel like in the last two or so years Rob has taken nothing for granted anymore. He's spent his time out of season working harder on his game. . . . I think that he's taken what he's been given and I think he's matched that with a work ethic and a drive that has perhaps had him on an upward slope here."
While Sacré's game has steadily improved, there are other personal attributes that have always been there that make him stand out as a great teammate, says Storey. Sacré, who helped Handsworth win a provincial title as a Grade 11 student, was always known for having a personality that even outmatched his massive body.
"His team dynamic was almost off the charts with his positive vibe that he had going on through the team," says Storey. "It's unusual for a 16-or 17-year-old to be as concerned about everyone else on the team as he is about himself. He was always pushing me to treat the 14th guy on the team with as much respect as he thought he should be treated."
That intangible quality seems to have translated right up to the famous Los Angeles Lakers.
"The most important thing you have to do when you get into a team situation is you have to earn your teammates' respect," says Storey. "I think (the Lakers) are looking at him and saying, 'Yeah, I respect this guy.' That's great for Rob. Some people have a knack for earning people's respect, some people have a knack for not being able to do it."
Sacré has, in fact, earned praise from such luminaries as Kobe Bryant and fellow B.C. boy Steve Nash. In announcing the final roster on the team's website, general manager Mitch Kupchak also singled out Sacré for his solid play as a preseason rookie.
"Sacre has been a pleasant surprise," said Kupchak.
"He's made huge progress since the summer league," added player development coach Phil Handy in Sacré's season preview bio. "He surprised me in the preseason with his toughness. He's had to practise against Dwight Howard every day, and he hasn't backed down. He got a look at some premier bigs in the league like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMarcus Cousins and held up well."
Sacré is not expected to play big minutes during the regular season and his contract will not be guaranteed until January but he has a chance to earn playing time backing up Howard in the middle, particularly when the Lakers are looking to use a big lineup.
Whatever happens, Storey knows that his former player will survive. Although Sacré's outsized personality - highlighted by his many tattoos, including a recent Snoop Dogg addition - make him seem like a perfect fit for the flashy Lakers, he's actually more homebody than Hollywood, says Storey. Sacré has a young son and girlfriend living in Spokane and his mom Leslie is still a fixture in North Vancouver.
"People might look at being in Los Angeles, being on the Lakers and getting that image of Los Angeles," says Storey. "But the impression I get is that he misses his boy, he wants his mom to come down and visit. His girlfriend, he misses. He's a really grounded kid. He wants that family down there, he wants his dogs, he wants his son there. . . . I think he hasn't let this stuff go to his head. I think he's just appreciating the day-to-day, 'I'm still here, I'm still surviving' kind of tack that he's taken. He has the ability to kind of take what's going on here and make the best of it. That's something that I really respect."
No one is going to mistake Sacré's pro potential anymore. Now it's time to sit back and watch the fun.
"We're all super proud of him," says Storey. "The basketball community in British Columbia is watching this closely."