If Phil Scrubb wanted to shrug off the carefully calibrated criticism Victor Raso aimed at him when they were basketball teammates at Ottawa’s Carleton University, he had no lack of excuses.
When Raso arrived at Carleton in 2013 after transferring from McMaster University in Hamilton, Scrubb was already a three-time national champion and well on his way to becoming one of the most-decorated players in Canadian university history.
But Raso was far from shy. His goal was to join the Carleton coaching staff after graduation, as an assistant to 13-time champion Dave Smart. The delicate dance of that transition required holding his teammates to account while he was still a player.
Scrubb, arguably the Ravens’ greatest player in its history, was no exception.
“He immediately showed me that he cared about the team and he cared about me being successful,” Scrubb said. “When you see a guy who wants you to succeed it’s pretty easy to take criticism from from a guy like that. He just has a good personality as a leader, and you can’t help but kind of follow his lead.”
That mutual respect is a key reason Scrubb left the Ottawa BlackJacks to sign with the Niagara River Lions of the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) for this season, where Raso is Niagara’s head coach and general manager.
Scrubb was part of a BlackJacks team flush with Carleton and University of Ottawa players that Smart assembled for the 2020 Summer Series in St. Catharines, Ont. But a regime change in Ottawa led both clubs to rework their rosters.
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Smart left the BlackJacks and joined the River Lions as executive coach and regional scout, where he’ll act as Raso’s advisor and mentor. Ottawa hired former pro and CBC Sports analyst Jevohn Shepherd as general manager, with Andy Rautins as assistant GM.
The result has been an influx of Carleton-affiliated players to the River Lions and a changing of the guard in Ottawa, where most of the 2021 roster is made up of former NCAA talent.
Alain Louis, a six-foot-one guard from Montreal, is the only Carleton product signed to the BlackJacks for this season.
Ottawa has also signed Kadre Gray, a two-time U Sports Player of the Year out of Laurentian University; Joel Friesen from the University of Alberta, and former U of Ottawa player Johnny Berhanemeskel, one of only two returning players from last year’s final roster.
Scrubb suited up for just two games with Ottawa last season before going overseas to join Limoges, his professional team in the top-tier France-Jeep Elite Pro A league.
The River Lions are looking to rebound from a disappointing 2020 campaign that saw them finish with a 2-4 record and second-to-last in league standings. In the offseason, Raso and assistant GM Antwi Atuahene made a point of recruiting players with a history of winning in top-flight programs, including former Duke captain Javin DeLaurier.
“I want these guys because of their their habits, and the discipline that they needed to show in college to be successful,” Raso said. “We know the level of accountability, we know the level of intelligence you have to have to survive four years at programs like Duke and Carleton.
“You cannot be someone who doesn’t care about the sport. You cannot be someone who doesn’t care about their teammates, because these guys have achieved success through a disciplined environment.”
Raso plans to push Scrubb
Just as he did in his playing days at Carleton, Raso plans to push Scrubb to maximize his potential.
“Knowing Phil, he’ll come in and try and assimilate,” Raso said. “And I will, from day one, try and push him into a bigger and bigger role.
“We’ve got some pretty good athleticism and talent around him, but from a decision-making perspective, he’s phenomenal. So I’m going to ask him to be a decision-maker on the floor, I’m going to ask him to get people involved, and then play off of his teammates when necessary.”
As for Scrubb, he said he has no concerns about taking orders from his friend and self-appointed gadfly.
“No, I think the opposite,” Scrubb said. “I know Vic very well. I know he’s a good coach, and if it wasn’t Vic coaching the team, I wouldn’t have played this summer. He’s the main reason I would be there.”