North Vancouver's Robert Sacre has returned from an NBA and international playing career to begin his foray into basketball management with the CEBL's Fraser Valley Bandits. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Robert Sacre: Energized by his Gonzaga/Lakers past, Fraser Valley Bandits’ new assistant GM makes a hoops homecoming!

He attended Vancouver Grizzlies games as a kid, then went on to play in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers.

And through it all, it’s hard to think of anyone who has more passionately repped B.C.’s Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley regions as rightful professional basketball territory than Robert Sacre.

With all of that in mind, how special is today?

Back on March 11 of 2006, Sacre officially kick-started his journey to the NBA by earning MVP honours in helping to lead North Vancouver’s Handsworth Royals to the B.C. senior boys top-tiered Triple A title.

Fast-forward 15 years to today’s precise date, and Sacre has embarked on the next chapter in his basketball career, entering the professional front-office ranks as the newly-appointed assistant general manager of the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s Abbotsford-based Fraser Valley Bandits.

“It’s been 15 years?” intoned the 31-year-old Sacre with genuine surprise earlier this week as he spoke to Varsity Letters from his home in Spokane, the same city where he starred collegiately for the powerhouse Gonzaga Bulldogs and the same one where he, wife Vinessa and their three children have made a home. “I feel old now. It’s wild to think that it’s been that long. A lot has happened and it’s been an incredible journey.”

Handsworth grad Robert Sacre wore his heart on his sleeve every time he took to the court throughout his basketball career. (Photo property Gonzaga athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Yet as Sacre will willingly admit, one which he himself foretold a number of years ago when speaking to yours truly for an article in The Province newspaper.

“A Vancouver group? I would love to be a part of that… in a New York minute,” Sacre said when asked in 2016, at the end of his four-year stint with the Lakers, if he would have any kind interest in being part of a management team within a potential return by the NBA to Vancouver. “I’ve been telling you that since I was in high school. Now, I think I know the ins and outs of what the NBA is all about. I would give the shirt off my back to help the team.”

Speaking with Sacre this week, the excitement in his voice confirmed he feels the same way about his new position with the CEBL’s Bandits.

“I want to build this team up, this league up,” says Sacre, who will assist the Bandits with player recruitment and development programs, as well as build relationships with professional teams internationally through his experiences in the NBA, in Japan’s B League and with the Canadian National Team. “I am just one man but I know there is a huge amount of support backing this team, so I’m just excited to be a part of it.”

The Bandits’ front office is bringing Sacre aboard at a time when they have had to make tough decisions regarding the structure of both its coaching and management teams.

Given the the global pandemic and the uncertainty it has brought to global travel, the franchise announced Tuesday that head coach and general manager Kyle Julius, currently in his second season coaching in Taiwan, will remain in that nation this summer rather than risk a government ban on re-entry in the fall due to COVID-19 restrictions.

That means 2020 assistant coach Dave Singleton will assume head coaching duties when the season opens June 5 against Edmonton at Abbotsford Centre. Julius will carry out his GM duties virtually from Taiwan.

Robert Sacre powers home via the slam dunk during his L.A. Lakers career. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Although his pathway to the NBA progressed along grounds more similar to blue-chip U.S. players after he chose Gonzaga over 41 other NCAA Div. 1 suitors and wound up being the final pick in the NBA’s two-round draft back in 2012, Sacre has always made time to promote the Canadian delivery model.

Back in 2016, both Sacre and his fellow B.C.-based Gonzaga teammate Kelly Olynyk helped promote the U Sports Final 8 national men’s basketball championships at UBC.

And now, as Sacre joins the Bandits’ management team, he’s acutely aware of the role the CEBL plays in creating professional opportunities for Canada’s top tier of post-secondary players through its U Sports draft set for later in the spring.

“We’re getting a lot more talent as far as NBA players from Canada, but there is so much talent in this country… I don’t think people realize how much,” said Sacre. “But I am also happy to be a part of an organization that has brought (pro) basketball back to Vancouver. Once the Grizzlies left, people didn’t have their own local players to look up to. So I am happy to have a chance to help shine the light on some more talent that kids can look up to and consider their new role models.”

Julius, in part excited about the contacts Sacre brings to Abbotsford from both the NBA and Japan, relished the person the North Vancouver native is, calling him “…a Canadian basketball icon and a major role model for players from Western Canada.”

B.C. high school basketball fans may remember just how big a draw Sacre was in his hometown region over both his high school and college careers.

In December of his Grade 12 year, Handsworth sold out the Capilano University gym for an exhibition game against Beaverton, Ore.’s 6A Westview Wildcats in the Quinn Keast Memorial game, played in honour of Sacre’s late Royals’ teammate.

The game was billed around the fact that both Sacre and then-Grade 11 forward Andy Poling of Westview were both Gonzaga recruits.

Then, in November of 2011, as a senior-year salutation from Zags’ head coach Mark Few to Sacre, the Gonzaga bench boss scheduled his team to play the University of Hawaii at Rogers Arena, smack dab in front of his hometown fans.

“We could have played this game back at home (in Spokane) in the friendly confines,” Few told me after the game. “But Rob means the world to me and our program. He has a heart of gold and I swear if you cut him open, he would bleed Gonzaga blue.”

Reminded of that night, Sacre said: “That is why I am so appreciative of coach Few and what he has done for me as a man on and off the court. I will be forever grateful.”

Robert Sacre was a fan favourite during his Japanese professional career with the Sunrockers Shibuya. (Photo property Sunrockers Shibuya 2021. All Rights Reserved)

And while he will get the perfect chance to learn the professional basketball management ropes with the Bandits, the one thing he has already polished is his most natural asset of all: His charisma.

Sacre’s smile, his infectious nature and his constant state of positivity have made him a memorable figure at every stop on his journey, including the friendship he shared with the late Lakers’ superstar Kobe Bryant.

“Oh man, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be in his aura, his space,” Sacre says in remembrance. “I got to learn so much of not only the game of basketball, but of life, from him. For me, I am forever grateful.”

There is, of course, absolutely no shortage of help Sacre can provide the Bandits.

For his part, he says he’s coming to work with a smile.

“I can sell anything to anybody,” laughs Sacre. “But anything this team needs, I am willing to do it. I want to see it grow. This is going to my little baby so I want to see it grow in front of me.”

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