For the past two basketball seasons Brandon Raba has heard insults from surly spectators, who shouted that he was only playing because his father was the coach. Chants of “Daddy’s Boy” would surface when he’d miss a shot or turn the ball over.
It was meant to disrupt him.
“I don’t worry about that at all,” said Raba, now a Nottingham High senior. “My whole life I knew that would be coming if I played for my dad. I was expecting the chants and all that stuff. People don’t realize that didn’t faze me at all. No way.”
“And,” he added, “I think I answered them last year.”
Did he ever.
In earning All-Area status and Player of the Year honors from one daily paper, Raba led the Northstars in scoring (16 points per game) and assists (121), was second in rebounds as a point guard with 168, finished third in steals (56), shot 50 percent from the field and hit 37 three-pointers.
Surrounded by a cast of talented fellow-juniors, Raba helped Nottingham to a 22-7 record and berths in the Mercer County Tournament finals and the Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals.
The dumbest thing coach Chris “The Baron” Raba could have done would have been not play his son.
“During the season when I’m coaching him, it hasn’t been easy,” Raba said. “But when I reflect on how he played at the end of every season, I’m really proud of him. Every game he has the fans chanting at him, saying things about him because he plays for his father. And every game he’s probably one of the best players on the court. I’m proud of him but it hasn’t been easy.”
The difficulties have not just been with the fans, but with the player-coach dynamic itself, which Chris Raba readily admits.
“He’s held to a higher standard by me than others,” the Baron said. “Some people may make a mistake and I blame it on him instead of his teammate. (Wife Tina) tells me to shut up all the time. You can hear it on the camera when she films our games: ‘Shut up Chris, leave him alone!’”
Brandon agreed that there have been some difficulties, but he would not them for anything.
“He’s really tough on me at practice but I know it’s just to get me better and I just feed off of that,” Raba said. “It definitely takes a mental toll on you but you just gotta be mentally tough and know why he’s doing the stuff he does; and just think about the next play and keep going.”
It may have been rough, but it has also been worth it. There are few better guys to learn basketball from.
Chris Raba has had his detractors over the years due to one thing or another, but no one will deny his coaching ability, which has produced state champions at two different schools. Since he was a wee lad, Brandon sat on his dad’s bench at both Hamilton West and Nottingham games, soaking in the Baron’s knowledge and learning to respect it.
Although he doesn’t remember much about the Hornets’ 2006 state championship, Brandon was in the team photo afterward. He was on the bench every year thereafter.
“Up through eighth grade, the day would go by so slow thinking about the game that night,” Raba recalled. “I just loved sitting on the bench, loved the environment of high school basketball games. All the fans; just how intense the games were. I just loved everything about it.”
Brandon grew up with a basketball in his hand. He started in his backyard, trying to work on jump shot that couldn’t even reach the rim.
In fourth grade he joined Hamilton PAL “just for fun, I had no experience,” and the following year he entered CYO with St. Raphael’s. Suddenly, things got serious.
“I remember going into fifth grade, we had a long talk and my dad told me ‘If you really want to take basketball serious we can start working out and stuff,’” Raba said. “He would show me a couple drills and I would be in the backyard just doing it, whether it was dribbling, shooting drills, whatever.”
That would be the only coaching Chris would do of his son until he arrived at Nottingham.
“I never coached him in organized sports,” he said. “I knew I’d eventually coach him in high school and I didn’t want to get involved in it before that. I just wanted to train him for when he got here.”
Brandon excelled in CYO but because his team was always a runner-up and the MVP went to a championship player, he would get the Sportsmanship Award.
“But I wasn’t really a good sport,” he said with a laugh. “I wasn’t much of a sportsman back then.”
Raba began AAU in fifth grade with the Mid-Jersey Mavericks, and moved on to Gymwork Training, the YSU Elite, NJ Connection and DVA Elite. He credits Gymwork coach Deon Chew as having “a presence in my life coaching and training me. I learned a lot from him.”
Raba played JV at Nottingham as a freshman, and also sat the bench on varsity as the Northstars won a state championship and reached the Tournament of Champions semifinals.
With every starter graduating from that team, Raba’s sophomore season was a total rebuild for Nottingham. The Stars went 9-16 with a plethora of underclassmen, and Brandon led the team in scoring (11.4 ppg) and assists (97). He was second in rebounding (127) and steals (51).
But it was a hard year due to the losing and the fact his dad was trying to toughen him up.
“At the end of his sophomore year I reflected on the season and I kind of regretted how I treated him,” Chris said. “His junior year was hard but not as hard as his sophomore year. But I had to break him in, I had to get him ready because I knew eventually this team was gonna be really good and he would have to get used to people yelling in the stands and me coaching him.”
Brandon showed a tremendous work ethic last season and proved he was way more than a daddy’s boy. As a team Nottingham showed its capabilities with stellar juniors Nazir Collins, Kishawn Douragh, Trey Kauffman, Jack Bisset, Josh Morrison and Chris Williams all contributing. It was a squad poised to make a run at state and county championships this year until Covid restrictions wiped that all out.
“It’s really depressing,” Brandon said. “It’s a heart crusher every day just thinking of what this year could have been. I’ve been waiting for this year all my life but all my goals I can’t really achieve – a state championship, a county championship.”
Granted, he was on the team that won both of those titles, but not as a contributor. This was his year to be an impact player on a potential champion. Also in jeopardy is Raba’s shot at 1,000 points, as he has just 13 (possibly 15, if a CVC tournament is held) games to score 223 points.
But scoring has never been Raba’s true value. He is a throwback point guard whose first instincts are to defend and take care of his teammates on offense. Although he has not yet decided on a college, it’s clear that wherever he goes it will be as a floor general.
“He can control a game without scoring a basket,” Chris Raba said. “He handles the ball great; his assist to turnover ratio is 3-1, which is absurd.
“We knew he was never gonna be fast or real athletic. For him to play at a higher level he has to make other people better. You have to be able to handle the ball and get the ball to people that are open. In college, that’s what he’s gonna have to do. He understands that. He can take three shots in a game or 15; he’s OK with that as long as we win.”
Brandon feels that is an aspect of his game that just came naturally.
“It’s not something I worked on, it’s just my IQ in basketball from being on his bench and around basketball my whole life,” he said. “After those games we’d go home, talk about the game, what his team did and didn’t do. I learned a lot.”
And while Brandon hopes to go into law enforcement after college, his dad feels he can take another route as well.
“I think he could have a future in coaching,” Chris said. “His basketball IQ is so high; he understands where other people should be on the court. His calling could be as a coach.”
But for now, he loves being a player no matter how opposing fans try to taunt him.