Roven Yau: when opportunity meets preparedness

When the final buzzer sounds in a Toronto Raptors game, behind-the-scenes, the work continues. For Roven Yau, the team’s senior manager of public relations, game day doesn’t end until many hours after the actual game as Yau and the rest of the organization’s public relations team begin to shuffle players to postgame interviews, facilitate post-game requests and then communicate with the media about the next day’s practice or travel plans.

In a normal year, this work is done at Scotiabank Arena. In this extremely out of the ordinary season, half of the public relations team is with the players and coaches in Tampa while the other half is back home in Toronto with everyone communicating daily through zoom calls, texts and emails. With careful consideration, they’ve managed the day-to-day experience across the distance to make things feel as normal as possible.

“My big thing is always asking people, ‘What do you need to know?’” Yau said. “I want to be somebody that can get things done. [Somebody] that you can trust to be reliable and trustworthy.”

Yau’s attention to detail and day-to-day responsibilities extend well beyond arranging media availability and serving as a liaison between players and members of the media. A typical game-day starts around 7 a.m. where Yau begins by catching up on articles published about the team and its players the day before. He sends out relevant clips to members of the organization and then gets to work on preparing the day’s game notes, a task he shares with Phil Summers, the team’s manager of communications.  

Yau makes a point to look out for questions from reporters about specific stats or trends, then finds the answers and includes those in the day’s notes. He then speaks with the broadcasters for both teams, fields interview requests that come in from various media members, and helps players map out the requests they are able to fulfill. Prior to the game, it’s providing updates on player availability for the game itself. During the game, it’s communicating any franchise or career-highs, providing official injury updates and keeping an eye on potential storylines unfolding.

In a role where there are many -- extremely tall -- moving parts at all times, staying ready and rolling with the punches is one of the most important attributes to making things run smoothly. 

“If you trust me to figure it out and to get it done, I'll always be able to make myself useful,” Yau said. “[It's important to] make sure that when people meet and interact with you, they have a positive experience. It's just a good life lesson for how you approach life, whether it's your neighbor or somebody that you just met.”

Yau doesn’t get to spend much time reflecting during the rush of the NBA season, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about all who have helped along his own journey.

With the majority of the past two seasons spent in Florida, first in the NBA bubble and then in this year’s temporary relocation to Tampa amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Yau has had a reason to reflect a little more. After leaving his hometown of Ajax, Ontario to attend Eckerd College in 2000, Florida is where Yau’s own basketball journey began.

Though he’s now in his 15th year with the Raptors, Yau’s first brush with sports media was during his time at Eckerd, where he started writing for the school paper. A few months in, Yau went to Washington, D.C. for a national writing conference. Watching ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon speak at that conference changed everything.

“I just remember sitting in this crowd listening to Michael Wilbon talk for a half hour, just completely focused on the fact that people could make a living covering sports,” Yau said. “One of the things that I remember he said about the way he approached the job was that you had to earn people's trust. And it wasn't always about having the tape recorder on. It was building relationships with people and earning their trust, but never turning the tape recorder off in your head. I thought it was really interesting. I went to some other workshops that were a little bit more technical, I learned how to keep track of things in a basketball game, but [listening to Wilbon] just kind of got me going, it got me interested in that side of sport.”

With Wilbon’s words still buzzing in his head, Yau returned to Eckerd determined to create a path for himself that would lead to a career in pro sports.

Tom Ryan is the current Athletic Director at Eckerd College.  He was the head coach of the men’s basketball team while Yau was a student. The two were seated next to each other as Ryan was doing the scorebook for a women’s basketball game. He offered Yau twenty dollars to finish the scorebook so that he could go to prepare his team for their upcoming game. Yau accepted and soon found himself doing the scorebooks for both men’s and women’s games. Before long, he was also working as the announcer for the games.

“He was always around,” Ryan said. “I don't mean that in a negative way. He was always like, ‘What’s going on? What can I do?’ He was always asking questions, and willing to do whatever to start out with. He was very skilled and very creative. But I think when you’re trying to get noticed, that’s what gets you noticed.”

Yau’s willingness to do whatever job was needed -- even if he didn’t have any experience or necessarily know how to do it -- did indeed catch the eye of Eckerd Athletic Director Jim Harley. 

“[Coach Harley] said, ‘Wear your fancy clothes. Meet me here at noon tomorrow, we're going to go to one of my favorite restaurants,’” Yau said. 

It is here that Yau mentions former Eckerd basketball star Harry Singletary, the first African-American athlete to play a sport for an all-white college in the south, as well as graduate from Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) in 1964. Singletary’s jersey was the first number the school retired in any sport in 1996. Harley recruited Singletary, beginning their time together by getting to know one another over lunch.

“Harry's story is that there are people like Coach Harley that are out there who are doing things to help minorities like Harry, like myself,” Yau said. “We had a call after we won the championship and he was telling me how proud everyone was that I got to be part of that.”

Though Yau is thankful for the opportunities he has received in his own career, as well as the support he has had from Harley and Ryan, Yau knows his experience isn’t the same for every minority trying to break into the sports world.

“One of the things I’ve heard from others who grow up in minority households, we’re sort of told, especially in an industry that’s dominated by Caucasians, you’ve got to be twice as good, if not better than the other person,” he said.

“It’s my responsibility to now give that [support] to someone else. Not hold them back. There’s sort of that cycle that goes with it.”

The bonds at Eckerd run deep.

“I'm part of that history now,” Yau said. “Tom Ryan is a guy that I talk to like at least once or twice a month. He’s right up there with Coach Harley in terms of a guy that gave me an opportunity that allowed me to be part of a program. Even though I never played a minute at Eckerd, they consider me part of the team. I was home schooled and didn't really know anything about college sports before I got there. When you don't know anybody, you want to just feel like you belong. And these people gave me that opportunity. And now I'm part of a family of players, former players, future players, staff that all had a good experience with me. And I learned a lot from each different individual. And it sort of made me who I am today and how I approach my work.”

Getting to watch Yau’s journey with the Raptors has been equally rewarding for Ryan.

“It’s been amazing,” Ryan said. “His appreciation for where he came from, a lot of people forget where they came from. Roven has never, for one half second, forgot where he came from. He’s a wonderful human being. That’s an important part.”

“He’s a gem,” Ryan continued. “He’s a special person with a big heart and he wants to succeed, but he also wants to help others succeed also.”

After graduating from Eckerd, Yau moved on to work at the University of Florida. Swimming and golf were his main sports, but he helped out the basketball and football programs as well. The timing couldn't have been more perfect for an aspiring public relations specialist. 

“Young kids like Al Horford and Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer became household names and it turned into a celebrity campus,” Yau said laughing. “[And then] Tim Tebow joined us that fall…Ryan Lochte was on my list [with the swimming team] too. It was his senior year. I handled all of his transition to being a pro.”

Near the end of his time with the Gators, Yau found himself in Atlanta with Lochte for the NCAA swimming championships. After the championships finished, he got a call asking him to head to Indianapolis for the Final Four. It was there that he found out the Raptors were hiring. 

“We left on my birthday of all days, like that was the best birthday ever,” Yau said.  “We got there and this is how full circle it gets. It’s springtime in Indianapolis. Everybody's out on the patio having a meal. It's just one giant basketball convention. There's Bobby Knight, there's Roy Williams, there's Coach K, you know, just everybody just hanging out. So who do I see walking around in Indiana? In Indianapolis I ran into Coach Harley. He's sort of been there every step of the way [in my journey].”

Spoiler-alert: Yau was hired by the Raptors.

Six years after Yau left home for the first time, he was back and working for the country’s lone NBA team.

13 years later, he was standing on the baseline as the team won its first NBA championship in franchise history.

“I'm probably best known for not having any expression in all those years,” Yau said. “I was like pinned on the baseline, Game 6, and we all had our assignments. I'm just kind of like, laser-focused, like, ‘OK, I got to get Kawhi and this is what we need to get done.’ There was one of those many timeouts before the game actually ended. And [a member of the NBA Entertainment crew came over], tapped me on the shoulder and they said, ‘I know you’re trying to hide it, but your hands are shaking.’ If you looked at me, you probably couldn't tell. But in those moments where the clock was winding down, I was shaking a little bit, like, ‘This is happening.’”

The entire 2019 championship run is something Yau won’t ever forget. While we think of the families and coaching staff when we expand our scope beyond the players themselves, it’s the people working behind the scenes day in and day out, -- year in and year out -- who have given as much time as anyone to the pursuit of a championship.

“Walking into the media room that day, that was 14, 15 years of working relationships,” Yau said. “And people are just happy for you, which doesn't happen with every team. But to walk into that media room, that was at Scotiabank arena, and there's however many hundreds of people and all levels of profile, in all different countries and backgrounds and everything. That was cool.”

There’s another moment that stands out, but this one is for a different reason entirely. While the Raptors fan base was euphoric about the team’s return to the postseason against the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, Yau was celebrating something else.

“The day before Game 1 versus Brooklyn my wife told me we were expecting our first child,” Yau said. “We had just moved into our first house, so the combination of things made that moment in time really special.”

Getting to experience all of these moments with the home team, back in Toronto, has made everything even more special.

“It's really humbling, when you look back at it,” Yau said of his basketball path. “We have to make tough decisions sometimes. We don't always give [the media] what you want. But I like to think that the experience and the respect that goes into it is something that you can at least appreciate. I learned that from Jim [LaBumbard]. I watched him for over 10 years and how he operated and how much people respected him.”

Yau knows not everyone will have a Coach Harley or a Coach Ryan in their corner. Still, he hopes that students can find their role models, whether they are in or outside of sport.

“Surround yourself with people of high character and then watch and listen,” Yau said. “Sometimes you get lucky and the right people fall into your life, but you naturally absorb good habits and an understanding of how things work just by being around the right people. It doesn’t mean they are perfect (in life or work), but they earn the respect of others with the care, attention and genuineness in the way they approach their business each day.

“For me, it was Jim Harley and Tom Ryan [at Eckerd],” Yau continued. “[It was] Steve McClain, and Fred Demarest [at Florida], it was John Lashway, Jim Labumbard and Wayne Embry [with the Raptors] – you will have a hard time finding anyone within the industry that doesn’t respect this group. It’s part of the reason they have all succeeded for 30, 40 and 50 years working in sports. How you treat others (players, coaches, media, family, friends) matters. If you show respect and genuine care, you will generally receive it back in return.”