Nowadays, Canadians are more than just guests in the house of elite basketball. They have kicked the front door down, claimed a room, and are looking at remodelling.
Tune into the NBA and you can cheer on the likes of Kitchener’s Jamal Murray, Toronto’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Mississauga’s Dillon Brooks. Interested in the WNBA? Kia Nurse, Kayla Alexander, and Bridget Carleton are running the floor in a league exploding in popularity. As long as COVID conditions allow for it, they will be brandishing ‘Canada’ across their chests at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics with the goal of bringing home a medal.
Canadian basketball resides in the global spotlight now, but it is built in gyms across the Great White North. The men and women who are leading the charge around Canada have a lot to stay about where basketball is in 2021, where it has come from, and where it is going. Every area has its own basketball identity and reputation—as well as unique advantages and challenges to developing its players. Long winters and limited facilities mean a fight for gym space for all sports in the Ottawa area. A smaller population means increased travel for players from the East Coast.
Meanwhile, the prep program that is front and centre right now producing Canadian basketball talent is housed at the Athlete Institute in Orangeville, Ontaro. Led by Tony McIntyre, Orangeville Prep has become one of the top basketball development programs in the world since it began in 2010. The program’s success is the subject of a CBC Original documentary series that premiered this month. Anyone’s Game brings into focus the type of fiery basketball environment in Canada that breeds elite competitors.
The foundation that was built years ago in Canada is starting to bear fruit in ways that no other country outside of the U.S. has seen before. Over 250 men and women are listed on NCAA team rosters this year and 17 Canadians started on the NBA season’s opening night last month—both Canadian records. To understand the roots laid throughout Canada, you have to go back decades. A natural place to start is in Toronto in the '80s with Ro Russell.
"Now, hockey players play basketball even though basketball players don’t play hockey."
The man who is described as a forefather of the grassroots basketball movement in Canada started out playing hockey as kid. In a predominantly white neighborhood however, Russell faced racism from players, parents, and coaches—leading him to the game of basketball. The sport has come a long way since then in Canada. He says that the Toronto Raptors’ recent run of success and 2019 NBA Championship made believers out of a lot of people. The effect of that achievement has reverberated throughout every basketball community in Canada.
“I’ll be honest, it’s toe-to-toe with hockey. Before, it was like the ugly cousin,” Russell said. “Now, hockey players play basketball even though basketball players don’t play hockey.”
The growth of basketball in Canada since Russell first fell in love with the game is undeniable. Russell started Canada’s first Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team in Canada in 1989. It has since grown into Grassroots Elite Canada, an Adidas-affiliated development powerhouse. AAU programs have become a staple of youth basketball development, bringing players from various areas and schools together to compete at high-level tournaments across North America.
AAU circuits have monopolized both the talent and exposure that youth basketball garners, according to Russell. College programs don’t have to look far anymore to find their next top recruit. Several Canadian programs are a part of various AAU circuits now, sponsored by basketball shoe giants Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour.
Russell navigated his way through uncharted territory in Canada to help build a knowledge base on how best to teach and grow the game. Now that the country has a deep history of players finding success in post-secondary and professional basketball around the world, Russell says that it is crucial for former players to bring that experience back to communities across Canada.
“Guys that either went there themselves and got a taste or got success, got experience, and knowledge and know-how. You need someone to come back to your area and start a program. Start training kids,” Russell said. “What happens is, if you don’t have qualified people or experienced people giving back and helping out, then you will have a father, an uncle, a mother … that is trying to coach kids. That is good, but they are not going to be taught the right things that they need to know. The technique, concepts, the fundamentals, the skill level that they will need if they try to go to the next level.”
Ransford Brempong is one of many former Canadian pros who is doing just that through his programs in North Vancouver. The Winnipeg native spent his teenage years in Toronto and saw firsthand the impact of programs like Russell’s. Brempong went on to play eight years with Canada’s senior men’s national team along with stints in professional leagues overseas. Rather than coach one team or program, Brempong is helping out across Vancouver with many different ages and skill groups while focusing on overall skills development. He describes his company, West Coast Training, as a “basketball consulting firm” due to his flexibility in providing expertise to many throughout the area.
“I wanted to be able to just go freely and work wherever there was an opportunity that I thought was good for developing the game,” Brempong said.
That includes training with players from various basketball academies while creating and committing to programs of his own. Through his basketball experience in Vancouver and around Canada, Brempong realized there is a scarcity of programs available for younger kids to build strong basketball habits. He joined 3PointBasketball and owner Marc Curtin to help address that need.
3PointBasketball has programs for kids as young as in kindergarten. It is about developing fundamental basketball skills in kids from a younger age and fostering a genuine passion for the game. He says that lot of players of his generation are coming back and starting programs themselves for younger kids because they understand the value that it will have.
Brempong thinks Toronto is about 10 years ahead of West Coast basketball in that area. The U.S. adopted those youth programs even earlier. “By the time they get to high school, our skill level might be similar, but [kids in the U.S.] have just so many more reps than us. So many more touches on the court that they feel more comfortable,” Brempong said.
How to better prepare youth basketball players for competitions years down the road is a complex question with no clear answers. For Aprille Deus, it starts with fostering a competitive fire, partly through encouraging players to be multi-sport athletes. “I think basketball is becoming too narrow, too specialized too early almost like gymnastics,” Deus said. “You can teach them to have fun but also teach competitive edge early.”
Deus grew up in the Canadian basketball system. Now she holds a number of positions in Canadian basketball, including assistant coach with the Ryerson Rams men’s basketball team and video coordinator for Canada’s Senior Men’s National Team. She wants to see grit be imparted to young basketball players, especially on the girls’ side. “When you teach competition early, kids are more ready to compete when they get older. It’s like, 'Oh, it’s a natural thing that we go through,'” Deus said.
Brempong is working to instill that mentality through his coaching in Vancouver. He was around Toronto when guys like Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph were working their way from preteen phenoms to Division 1 NCAA stars. “What they (Toronto) are doing now in a relatively short amount of time, it just gives me confidence to know that you have to build the culture,” Brempong said. “Now out west, I’m really trying to start everything grassroots and not really worry about the end product but what are we building and how is the culture of what we are building going to evolve.”
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have, say, ‘trailblazers’ that have made it easier and now we have kids believe. They see it. They know it’s possible."
It took years for Toronto to cultivate that hoops culture. Knowledge has been gained by coaches throughout the area and resources have been dedicated to set boys and girls in the GTA up for success. On top of his work with Grassroots Elite Canada, Russell is also the basketball program director and the head coach of the boys’ team at Crestwood Preparatory College in Toronto. According to Russell, the growth of the women’s game in Canada can be symbolized by the fact that two current players on the girls’ team at Crestwood can dunk. The women’s game was largely categorized as ‘below the rim’ basketball until quite recently. “They are getting their fair share of opportunities. Before, it was all catered to the guys but now the girls are getting their opportunities as well,” Russell said.
Deus has seen the growth in the women’s game as well. She thinks Canadian talent in women’s basketball is comparable that of the U.S., but there is still work to do when it comes to supporting that talent. Deus recently served as the director of basketball operations and lead of player development for Canada Elite’s women’s basketball program in Toronto. The program is Canada’s only member of the Under Armour Association youth basketball circuit. Through her experience coaching and leading programs, she has noticed that same gap that others have in the approach to coaching youth players. “Fundamentals and the IQ of the game is what we need to teach. I do not see enough of our great young talent being ready to go to the States and play NCAA,” Deus said.
Ontario still boasts the bulk of representation of players at the NCAA, NBA, and WNBA levels, but there are alumni from several different provinces now. Success breeds success. As players reach new heights, so do the coaches that helped them get there. “We (Vancouver) still have some work to do but I don’t think we’re as far off as some people might think,” Brempong said.That sentiment is echoed by many coaches and program leaders around Canada. While training expertise and systems have expanded, the optimism surrounding them has exploded. Basketball trainer Jamil Abiad is impressed by where his hometown of Ottawa has come since he was learning the game. “Its’s unreal. I wish I was growing up right now; let’s just say that. With what is available, there should be no reason you don’t go where you want to go if you put in the time and the work,” Abiad said.
Ottawa now boasts multiple full-time basketball trainers—like Abiad—offering their own programs as well as prep programs for both boys and girls. Following a brief pro career, Abiad began facilitating individual and group training programs in Ottawa and expanded his coaching from there. “We do have talent here. A lot of our guys do play D1, do play professionally. So, it’s just a matter of time,” Abiad said. “I think once we lay more infrastructure here in Ottawa, I think you will see a bigger increase in talent coming out.”
Last summer, he started Team Believe, a competitive basketball organization. Abiad started with U17 and U19 teams that will compete in the Canadian Youth Basketball League (CYBL), eventually working his way down to U10 and even younger to build an academy-like format. It was a system that he saw the impact of when he was playing and working overseas, where youth basketball academies are more common. He created Team Believe to offer another outlet for high-level players outside of prep programs, which can get expensive for players’ families according to Abiad.
Prep schools offer players the opportunity to learn from high-level coaches and trainers, play with and against top talent, and provide a proven platform to receive exposure from college programs. The Athlete Institute’s Orangeville Prep (OP) program has sent close to 40 graduates into Division 1 NCAA programs, including Jamal Murray, Iggy Brazdeikis, and Shemar Rathan-Mayes.
Rathan-Mayes is a first-year guard for Youngstown State University and was a four-year member of the OP program. He says that the environment there helped him develop a professional mindset; maturing both his game and himself personally. “Athlete Institute prepares not only myself but all of us for aspects of life, whether that is basketball, or a career path through the game, or just being respectable men in today’s world. Athlete Institute developed us to be great basketball players and great people,” Rathan-Mayes said.
Along with world-class facilities, what sets OP apart according to Rathan-Mayes is that it focuses solely on the development of the players and individuals involved in the program. He says that he considers it the only true prep program in Canada. “The biggest thing is we’re not regular high school kids. We’re really like semi-pros because we’re working for something from a really young age,” Rathan-Mayes said. “We’re forced to sacrifice a normal life.”
Naturally, many of OP’s players are from Toronto. The area’s track record of success can partly be attributed to its larger population—meaning a greater talent pool of players—but Toronto has put a special emphasis on developing elite basketball talent for a longer period of time.
It is taking time to develop a similar culture in other areas of Canada. In that regard, Montreal may be the closest. “A lot has to do with learning from people in front of you. It takes a while to build culture,” said Joey Mckitterick, director of the Brookwood Elite basketball program in Montreal.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have, say, ‘trailblazers’ that have made it easier and now we have kids believe. They see it. They know it’s possible. We didn’t have the luxury of having an NBA team, having that culture and exposure to kind of guide us. We had to forge our own way.”
Brookwood Elite has yielded top basketball players like Luguentz Dort (Oklahoma City Thunder), Khem Birch (Orlando Magic), and Olivier-Maxence Prosper (Clemson Tigers), all within the last few years. That success can be attributed to many different things, but Mckitterick says that it starts with more experienced coaches. They are learning how to help youth players develop long term and can provide the proof to them on how to get to the next level.
"Now coaches get it. Now they see the value of a Canadian basketball player."
Mckitterick played for Brookwood from age six to age 17. He has since helped develop Brookwood into Montreal’s premier AAU program. “I noticed that there was kind of a need for the players that we had to gain some exposure. So, I started what was called Brookwood Elite at that point, which ended up being an AAU team that was travelling to the States and going to tournaments.”
Mckitterick feels like Montreal basketball is still underappreciated, though. “Because of that, our kids play with an edge. I think they always feel the need to prove themselves,” McKitterick said. “There’s a Montreal toughness to most of our kids.”
Tasia McKenna describes East Coast basketball as “innovative and blue collar.” She is the technical director and performance coach at Basketball Nova Scotia, helping to promote and develop recreational and competitive basketball throughout the province. “Nova Scotia has always hit above our weight class, and when you see the success of NS athletes and coaches on a national, international, and professional stage, it really sets the tone for everyone else in the province wishing to pursue those dreams,” McKenna said.
For players in Eastern Canada, a smaller talent pool means increased travel to matchup with top competition according to Luc Stevenson, head coach of the University of King’s College men’s basketball team in Nova Scotia. Stevenson has been coaching at the post-secondary level for the past eight years. He also served on the coaching staffs for the U17 provincial teams in Alberta, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. Those experiences provided him a clear view of the next generation of basketball throughout Canada. “I got a good sense of where basketball is in this country and it’s at a really good place,” Stevenson said.
From Halifax to Vancouver, Division 1 coaches are no longer shy to turn their gaze towards Canada. Major college programs now regularly send coaches and scouts to various tournaments and showcases north of the border in order to recruit talent. “Now coaches get it. Now they see the value of a Canadian basketball player,” Russell said.
For Russell, a 16-year-old named Elijah Fisher represents the culmination of everything that has been developed. Fisher is a 6-foot-7 combo guard at Crestwood Prep and is the No. 3 ranked recruit in the Class of 2023. That includes players from both Canada and the U.S. “For all the time that I have been doing this in the past 30 years and seen the development and the progress and evolution of basketball in Canada, it’s like all that happened to where a guy like Elijah Fisher exists,” Russell said.
In the past, a player of his size at a young age would have been relegated to the big man game of the post, but the knowledge level of Canadian coaches has expanded to recognize that they needed to continue to develop his handle and shooting ability. With the resources and expertise around him now, Fisher has everything he needs to hone his game north of the border.
“I was a big proponent that kids need to go to prep school in the States if they want to get somewhere, because the exposure wasn’t there, the development wasn’t there, the opportunities weren’t there,” Russell said. “Everything has come to a level where it is possible for a kid like him to get all that he needs and deserves and wants out of Canada … without having to move.”
Seeing a kid like Fisher developed and supported entirely in Canada is not a finish line for Russell however. Rather, it signifies a new beginning for basketball in the country and what can be achieved by Canadian talent.
“Let’s get someone who is going to be thought of as a potential Hall of Famer,” Russell said. “Where you write home and say, ‘Mama I made it, Canada made it.' Especially for a game that was created by a Canadian, you want to see that come home. To me, that would be a coming home.”