If you want to shoot hoops in this country, your options are limited. In the summer, you might luck out and find a nice blacktop in one of your city’s outdoor parks, where the neighborhood’s basketball fans like to play. In the winter months, it can be next to impossible—and that was before COVID changed everything. With schools closed to all but students, and places like the YMCA no longer an option, there just aren’t enough places these days for the aspiring hooper to work on his or her game.
Enter the Playground. With 28 full-sized FIBA basketball courts, 14 practice courts, and five state-of-the-art exercise centers spread across six facilities throughout the Greater Toronto Area, the Playground has officially become the largest privately owned basketball complex in the world—and for Canadian basketball fans, nothing short of a godsend. Opened by Jamie Coote and Sam Ibrahim last summer, it’s expanding so rapidly that it’s set to become a national phenomenon, with no plans to slow down any time soon.
As the Playground continues its expansion, we caught up with co-founder Jamie Coote to talk about the facilities and what we can expect from the Playground in the future.
What was the genesis of this project?
In Canada, and especially Toronto, as a hooper, it’s always hard to find gym time. Me and my co-founder Sam, we’ve coached a youth organization, and we always tried to find somewhere for us to practice, and it was always the hardest thing in the world, just to get gym time. In schools you have to share with volleyball and dance and pingpong. Basketball isn’t just secondary. It’s bottom of the totem pole for gyms. So we agreed that if we ever had the opportunity to build a facility, that’s what we’re going to do.
We moved to our new office building, and just downstairs, there was a space—a squash court that we converted into a basketball training facility, with three nets on one and one in the other. It went crazy. All the trainers and teams wanted to be there all the time. From there we found a warehouse space, knocked all the walls down, and from there it’s just been amazing.
When did the first Playground facility official open to the public?
We opened Playground Scarborough in 2020 of June. July 13th was our first booking. It’s crazy—we opened in the middle of a pandemic.
Let’s say I want to shoot some hoops at the Playground. How would I go about setting it up?
In a world where COVID doesn’t exist, it’s very simple. You’d send us an email or give us a phone call. We accept by pre-booking. You sign a couple of waivers and you’re good to go. Currently there’s a bit more in how it’s arranged. We’re working on streamlining the booking process and saving the conversations and talking. But again, because of how it started with these different organizations and how getting a court in a school now is impossible, it’s been a lot of that. Kids in camps. Organizations getting in there.
What’s the main demographic so far? Are you seeing mostly professionals, or can you go to the Playground as an amateur? That’s been the great thing. We’ve had NBA players come through. We’ve also had beginners come through. The Playground is basically created to give people the professional feel even if they’re not professional. You are able to go there and use a shooting gun, which maybe you’d normally see Steph Curry use, and anyone can use it—from someone who has never touched a basketball to the old guy who’s blown out both of his knees. It’s from the best of the best to the beginners, and they all get the superstar experience.
“We’re going to touch all parts of Canada, not just the GTA. We want to be in all kinds of communities, we want to be everywhere.”
Could I show up and just start playing with some others there?
In COVID, of course not, but eventually we want to get to the point where we can do drop-in games and things of that nature. We want after-school programs. We want kids to be able to fall in love with the game the way that we did so young. Grow that in the community. It doesn’t have to only be about big teams or organizations. It’s about getting people inside and giving them that feeling of community.
How does playing at the Playground differ from shooting hoops outside?
Obviously with the outdoor courts, when we’re talking about the actual feel of play, those aren’t tearaway rims, or they’re double rims, or they don’t have a mesh. For me, personally, I was an outdoor hooper first and I enjoy playing on the blacktop and seeing friends. But the goal for the Playground from the beginning was to bring that feeling out of outdoor hoops indoors. That’s where the Playground came from. Bring that indoors and do it at a higher level. We wanted to make sure you feel the same way at 3 p.m. inside as you would at 3 p.m. outside.
You’ve mentioned the professional feeling. What does that actually look like inside the gym?
Indoors, usually, there’s certain feelings you get when you walk into a top gym. The feeling when the lights turn on, when the music plays, that’s what people really look for when they walk into a facility. You want to walk in and feel like Steph Curry walking in the tunnel, bag on your shoulder, your shoes in your hand. This is my moment, I’m about to jump in the game. So that was the goal: bright lights, loud music. Bring that feeling for everyone walking in. It doesn’t matter who’s on the court—I’m getting 20.
I was reading Kevin Garnett’s new autobiography recently, and he talks about how his love of playing outdoors on the blacktop was really bad for his knees. Is that something that drives people inside?
I remember that story too. Same with Dwyane Wade. He had to have the cartilage removed from both knees. A lot of the younger generation was told about the wear and tear on your knees, from just jumping up and down on the cement. It can be bad for you. So you’re saving your cartilage in your knees for when you get older too by playing inside a facility like this. And the kids know that. They don’t want to play outside anymore. It’s actually hard to get kids to play outside now.
You’ve recently opened a new facility that makes you the largest privately owned indoor basketball center in the world. Tell me about the expansion plans.
Let’s say by August, we’ll be at eight facilities, about 28 courts, all under one umbrella. We’re talking about 60 hoops, not counting the practice courts or the training hoops. There’s so much need. With the Raptors winning the playoffs and the championship, it brought basketball to another place in Canada. We all want to get kids to play. Familiarize themselves with the game. They’re not just learning to play basketball here—they’re learning to be young men, young women. They’re learning to be respectful. There are so many things you learn through sport. We want to be spearheading that. It’s not just about finding the next Andrew Wiggins. It’s about enjoying the game and being better people.
So where do you go from here?
We’re going to keep going. We’re going to keep growing. We’re not stopping here. We’re going to touch all parts of Canada, not just the GTA. We want to be in all kinds of communities, we want to be everywhere.