The recent tide of hyped young local basketball phenoms like Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, and Andrew Wiggins is no fluke. Top-notch club teams and a hoops-crazed culture have made the GTA a go-to spot for the NBA’s future stars.
You can hear the sound before you’re even in the room—the syncopated squeak of dozens of high-end basketball shoes skidding hard against the glossy gymnasium floor.
“Talk to each other!” an assistant coach yells, and the kids on defence start talking, calling out screens and yelling “ball, ball, ball, ball!” as the offence skips passes across the court.
It’s a warm Sunday afternoon in October and the kids from CIA Bounce are at St. Roch Catholic Secondary School in Brampton, scrimmaging across three adjacent courts under the supervision of nearly a dozen coaches. Head coach Tony McIntyre watches the ’98s age group, occasionally stepping in to make a defensive adjustment.
McIntyre has a pale complexion, a clean-shaven head, and the compact, stocky body of the high-school hockey player he once was. During practice, the kids in the gym—most of them gangly and tall, almost all of them black—come by to pay their respects. “What up, boy, you good?” he says to each of them. On the court, the kids look so poised, so huge and adult, it’s easy to forget they’re just awkward 15- and 16-year-olds. They slyly make eye contact with McIntyre, giving him a silent chin-nod. He slaps them on the butt, nods at them with seriousness. “You good?” he says. “How’s school?”
CIA Bounce is the top club basketball program in the Greater Toronto Area, the best in Canada, and one of the most competitive in North America. McIntyre and his team of coaches—all volunteers, some of them former Team Canada members—work with 180 kids, from kindergarteners to high-school seniors. In the summer, McIntyre takes teams in high-school age brackets to the U.S. to play against top teams in American Athletic Union basketball tournaments. His teams usually win. Nike sponsors 40 AAU programs—39 in the U.S. and CIA Bounce. When McIntyre holds his annual Caribana Classic tournament in July, upwards of 80 U.S. college coaches make the trek to suburban Toronto, eager to spot the future of basketball.
On the court, Jamal Murray—a long, lean kid and one of the best 16-year-old ballers in North America—plays with a lackadaisical confidence, draining a three and leaving his arm outstretched, wrist cocked, as the ball finds its way through the mesh. The kids here aren’t just good local players, they’re some of the top prospects on the continent—the subject of fevered conversation in the scouting rooms of Division 1 American colleges, their positions ranked and re-ranked by fans and analysts who have recently discovered, to everyone’s surprise, that the GTA is one of the most fertile incubators of basketball talent in the world.
If you weren’t paying attention, the players seemed to emerge out of nowhere. In 2011, Brampton-raised Tristan Thompson was taken fourth overall in the NBA draft, with Pickering’s Cory Joseph coming in at 29th—the first time ever that two Canadians were selected in the first round. Last year, CIA Bounce’s Anthony Bennett, who grew up at Jane and Finch, was drafted first overall, and Toronto-born Kelly Olynyk chosen 13th. The most hyped player out of the GTA hasn’t even played a minute of college ball. Thornhill’s Andrew Wiggins, another CIA Bounce alumni, is on the cover of this month’s Sports Illustrated—a once-in-a-generation prodigy who has NBA general managers scrambling to tank their seasons for a better chance at drafting him.
To have so much talent emerge from the same region is rare. For that region to be the frozen hinterland of southern Ontario—miles from the blacktop courts of southern California or the street ball games of New York—is unheard of. It’s especially surprising when you consider how far we’ve come. Back in the early ’90s, opportunities to feed basketball fandom were rare. In this hockey-mad city, you could catch highlights on Sports Desk, read about the Bulls in the back of the sports section, and occasionally catch a game on TV. If you were a gifted young player, the situation was worse. The chances of U.S. college coaches finding you playing in Scarborough were as slim as a Hollywood agent discovering a young thespian acting her heart out in rural Manitoba.
There were exceptions, of course. A decade ago, U.S. coaches salivated over Toronto’s Denham Brown, and before that there was Jamaal Magloire, the freakishly athletic kid from Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, one of the city’s high school basketball powerhouses. But what was once a fluke has now become a systematic development process. “We’ve always had a lot of players that were good in Toronto,” says McIntyre. “Now they’re everywhere. Now people’s eyes are open.”
In 2006, McIntyre, who works full-time as an operations manager for a pharmaceutical company, merged his team, the Brampton Bounce, with another local program, Christians in Action, run by Mike George out of the back of a church at Malton and Finch. When CIA Bounce first started playing in the U.S., no one took them seriously. McIntyre and George had to plead to get their teams into big American tournaments.
George, who left the organization to become Anthony Bennett’s agent, remembers the team’s first high-level tournament in 2007 at the King James Classic in Akron. Organizers put the GTA kids in gyms miles away from the action, where no college coaches were watching. But the Canadians played their way through the field of elite American teams, reeling off win after win. In the semi-finals, they played in the vast arena of the University of Akron in front of the basketball world. CIA Bounce lost that game, but made their mark. “People were saying, ‘Shoot, who are these dudes?’” says George. “It was definitely our coming-out party.”
There’s no single reason GTA basketball has exploded. The emergence of strong club teams has certainly helped. As well, today’s teenage players are the first generation to grow up watching a pro basketball team in their hometown, with Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady to emulate. A city-wide basketball culture that began to form years ago may finally be bearing fruit.
More than that, though, the growth of the sport represents a changing city, as an influx of newcomers have arrived from basketball-friendly locales—immigrants from west Africa and the Caribbean, and basketball-crazy Filipino and Chinese kids who create a buzz around the game. Since 2008, the NBA has doubled its revenues in Canada, with more and more kids watching games and buying jerseys. The women’s game has also erupted; the GTA consistently churns out top-flight talent to stock the national team, one of the best in the world. Across the country, basketball has overtaken hockey as the most popular team sport for teenagers.
You only need to compare the crowd at a Leafs game to that at a Raptors game to get a sense of which sport better represents 21st-century, multicultural Toronto. With the suburbs growing faster than the core and visible minorities becoming the city’s majority, the rise of basketball marks a significant shift. In a few years, the GTA’s most famous global representatives will be high-flying second-generation immigrant kids from the suburbs. Basketball was invented by an Ontario-born coach in 1891, but only now, 120 years later, does it feel like it’s really found a home here.
Toronto’s emergence as a basketball power has brought opportunities to plenty of talented kids who might otherwise have gone unnoticed. But the development of a professionalized basketball culture for teenagers comes with its own complications and concerns. More than other sports, this is a youth game. The most skilled play one year of college and then move straight to the NBA. By the time boys are in high school, they’re already highly scouted, with shoe companies scrambling to get their brand of sneakers onto the feet of the next brilliant 14-year-old. In Play Their Hearts Out, George Dohrmann’s fascinating and heartbreaking 2010 book about American youth basketball, he reports on how 11-year-olds are scrutinized for signs of talent. How tall are his parents? Are his calves lean—a promising sign—or thick and muscular, an indication that he’s simply hit puberty early and his current advantage will be erased as his peers catch up?
In the U.S., the haphazard, unregulated AAU system can leave kids open to exploitation. Mentors, who wield enormous influence, have been found steering talented players towards specific agents or college teams in exchange for cash. And the money is big. Last month, there were rumours that Adidas was readying a $180-million endorsement deal for Andrew Wiggins. With such perverse economic incentives, even the most well-intentioned coach can begin to lose track of exactly where his star player’s best interests begin to diverge from his own.
Consider the Toronto-area AAU club team Grassroots Canada, run by Ro Russell, one of the fathers of GTA basketball. Throughout the 2000s, Russell’s organization was the leader in youth basketball, breaking new ground and developing players like Tristan Thompson and Corey Joseph. While effective, Russell’s practice of turning raw local talent into professional stars via entrance into U.S. high schools and colleges had always been controversial, with some people uncomfortable with a fixer wielding so much power over teenagers.
In 2012, an episode of CBC TV’s The Fifth Estate revealed that the U.S. prep school Russell’s players’ parents thought they were writing cheques to was in fact a poorly run academy owned by Russell himself. Some of his kids had their scholarships rescinded after colleges found that the online courses they were taking made them academically ineligible. Russell is still revered by many in Toronto, but he’s also a cautionary tale: with big opportunities come serious risks.
Cordell Llewellyn, a former guard for the Canadian national team, knows the dangers of youth basketball. “I’ve gone through it, so I know it’s corrupt. I know the politics,” he says. His son Jaelin is a promising 14-year-old point guard with CIA Bounce, a smart player and a quiet kid who constantly has a ball in his hands, spinning it on his finger, gripping the leather with his big right hand. By the time Jaelin was 13, local basketball websites were already hyping his talent and projecting a future college career for him, an absurd, unreasonable amount of pressure for a middle-schooler.
Llewellyn says that, compared to his day, the training and exposure his son is getting is extraordinary. He has faith in CIA Bounce, but he’s wary of the youth system, in which self-interested adults promise talented kids the moon, then drop them as soon as it’s no longer convenient. “Everybody’s going to tell you that you’re the greatest thing in the world,” he says. “[But] as soon as you have an injury or anything like that, you’re not on board.”
On a Thursday in October, the gymnasium of Bill Crothers Secondary School in Unionville is packed with students dressed in school red, slapping together inflatable thundersticks while dance music thumps from the PA. It’s the first exhibition game of the season, but the match between Bill Crothers and the post-grad team from the Athlete’s Institute in Orangeville—two high schools for elite student-athletes—has the atmosphere of a playoff game.
Along the baseline, Tariq Sbiet and his brother Elias watch the game in matching T-shirts that read “NPH,” carefully taking notes. The brothers run the basketball website and scouting service North Pole Hoops, part of the growing infrastructure that has emerged to meet the new demand for information about local high-school talent. Sbiet has his eye on a number of players, including the point guard for Athletic Institute, a 17-year-old named Juwan Miller who plays for CIA Bounce.
In the third quarter, Miller holds the ball at the top of the key. He takes a dribble or two with his left hand, switches hands, and takes a jab step to the right. His defender leans ever so slightly in that direction, and that’s all it takes: Miller flicks the ball back to his left in one swooping motion and then he’s gone, darting straight through the gap in the defence towards the basket. It’s a thing of beauty, the kind of killer crossover that local kids have been practicing in playgrounds for decades, before CIA Bounce, before the Raptors, before a Toronto kid making it to the NBA felt like a real possibility. Miller gets to the hoop, draws in the defense, then chucks a pass to a wide-open teammate who drains a three, while Miller points at him and howls.
On the sideline, the young point guard’s dad cheers him on, wearing a Jamaican flag T-shirt and matching shoes. His kid is being heavily recruited, he tells Sbiet. Big U.S. colleges have taken notice. There are options. “It’s no longer the days where the kids are playing hard, they’re dominating their Ontario basketball team, and they’re being ignored,” says Sbiet. “If you’re good enough, the right people will find you.”
Of course, the truth is that for every Tristan Thompson or Anthony Bennett, there are a hundred players who were once touted as top prospects and got left behind: kids who got injured or never hit that anticipated growth spurt, players who had their grades inflated or got caught accepting money from some self-interested benefactor. Soon, Toronto’s NBA players will be numerous enough to fill a team’s starting five, but the number of former phenoms who were the Next Big Thing until suddenly, one day, they weren’t, could fill an arena.
For the moment, though, as Miller celebrates in front of a raucous crowd, that doesn’t matter. The route to basketball stardom is discernible, no matter how difficult or uncertain. The players can see it. It’s right there, as a clear as the path to the basket.