- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
One night in Canada, former Toronto Raptors star Damon Stoudamire bumped into Drake, a Canadian and one of the world's most famous rappers. The two talked basketball, not hip-hop, as the rap star relayed his admiration for the man he idolized as a boy in Toronto.
"It's almost like he was paying homage. He said, 'You're the reason people like us started watching basketball. You were Toronto's guy,'" recalled Stoudamire, now an assistant coach at Memphis. "It took me back, and it was humbling."
The conversation with the multiplatinum-selling artist helped Stoudamire embrace and understand his significance in Canada's thriving basketball culture.
For decades, Canada has contributed to American music (Celine Dion, Justin Bieber, Avril Lavigne), movies (Jim Carrey, Ryan Gosling, William Shatner) and other sectors of entertainment. Hockey represented the bulk of the nation's athletic footprint in the United States. But a flock of Canadian basketball players seeking more exposure have crossed the border in recent years and established a pipeline coveted by American coaches at all levels.
The arrival of the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies in the mid-'90s turned a generation of Canadian youngsters into NBA hopefuls. Steve Nash's evolution from unknown prospect to Santa Clara standout to two-time NBA MVP established the blueprint. His success encouraged Canadians to invest more money and resources at the grassroots level. Now, a country full of hockey players produces basketball standouts that take their talents to American prep schools, colleges and NBA franchises every year.
Five Canadians -- Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Andrew Nicholson, Robert Sacre and Kris Joseph -- were selected in the last two NBA drafts. Andrew Wiggins is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2014 recruiting class.
Those connected to the Canadian hoops scene suggest that the number of basketball prodigies birthed by the country will multiply in the coming years. Many will hail from the minority communities that arrived in the 1970s through more relaxed immigration policies.
"A number of components have come together to create this wave of talent we're in the process of unleashing," said Wayne Parrish, CEO of Canada Basketball, the nation's official basketball governing body.
Immigrants come, children choose basketball
The soldiers arrived at dusk and yelled for Texas guard Myck Kabongo's father. Toure Kabongo told his wife, Nene, and children to hide under a bed.
Nene, however, jumped from a window in the laundry room and alerted a neighbor, an ex-bodyguard with a gun collection. The man grabbed his gun and fired two shots into the air. The soldiers fled.
Violent and intimidating military displays were common enough in the tumultuous Democratic Republic of the Congo that the Kabongo family decided to leave that day.
Toure journeyed to the United States alone, but during a trip to Canada, his wife's brother persuaded him to take advantage of that country's immigration policies. So he moved to Canada after being granted entry as a political refugee.
Five years after he left Africa, Toure brought his family to the nation.
"My husband wanted us to do better, have a good life," said Nene.
In 1976, Canada eliminated a ban on non-European immigrants. Its new policies catered to three groups: the educated, families seeking reunification and refugees. Since that time, the country has become one of the most diverse nations in the world.
From 1996 through 2006, Canada granted 2 million-plus immigrants and refugees -- most from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean -- permanent resident status, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Many settled into Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto -- home to more than one-third of the country's population -- and moved to urban communities as they sought fresh starts. Their children chose hoops over hockey sticks.
Basketball was identified as the fastest-growing sport in Canada in a 2006 study conducted by Solutions Research Group. The same study listed basketball as the No. 1 sport among "fast-growing visible minority groups."
"In the same way that basketball became an outlet for inner city kids in American cities, it sort of worked out that way for minority kids from fairly recent immigrant communities in Canadian cities," said Christopher Moore, a Canadian historian.
Thompson's parents are Jamaican. Wiggins' mother was born in Barbados. Marquette standout Junior Cadougan's mother was born in Trinidad and Tobago but grew up in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. All three are Toronto natives.
"Every area really had community centers, and people would just always come after school to play. We had night runs where you could go back and play at night," said Myck Kabongo, adding that basketball helped him stay safe and focused while living in one of Toronto's roughest areas. "The gyms were always open for us to play in. You fall in love with it playing every day, really."
The sport's swelling fan base forced the NBA to take notice. In 1995, the league arrived and changed the way an entire country viewed the game.
NBA comes to Canada
In 2006, Dr. James Naismith's granddaughter uncovered proof -- in the form of notes and letters -- that basketball's inventor had been inspired by a game he played as a boy in Almonte, Ontario, Canada, called duck on a rock.
Yes, Naismith created the sport in 1891 at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Mass. But Canadians emphasize his roots.
"We think of basketball, and this is true of everyone in this country we believe basketball was invented by a Canadian and take huge pride in that," said Parrish. "With Dr. Naismith, there's just a tremendous kind of resonance and connection to him."
More than a century later, the NBA expanded with the Grizzlies and Raptors. Both teams debuted in the 1995-96 season.
The country offered its immediate support.
"Obviously, we didn't have the best record, but those people, they really embraced us," Stoudamire said.
Before the two franchises existed, Canadian children followed NBA squads through American TV.
Cadougan loved March Madness. He was also a Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan fan like millions of American kids. But when the Raptors came to town, the Toronto native changed his allegiance.
When you look at those guys, you're like, 'If I work hard, one day I can be on that stage.' Especially having a pro team in your city, it opens up opportunities. You get to see them every day. You get to see them walk down the street. They were definitely big for my growth because seeing is believing.
--Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson
"Before the Raptors came, I was obviously a Michael Jordan fan, a Scottie Pippen fan, a Bulls fan," Cadougan said. "When the Raptors arrived, I switched to the Raptors. I think the Raptors beat them like once or twice when Jordan played for the Bulls. It was real exciting. That's when I become a Raptors fan."
The NBA's presence led to a basketball renaissance in Canada. It also fueled the fantasies of Canadian children, who began to ponder NBA careers.
"When you look at those guys, you're like, 'If I work hard, one day I can be on that stage.' Especially having a pro team in your city, it opens up opportunities," said Thompson, a forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers. "You get to see them every day. You get to see them walk down the street. They were definitely big for my growth because seeing is believing."
Former Gonzaga forward Sacre, who moved to Vancouver, his mother's hometown, when he was 8, said he is still bitter that the Grizzlies moved to Memphis in 2001.
"That's really what makes me mad about the NBA. There's no team in Vancouver anymore," said Sacre, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2012 NBA draft last month. "Obviously, I feel like this city, the city of Vancouver, has something for the NBA. A team needs to be there."
As the game seized a nation accustomed to developing some of the world's best hockey players, Canadian basketball officials began to invest more into the sport. With the right infrastructure, they figured, the country would rise.
They were right.
Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos tried hockey.
An uncle played in the NHL. The Washington Capitals drafted his cousin.
But the ice didn't offer the same thrills he experienced on the hardwood. And as Nash developed into a superstar in the NBA, Pangos -- and children throughout Canada -- chose alternative paths.
Regardless of age, race or location, Nash was the model for young Canadian basketball players.
"It was always Steve Nash, being Canadian and seeing that it's possible. And he's about the same height as me," Pangos said. "Steve Nash is probably the biggest [inspiration]."
Pangos has basketball blood. His father, Bill, is the coach of the women's team at York University in Toronto, where he coaches Pangos' sister, Kayla. His mother, Patty, played college basketball in Canada.
In his youth, he played for various national and provincial squads but couldn't consistently find high-level competition in Ontario. He often trained alone or with his father.
Canadian visionaries have tried to eliminate those obstacles by reconfiguring the entire system so that the country's best players have access to the resources they need.
Although the Canadian high school landscape offers limited competition for the country's elite, a burgeoning club system gives children who want to play against more talented athletes an option. Wayne Dawkins, founder of Phase1 Basketball, created a national prep league for the top club teams three years ago.
Nash was recently named general manager of the country's senior men's team, a move praised throughout Canada's basketball community. Many believe it will lead to greater interest and more structure as the national icon leads the effort.
Canadian national team officials are also identifying the country's top players earlier. Steve Nash Youth Basketball -- the nation's version of Pop Warner football, Parrish said -- has affected more than 25,000 Canadian children ages 5-13.
"You've got this steady stream of athletes coming through," Parrish said. "We have a lot of very strong athletes. They're getting very early training, primarily."
AAU coaches helped by creating all-star squads that brought the top players, many from the inner city, together for the first time. Ro Russell, founder of Toronto-based Grassroots Canada, coached Thompson, Joseph and a multitude of players from the Toronto area that eventually left the country to play at prep schools and colleges in the United States.
"There's always been the raw talent, and it just needed to be harnessed, exposed and developed," Russell said.
Canada has reaped rewards from the collective -- and recently unified -- effort to develop Canadian prospects. The nation's junior boys squads are ranked fifth in FIBA's rankings. Wiggins is one of four top-40 recruits in the 2013 and 2014 classes, according to ESPN.com's ratings.
It's the latter group that has warranted the most interest from American coaches.
"It certainly is a place that college coaches will continue to go and recruit. And we certainly are among them," said UNLV coach Dave Rice, who will coach two Canadians next season, Khem Birch and Anthony Bennett.
The fight for talent
Rob Fulford scouted Wiggins when the prospect was just 15.
He traveled to Canada to see him play. During one hectic stretch, he watched 24 consecutive games Wiggins played with his AAU squad, CIA Bounce.
Fulford refused to allow his competitors, some with deeper pockets, put in more time for Wiggins' services. He talked to his family members. He friended Wiggins on Facebook.
And then, he made his pitch.
"We developed a relationship with him, developed a relationship with his people," said Fulford, head coach at Huntington Prep in West Virginia, where Wiggins competes. "We recruited him harder than anyone else."
The 6-foot-7 Wiggins is the product of an uncanny gene pool. His father, Mitchell Wiggins, played professionally in the NBA and Europe. His mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins, was an All-American sprinter at Florida State who won two Olympic silver medals for Canada in the 1984 Olympics.
America's top universities have tracked the gifted and versatile athlete for years, but that's rarely the first recruitment for Canada's best players. Prep schools aim to snatch the country's top players years before they start thinking about college.
"It's been interesting. The explosion of kids that have wanted to go to prep school is as high as it's ever been," said Todd Simon, assistant at Findlay Prep, a destination for some of Canada's top players in recent years.
Prep schools lure athletes to the United States with promises of a top-notch education, elite competition and exposure. The young men leave Canada as teenagers to pursue their dreams in America via student visas.
Faced with a dilemma that affects many Canadian prospects, Cadougan wanted better coaching and competition in America. He pestered his mother, Suzette, for months before she agreed to send him to Christian Life Center Academy in Humble, Texas. She didn't believe her 15-year-old son had the tools to take care of himself.
"I said, 'Wait a minute, Junior. You're too young. You're only 15. You can't do anything for yourself,'" Suzette Cadougan recalled. "He said, 'Mom, I will learn.'"
Each year, Canadian parents must make choices that can lead to better opportunities for their talented children. But those difficult deliberations always involve the merits and consequences of sending a child thousands of miles from home.
"You want to go where it's best for you, what's going to help you reach the pinnacle of your career," said Marita Payne-Wiggins. "You can't stay in Canada and not have the competition you need."
Parents of top Canadian prospects often talk prep school before they discuss college. But the two are not separate. The influx of Canadian players at the NCAA level is due to the increased opportunities players have to compete in front of American college coaches.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who has signed multiple Canadians during his tenure, said he doesn't view the Canadian athletes he recruits as true international players.
"They're fully immersed in our system down here," Few said. "They're going to high schools. They're going to prep schools down here. They're playing in AAU tournaments. Fall, winter, spring, summer."
Finding a working model
Dawkins, who runs the nation's version of the McDonald's All-American Game, the All Canada Classic, hates to see the best players leave the country.
But with few sponsorships, no TV and a shoestring budget of $30,000, every year is a financial challenge.
The limited investment, Dawkins said, is not something that American tournaments of a similar magnitude experience. He said he can't attract more sponsors for his showcase because so many top players compete across the border.
"If our talent is not here, why would corporations invest?" Dawkins said.
The Canadian system can't compete with the billions of dollars Americans invest in basketball at the grassroots and amateur levels. High school coaches in Canada aren't even paid for their work. Canadian universities don't offer full scholarships to athletes.
That, however, could change through a multimillion-dollar investment from the Canadian government, which provides most of the funding for college athletics in Canada.
Leo MacPherson, president of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (Canada's NCAA), wants to interrupt the country's basketball brain drain by launching a BCS-like network of schools that would provide full rides to top Canadian basketball players. The discussions involve a dozen or so programs that may consider breaking away from the CIS (45 schools within the system sponsor a basketball team) and attempting to retain more Canadian competitors by putting more money into their respective basketball programs.
"Clearly, there's an appetite for Canadian basketball and Canadian institutions to keep our best and brightest at home," MacPherson said. "When we lose these young men and women, we're losing future leaders if we can't keep them."
As Canada cultivates more talented recruits, however, the battle will persist. American coaches will continue to search the nation's basketball crop for players, and Canadian basketball supporters, such as Dawkins and MacPherson, will do their best to keep them in the country.
All agree, however, that more elite Canadian prospects will emerge in the coming years.
"That future is looking bright," said Stoudamire.
Well, that all depends on what side of the border you live on.
6dAndy Katz and David Purdum
5dESPN The Magazine