When I heard the name Jaelin Llewellyn, a top-ranked point guard in the 2018 class and Princeton University signee, I had to look him up on YouTube. That name was all too familiar and triggered some intense memories. It took only a few highlights of Jaelin for me to have flashbacks of his father Cordell “Bobby” Llewellyn, a Toronto high school basketball star who terrorized every baller that emerged on the scene. He was one of the first Canadians to enter the powerful NCAA Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and he dominated Canada’s National Team in the early 90’s before a devastating hip injury ended his basketball career.
Bobby defined our era of basketball. How we were taught to play by our peers, dictated by the tough, no- blood-no-foul style being played in the NBA. It was a time of psychological and physical basketball warfare. The Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks were loaded with players like Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, Dan Majerle and of course Michael Jordan, who made basketball look as tough as the UFC. Even at the college level, U. Michigan’s Fab 5 led by Chris Weber, UNLV led by Larry Johnson and Duke U. led by Christian Laettner had a toughness that intimidated people through the television screen.
I always took great pride in being a fearless basketball player but there is a time I remember feeling a slight tremble in my body at the thought of squaring up against an opponent. And it wasn’t in 1991 when I suited up for Eastern Michigan U. and was matched up against U. Michigan’s Jalen Rose at Chrysler Arena or when I got the call to guard the NCAA’s most ferocious dunker, UNLV’s JR Rider at the Palace in Auburn Hills. No, it was a few years earlier in 1988 when I walked into a gym in Moncton, New Brunswick and saw Bobby Llewellyn warming up with his George Harvey C.I. Hawks.
It was December of 1988 and my team St. Mary’s Catholic H.S. in Calgary, Alberta was on a cross-country trip to the Hub City Coca-Cola Hoops Classic in Moncton, New Brunswick. Our team arrived at the gym, a game was getting ready to start and the crowd was in a frenzy. It was the George Harvey C.I. “Hawks” from Toronto, Ontario warming up to play against the Moncton High Purple Knights. At first glance, I was shocked to see in front of me a high school basketball team with all Black basketball players. I was coming from Calgary in the 80’s and it wasn’t nearly as multi-cultural as it is today.
The second thing was how athletic the team was. George Harvey had a high flyer by the name of Ron “Superman” Hamilton and the nickname fit the description. At 5’10 he looked like he flew on every dunk. I would finish second to “Superman” in the Hub City Dunk Contest but it really wasn’t much of a showdown. The other player that stood out to me in that warm-up was 6’3 Cordell “Bobby” Llewellyn. On the left side of the layup line, he turned the corner towards the baseline and took off. It was like he rocketed off the ground so quickly he ended up behind the backboard. To my amazement, he just ducked his head to avoid hitting it and reached under the backboard to still dunk the ball. It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen and for a moment a slight panic set in, as I thought “…my God, I may have to guard him this weekend!” Fate would have it the Hawks got knocked out early and we would go on to beat the hometown team in the finals, but my missed dual against the most fierce Gladiator I had ever seen on a basketball court would soon be revisited.
In the summer of 1989, I made a decision to leave Calgary and move to live with my mother in Malvern, a small neighborhood in Scarborough, Ontario. I immediately connected with a couple friends, Howard and Matthew Herdsman and they took me all over the Greater Toronto Area in search of pick up basketball games. One summer afternoon our search for a run took us to Trembe Court, a small half-court gym in the bottom of a 20 story apartment building in the old City of York. As I turned the corner to enter the gym there was a lot of noise as a few guys gathered at the foot of the stairwell. It seemed as if there was an intense competition taking place. I walked by and took a closer look…it was Bobby Llewellyn! He had a man on his back running up and down the stairs while a few others stood by hyping him to keep going. The lump of fear returned to my stomach. Would this be the day we clashed, at the bottom of a building, on this tiny court? Sure enough, fate would tease the inevitable because Bobby was only training that day and all opponents would live to see another day.
“Bobby Llewellyn was the only man I feared. Philip Dixon was the best scorer I faced but Bobby was as good defensively as he was on offense. You couldn’t out quick or out-bully him. He was a bonafide star! – Keith Vassell
Finally, high school started and the basketball season was quickly underway. I made the decision to join my friends from Montreal and travel 1.5 hours by bus and train every day from Malvern to York Memorial C.I. in the City of York. The mission was to compete against the toughest teams in the G.T.A.; Runnymede C.I., Weston Road C.I., Vaughan Road Academy and of course George Harvey C.I. with their mighty gladiator, Bobby Llewellyn. Basketball season began and that fateful day on our schedule arrived when we would play the Hawks. My York Memorial C.I. Mustangs got the victory on the scoreboard that day but the dual between Bobby and I was epic. From buzzer to buzzer it was non-stop grappling, high-speed chases and trash-talking. Together we quenched the crowd’s thirst for blood and gained a friendship based on mutual respect that has lasted to this day.
His Basketball Beginnings
Bobby Llewellyn was a true Gladiator! A product of his environment as taught by his journey to survive from St. Ann, Jamaica to the streets of Toronto. Bobby came to Canada at nine years old and moved to Vaughn Rd. and Oakwood Ave., before relocating again to Martingrove Ave. and Eglinton Rd. Both areas were well known for a high concentration of immigrants and a host of drug, gang and violent crime problems for a young boy to navigate while trying to pursue his dreams. But life would intensify the fight to succeed when in his freshman year of high school Bobby would now have to deal with his mother succumbing to her battle with cancer. Bobby was distraught and angry, and the anger would not go away easily. Despite receiving counseling, Bobby’s difficulty coping was spilling over into school and sports.
“In grade nine I won OFSAA for long and triple jump but I finished the year with only 3 credits. With my mother passing from cancer and me spiraling emotionally and getting into fights, the next year I made a personal decision to leave the track team. From there I told myself I would never fail a class again.” – Bobby Llewellyn
Leaving basketball would not be an option for Bobby. He started playing in grade eight, following in the footsteps of his legendary brother Rocky Llewellyn. Rocky had real street clout in the hood as a baller and it was a family legacy that Bobby could not disappoint. Both Llewellyn brothers were the definition of raw athleticism. Bobby was an OFSAA (Ontario Federation School Athletics Association) champion in track and field and his midget long jump record in 1986 stood for 20 years before being broken. Bobby was recruited by several local track clubs in high school. They wanted him to compete at in the decathlon but he refused to pole vault. Plus, the demand on his time would affect his grades and Bobby had much bigger goals that required him to stay focused on his education.
Bobby’s work ethic was crazy. He always played harder than everyone else and would train for every sport he played, and he played them all; ball hockey, badminton, track, volleyball, baseball, and basketball. Bobby started lifting weights and jump training at a young age. He knew he had to train to feed his insatiable desire to compete and become better than everyone in any arena. Finding a trainer was not necessary, Bobby had no need for a trainer, he simply trained himself.
For jumping, he would go to pits outside to work on his long and triple jump. Bobby would do plyometric exercise’s, run men up and down stairs on his back, jump benches and just stand still and jump. His morning bike ride from Eglinton Ave. would start at 7:00 am in the morning. He would bike ride from Martingrove Rd. and Eglinton Ave. then over to Oakwood C.I. to play ball, then ride over to Dufferin St. and St Clair Ave. to lift weights. Next the ride from Sherbourne St. to the Jewish Community Centre to train again before riding back home to Martingrove Rd. and Eglinton Ave.
“I started lifting at George Harvey C.I. because I was always with the older heads and I had to get bigger and jump higher to stay on the court. Trembe Court is where all the real ballers from Vaughn and Oakwood met and top players from all the hoods converged in Harvey, so I had to put in that work to keep up. Also, wherever there was ball, I was going. In hoods like Finch and Regent, the toughest guys all came together and you didn’t get to the main court unless you were big and raw.” – Bobby Llewellyn
Like many immigrant families, the first move to the country was just the first stop on a series of moves from home to home and neighborhood to neighborhood. Bobby’s school journey would be similar. He started at Rawlinson Public School then moved to Arlington Middle School. Eventually settling on George Harvey C.I. to start high school because his brother Rocky and his peers from his neighborhood had already made the decision to become “Hawks”. Shortly after arriving at George Harvey C.I., Bobby tried in vain to get kicked out and move to Oakwood C.I. because he felt his future academic goals would be better served.
Bobby’s quest to annihilate all competition led him to the prestigious Metro Index Camp in Pittsburgh, PA. Bobby attended the camp in grades 11 and 12 and walked away with MVP both years. There he not only turned heads but word would get to Max Goode the Head Coach of Main Central Institue a prep school in Pittsfield, ME and coach invited Bobby to take a chance and come play for him. That gamble paid great dividends for both Bobby and Coach Max. Main Central went 32-0 in that 1990,91 season. Bobby was the lone Canadian and he started every game for Coach Max alongside Mike Williams (U. Mass), George Butler (Georgetown) and many more high majors. Bobby was Coach Max’s lock-down defender and his assignment was always to eliminate each opponents top player. Bobby’s return for his efforts would be scholarship offers from some of the biggest schools and coaches in the United States, Georgetown, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, and Tulane, to name a few.
The College Decision
“It was a difficult decision not to sign with Cincinnati. Coach Huggins came hard at me but I said no and they went with Nick Van Exel (Los Angeles Lakers).” – Bobby Llewellyn
Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins was among the many relentless college recruiters that put full-court pressure on Bobby to sign but his final decision would be Wake Forest University.
“I saw them on TV in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) and I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to play with Rodney Rogers (Denver Nuggets), Anthony Tucker (Washington Bullets), Chris King (Vancouver Grizzlies), Randolph Childress (Detroit Pistons), Trelonnie Owens, Derek McQueen and Marc Blucas (went into acting – Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The whole starting 5 went on to play professionally.” – Bobby Llewellyn
As a Demon Deacon, Bobby was first off the bench with a bright future ahead. However, he could not escape his childhood demon and the knucklehead attitude would resurface, pushing him further and further down the bench. What glitters isn’t always gold and Bobby would end up transferring from Wake Forest in 1992/93 missing a chance to play with future NBA Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. Also leaving the ACC as one of the few Canadians to play in the most dominant conference of the time. Who can forget 2x NCAA Champions Duke University with Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Antonio Lang and Cherokee Parks.
“As things got more difficult at Wake, I became more of a knucklehead. The Coaches finally decided to recruit over me, so I knew it was time to leave. I just didn’t have the discipline yet and I brought the troubles from my past to Wake Forest”. – Bobby Llewellyn
Bobby took charge of his next move and began checking around for schools that would be a good fit for him. He remembered seeing a game between Rhode Island U. and Providence College and a fist fight broke out. It wasn’t much to go on but Rhode Island showed the kind of grit Bobby was used to, so he contacted them and they said to come. For a confirmation, Bobby reached out to his old prep coach Max Goode and Coach Max agreed the Atlantic 10 Conference was a better move than the ACC.
“Coach Max originally didn’t want me to go to Wake Forest because my skill set was still too raw for the ACC. But Coach Max knew he had to let me sink or swim”. – Bobby Llewellyn
As a transfer to Rhode Island in 1992/93, Bobby had to sit out the first year. Bobby instinctively went back to what he knew best, and that was training. It wasn’t too long before he got banned from the weight room for getting too big. He was starting to look like a bodybuilder instead of a basketball player. The following year 1993/94 as a sophomore, Bobby would start at the point guard position. He was joined in the backcourt by Cuttino Mobley (Houston Rockets) and other great players like Tyson Wheeler (Toronto Raptors). Bobby got off to a tremendous start in his junior year averaging 20 points and 10 assists, before a hip injury from a freak accident during a summer league game took its toll.
Summer ball in Toronto was a volatile, ego and pride filled battleground. Top players at all levels formed neighborhood teams with very strict boundaries. Bobby usually ran with the “Dogs”, a downtown Toronto team made up of Vaughan Rd. and Eastern Commerce H.S. players like Simeon Mars and Rocky Llewellyn. However, one rare occasion, Bobby got a call from Hugh Riley who ran and coached the West Humber area team. Hugh asked Bobby to join West Humber for the summer’s hottest basketball tournament at Humber College. He accepted and prepared himself to go to war. During a play when Bobby was attacking the basket, an opposing player stepped on his foot as he was getting ready to take flight. The force of his take-off combined with the pressure of his foot being held down jolted his hip and it came out of the joint. There was no continuing for Bobby, summer ball ended at that moment.
Bobby had been injured before but something felt different about this one. This time self-training was not going to get him the results he needed. Bobby rehabbed until the start of his junior season but he finished the year practically on one leg. After the season the injury kept getting worse. He had no strength in his leg on the right side. The writing was on the wall and Bobby would sit out his senior season and return to Canada to have hip surgery in London, Ontario and start the recovery process. It still wasn’t working. His strength and the explosiveness that separated him from mortal men would not return. He contacted Rhode Island Head coach Al Skinner to give him the news. Coach Al initially wanted to pull his scholarship but with 3 credits remaining they eventually came to an agreement and Bobby finished his last classes from home.
For many, Bobby was going to be the one that made it to the National Basketball Association and show the world what we had going on in Toronto. He was the type of Gladiator that made you feel proud to have been an opponent he left bloodied and bruised along the way. The name Cordell “Bobby” Llewellyn will probably never appear in Canada Basketball’s Hall of Fame or be called in the mainstream of today’s Canadian basketball community. However, for those of us who lived in his time, Bobby’s legacy still ignites the thrill of battling in gym’s across the Greater Toronto Area in hopes of one day reaching the professional ranks.