I was pleasantly surprised when doing research for a previous blog, I found the full 1991 Eastern Michigan vs U. Michigan game on Youtube. I was a freshman when my Eagle teammates and I had our “David vs Goliath” moment, going up against the Wolverines Fab 5 freshmen; Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. Four of the five were McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA Stars. At the time they were considered the greatest recruiting class ever. Immediately the dreams I had as a Canadian kid trying to make the journey to playing basketball in the NCAA came flooding back.
Canadian kids have been dreaming of playing in the NCAA for decades. It has been the only proven stepping stone to the NBA for a Canuck. The lone CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sports) player ever drafted to the NBA was 6’9″ William Njoku, a forward out of St. Mary’s in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Will never played a game in the NBA but was selected by the Indiana Pacers with the 41st pick of the 1994 NBA Draft. The path to a coveted NCAA team is much clearer for today’s generation of budding Canadian basketball stars. They now have access to hundreds of AAU (American Athletics Union) Teams that travel to the U.S. on the AAU Circuit. They play in tournament after tournament showcasing their skills in front of hundreds of NCAA Coaches. Next, they can make highlight tapes of every good play they make and put it on YouTube to distribute to coaches at the click of a finger. In addition, they now have access to a plethora of skills trainers and multiple social media platforms to share highlights and grow a huge following. If you’re a talented Canadian kid with a great work ethic the road to the NCAA has never been more clear.
Things were very different for a young Canadian baller trying to get to the NCAA in the 80’s and early 90’s. This was just before things began to erupt into what we see today. The path to the NCAA dream did not come with the proven roadmap that exists now and hoards of successful basketball peers to guide the way. Word of mouth, news articles, poorly taped together VHS tapes and the rumors of incredible highlights were the only resources available to attract NCAA coaches across the border.
I remember 30 years ago seeing the Michigan Wolverines play for the first time on television. I was ecstatic watching them and immediately imagined myself at Crisler Arena in the backcourt just like my two favorite Wolverine guards Gary “the General” Grant (Seattle Supersonics) and my fellow Jamaican, Rumeal Robinson (Atlanta Hawks). Their team was loaded with future NBA players Glen Rice (Miami Heat), Sean Higgins (San Antonio Spurs), Loy Vought (L.A. Clippers) and Terry Mills (Milwaukee Bucks). Watching their journey to defeating Seton Hall in the 1988/89 NCAA Finals made the dream of playing in the NCAA even more intense.
I didn’t know how I was going to get to U. Michigan from Calgary, Alberta but the passion in me kept the dream from fading and I was willing to do anything to make it possible. To begin that meant leaving my childhood friends and transferring in my junior year from James Fowler H.S. to St. Mary’s C.H.S. in downtown Calgary. Here I would play for my provincial team head coach Tom Sullivan, alongside my teammates Travis Stel and Sean McLean. We had already won Gold at the 1998 Western Canada Games for Alberta and I figured more success together would open greater doors.
In the midst of great controversy, I moved to St. Mary’s C.H.S. and was eligible to play. Our roster was loaded and resembled a university team. I started at the point (6’2″) with Pat Harrigan (6’4″), Sean McLean (6’7″), Travis Stel (6’9″) and David Grant (6’9″). We dominated high school basketball in Calgary winning the 1988/89 City Championships. We won major tournaments like the Hub City Coca-Cola Hoops Classic in Moncton, New Brunswick before falling short to the mighty Ross Shepherd H.S at the Albert High School Provincial Championships.
Despite St. Mary’s emerging as a Canadian high school powerhouse, I didn’t get a look from any NCAA schools. I was recruited by Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba. The Bobcats was coached by future Hall of Famer Jerry Hemmings and his team was on the verge of winning their third consecutive Canadian University Championship (1987, 88, 89). I really appreciated Coach Hemmings considering me worthy but the maze and blue of U. Michigan was stuck in my head. I was at a loss for how to keep the dream so I began to rebel in school and became depressed. I stopped going to classes and eventually dropped out of St. Mary’s.
Summer was fast approaching when one fateful day my mother called and said she was moving to Scarborough one of the six boroughs that made up the city of Toronto, Ontario and asked if I wanted to come. Immediately the dream was alive and the journey would continue. I was headed to Toronto! I had seen highlights of the 1989 Metro High School All-Star basketball game on television and I remember Philip Dixon (Bathurst Heights HS) taking on Everton Shakespeare (George Harvey CI) in the dunk contest. This was the challenge I felt I needed and the environment that would take me closer to my dream, even though I had never faced Toronto talent before. The closest I came was a near encounter with the George Harvey C.I. Hawks while in Moncton, New Brunswick. My St. Mary’s squad missed them on the way to winning the Hub City Coca-Cola Hoops Classic but their athleticism was like no other team I had seen before.
Ontario’s school system used to end at grade 13(OAC) so the high school ballers were older but that only meant the talent pool was that much deeper. The move to Toronto would enable me to reclassify and complete grade 12 then have one more year to complete my OAC’s. The dream was alive, now I had to go make some noise and build a basketball resume worthy of attracting NCAA coaches.
When I arrived at my new home in the Scarborough, Ontario, I met 2 friends who had recently moved from Montreal, Quebec. I told them my dream of getting a scholarship to the U.S. and they told me their’s was the same. They arrived a year earlier and was going to York Memorial C.I. in the City of York. Memo was right in the heart of Toronto’s most intense basketball battlefield. It would be the opportunity I needed to face the top teams with the best players, like Runnymede C.I. with the city’s highest leaper Vinton Bennett and George Harvey C.I. with Canada’s toughest basketball gladiator Cordell “Bobby” Llewellyn. Despite schools being walking distance from my house I had to get closer to the dream and that meant taking 2 buses, 1 light rail train and 3 subway trains 1.5-2hrs each way to attend York Memorial C.I.
My first year as a Mustang I surprised everyone and York Memorial beat many of the top teams on route to being ranked in Toronto’s top 10. Several news articles were written about the kid from Calgary and I quickly rose to the top of the cities list of best players. In my two years living in Toronto, I was 2x Toronto Sun and Toronto Star top 5 players in the city. Captain of the Gold medal winning Ontario Provincial Team. 2x Metro All-Star team selection and had a whole lot of 40 point games under my belt. Also being from Scarborough I was invited to play club ball for the Kingston Galloway Lancers with some of the best ballers in the city, Keith Vassell, Doug Johnson, Rowan Barrett and Sean Green. The Lancers were before AAU basketball hit Toronto so our games were just about repping our neighborhood across the city and out to Montreal in their famous Sun Youth Tournament.
I am forever grateful for my high school coach Richard Ward. He understood I had to make direct contact with schools and he helped me edit VHS highlight tapes and put together my basketball resume to send out to U.S. coaches. The first letter I got back was from Texas Arlington. I was excited but Texas seemed so far away and I really didn’t believe they were serious. Ultimately the coaches that came were the closer schools that followed the Toronto buzz and came in hopes of finding a diamond in the rough. American International College came (I later transferred there) and was the first to offer me a full basketball scholarship. A.I.C. was an NCAA D2 school and my sights were set on U. Michigan so I passed on the opportunity.
Although I wanted U. Michigan there was no signs of them coming. One day I came to school and coach Richard Ward told me Eastern Michigan U. was coming to see me. Coach Brian Miller came and watched us lose a close game to Eastern Commerce H.S. and I finished with 44pts. He liked what he saw and they sent assistant Coach Gary Waters to make me an offer. I wasn’t sure if they were for me but that year in 1991 Eastern Michigan knocked off No. 5 seed Mississippi State U. and followed that up with an overtime win over No. 13 seed Penn State U. to advance to the NCAA “Sweet 16” then finally losing to the No. 1 seeded North Carolina Tarheels.
Seeing a team that wanted me on national television was surreal. Plus Eastern Michigan already had two Canadians on the roster, Kory Hallas (Almonte, ON) and Tony King (Scarborough, ON) and they would later add a third Wayne Simpson (George Harvey C.I.). Coach Waters must have known my dream was to play for Michigan because the final decision for me was when he confirmed that Eastern Michigan would be playing Michigan at Crisler Arena my freshman year. It wasn’t exactly the dream I had but my clock was ticking and a decision had to be made. I accepted the offer to Eastern Michigan and shortly after I found out U. Michigan just signed the greatest freshman class of all time.
Fast forward to Thursday, December 12, 1991. I was now boarding the bus from Ypsilanti, MI to Ann Arbour, MI where we would face U. Michigan on National Television. When the bus pulled into Crisler Arena I walked in with goosebumps on my back. I was here. The kid from Calgary was going to be on the same floor Rumeal Robinson played. Dreams do come true. We had gone over the scouting report and one of my matchups was Jalen Rose. I had seen the highlights of the Fab 5 destroying teams all preseason and everyone was calling us lambs to be slaughtered. The game started one-sided but Coach Ben Brauns Eagles were known for defense. We ended up losing 91-77 in a tightly fought game against that years NCAA finalists. Not bad for a game we were projected to be blown out. I had only 6pts but there was a peaceful happiness because my childhood dream had finally become a reality.
Today Canadian kids are making the journey to NCAA and on to the NBA at a rapid pace. In my time reaching the NCAA seemed like a trip to the moon. For me to fulfill my big NCAA dream the sacrifices of leaving family and friends was a fear overcome with very little guidance, but the reward was worth the risk. As a basketball coach and trainer, I have since helped many other young Canadian ballers achieve their dreams. My hope is they will appreciate that dreams may not happen exactly how we expect, but in faith, if we persevere on the Journey of an Elite 1 they can have something just as special.