Remembering 'Cheeze,' a legend of the court in Montréal-Nord who continues to inspire

Dozens of young Montréal-Nord residents recently got together to take part in a basketball tournament, as organizers sought to give them an outlet, while paying tribute to a neighbourhood legend.

Sanchez 'Cheeze' Brice died in 2012 at age of 36, left mark on basketball in neighbourhood

For many residents in Montréal-Nord, Sanchez Brice, also known as 'Cheeze', is a neighbourhood basketball legend who was also the embodiment of community spirit. (Facebook/Sanchez Brice)

It was the first weekend of fall and a crowd of young basketball players showed up at an outdoor court in Montréal-Nord for a three-point shooting contest, with a cash prize of $1,000 on the line.

The sun had set, and the park's spotlights put the dozens of youths that were warming up for the competition on centre stage, as they aspired to both bragging rights and the prize.

But the event at Saint-Laurent park was about much more than money, especially for those organizing it. 

They wanted to help breathe life into a borough they say has lost a bit of its sense of community in recent years  — a situation made worse by COVID-19 restrictions and a recent spate of gun violence in the city's east end.

Above all, the "Three for Cheeze" three-point shooting contest was a tribute to a man still considered by many to be a neighbourhood basketball legend and the embodiment of community spirit: Sanchez Brice, or "Cheeze."

"Three for Cheeze! Three for Cheeze!" the event's organizer chanted into a microphone, getting players and the crowd to join in. 

Stéphance Brice is one of many people who say his older brother Sanchez was an amazing three-point shooter. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

Brice was a mainstay on the basketball court at Saint-Laurent park throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, helping bring crowds to their feet — and a community together.

Brice died of a pulmonary embolism in 2012. He was 36.

But his sporting feats and his attitude aren't forgotten.

"He always won the three-point contest. That was his thing," said Stéphane Brice, Sanchez's younger brother.

"There was a tournament he used to win every summer and bring back the trophies to the house." 

Almost everyone called him Cheeze. He stood about five feet nine inches — shorter than your typical basketball star — and he wasn't known for his athleticism.

But he had a secret weapon: his ability to shoot from long distance.

"You pass him the ball, it's game [over]," said Rondo Brown, a music producer and lifelong Montréal-Nord resident who helped organize the event on Sept. 25.

"If he was in the corner [behind the three-point line]'s going in, whether it's indoor or outdoor [basketball]."

Sanchez Brice, right, posed for a photo with retired NBA player Cedric Ceballos after travelling to Phoenix, Ariz., to watch an NBA game. (Sanchez Brice/Facebook)

Brice was also known for keeping an eye on younger people in the neighbourhood, encouraging them to stay out of trouble. 

For Brown and others, Brice embodied what Montréal-Nord should be  — a community that's tight-knit in spite of the poverty and gang violence that plague it.

Too often, Brown said, young people in the area stay home, glued to social media, with some of them getting into confrontations online that can turn violent.

It's something that could easily be avoided if they had more face-to-face contact, he said.

"The violence has to stop," Brown said. "[Cheeze] always stopped someone when there was about to be an altercation... Just a good dude from the park, from the 'hood."

Tournament participants lined up to kick off the first round of the event. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

'His basketball was his wife'

The "Three for Cheeze" event kicked off with a moment of silence for Brice.

It then turned into a more festive affair, with a deejay as well as several rappers and singers entertaining the crowd. 

Everyone enjoyed themselves, Brown said, adding that events like these help send the message that life in Montréal-Nord is about more than hardship.

Anne Supré, Brice's widow, was also there, with their daughter, who's now 11.

She said he was determined to become a three-point shooting master to make up for the fact he was shorter than most players.

"He'd practise in the morning, the afternoon and at night," she said. "His basketball was his wife."

Anne Supré attended last month's tribute event for Sanchez 'Cheeze' Brice with their daughter. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

She was surprised to hear about the tribute event for Brice, though she said that it shows how ordinary people can leave a mark in their own way.

"They still think about him. And he was playing so much in this park. I think it's a really nice tribute," Supré said. 

"I'm proud of him. Even though he passed away nine years ago, I feel like it's a legacy that he left to this park and to those people."

'He helped us grow'

Unlike Luguentz Dort and Chris Boucher who also grew up in Montréal-Nord, Brice never made it to the NBA.

But he was just as instrumental as they were in helping shape the neighbourhood's basketball culture, said Mario Joseph, a childhood friend, who's now the head coach of the basketball team at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

"We grew up together. He was like one of the pioneers in the [city's] east end. He helped us grow, getting better at our stuff, at our craft," said Joseph.

"Every time we came here [to the park] we wanted to beat him because he was one of the best. When you finally beat him, you knew you were [someone]."

Mario Joseph, left, poses with his 13-year-old son who won last month's three-point shooting contest. Joseph, who was one of Sanchez Brice's childhood friends, now coaches the basketball team at the Université du Québec à Montréal. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

Joseph showed up to the "Three for Cheeze" shooting contest, accompanied by the person who would eventually take home the trophy: his 13-year-old son.

Organizers are hoping the event's first edition won't be the last, and that it will become a neighbourhood tradition that brings different generations of Montréal-Nord residents together.

"Parc Saint-Laurent was one of the main parks in the east end, where everybody used to come and ball, right?" he said. 

"We're trying to bring back the same intensity, the same memories so everybody can get involved in the community."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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