How the Quebec town of Thetford Mines became a basketball hotbed

The former asbestos mining town northeast of Montreal is becoming known for a much different export — elite basketball players. The latest is Tidjan Keita, who signed a deal earlier this month with the Phoenix Suns.

Former asbestos mining town is getting known for a much different export — elite basketball players

Tidja Keita (right), a former player with the Thetford Mines CEGEP, has signed with the Phoenix Suns of the NBA. Originally from France, Keita moved to Thetford Mines in 2015 to join its elite basketball program. (Phoenix Suns)

When French basketball prospect Tidjan Keita talks about the time he spent in Thetford Mines, Que., he doesn't mention the abandoned open pit asbestos mines or how different the winter landscape looks from his native Paris.

For him, Thetford Mines means elite basketball, intense training and the start of a journey that got him to the doorstep of the NBA.

"To me, it was the perfect path to take to accomplish my dreams," said Keita, 20.

The town 230 kilometres northeast of Montreal, which once billed itself as the "asbestos capital of the world," is now churning out a much different resource — world-class basketball players.

The former mining town's reputation as the hub of elite basketball in the province has grown in recent years due to the basketball academy at the Thetford Mines CEGEP, the local junior college. 

Away from big city distractions

The coach, Igor Rwigema, helped found the program six years ago at the Collège d'Alma CEGEP in the province's Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region. Two years later, he moved it to Thetford Mines.

The Thetford Gold is churning out elite basketball players who are catching the attention of the NBA and recruiters in the U.S. (Thetford Basketball Academy/Facebook)

Rwigema previously coached in the Montreal area, but found that the city wasn't the right place to get the best out of his players.

"They were finding excuses to miss practice — 'I can't take the Metro, I don't have a bus pass' — so it was always a fight to make sure they were there," he said.

Away from big city distractions, he said, players were able to focus more. They live on campus and walk to class. 

The Thetford Gold face off against elite university teams in Canada and the U.S., including those in the National College Athletic Association (NCAA).

'I always tell the kids everything is possible,' says Igor Rwigema, coach of the elite basketball program at the Thetford Mines CEGEP. (Radio-Canada)

In constant search of talent, Rwigema regularly travels to France on recruiting missions. ​During his 2014 trip, Rwigema set up a meeting to see Keita play.

"So when I got into the gym, he was there and I'm like, 'Whoa, this kid is something,'" Rwigema said.

Rwigema persuaded Keita to make the move from the bustling French capital to the sleepy Quebec mining town, population 25,000.

The move paid off. It was "like a giant springboard," Keita said.

Road to the NBA

Keita believes Rwigema's coaching skills are what got him noticed by the NBA.

"The training was always intense," said Keita. "He knows how to drag out potential and how to develop it to get to the next level."

Earlier this month, the 6 foot 10 inch forward signed with the Phoenix Suns. 

Rwigema discovered Keita on a recruiting mission to France in 2014 and convinced him to move to Thetford Mines. (Thetford Basketball Academy/Facebook)

"I thank God every day," said Keita. "This is such a big opportunity."

Right now, Keita plays with the Phoenix Suns farm team, the Northern Arizona Suns, in the NBA's minor league — the G League.

His first game is in November.

Keita isn't the only one who has benefited from Rwigema's coaching prowess.

A player from Rwigema's Alma days, Chris Boucher, is also pursuing his NBA dream. This summer, he was picked up by the Golden State Warriors, the league's defending champions.

Meanwhile, another one of Rwigema's players, Quincy Guerrier, has a difficult decision to make.

Quincy Guerrier (right) plays for the Thetford Mines Gold. He's been offered scholarships to play basketball for more than a dozen American universities. (Rebecca Martel)

A total of 14 different universities across the U.S. have offered him a full scholarship, including Syracuse University, the University of Florida and the University of Oregon.

"I think it's a testimony of the coaching staff that we have, and the structure that we've put in place," Rwigema said.

"I always tell the kids everything is possible if you are put into the right situation and basically believe in your work."