High school basketball players feel duped by scholarships that 'seemed so legit'
Students say former coach at Truro, N.S., private school promised big things, but there was no money
A group of high school basketball players say they were left scrambling after the coach at a private school in Truro, N.S., promised them scholarships — only for students to find out two weeks before school started there wasn't enough money.
This isn't the first time Stephen LaLonde, who also goes by Jacques LaLonde, has left an athletics job amid questions over his business practices.
CBC News has learned the coach was convicted of embezzling funds from a football team in Vermont, and there is still a warrant out for his arrest.
LaLonde denies any wrongdoing, and told CBC News the allegations come from "parents on a witch hunt" who are using him as a scapegoat.
"It all seemed so legit and it really wasn't," said Cindy MacNeil, whose 17-year-old stepson was among five boys from across the province scouted to play basketball for Colchester Christian Academy earlier this year.
The family was told the school was part of an elite basketball league in Canada called the National Preparatory Association, which has 13 teams across the country. Playing in the national prep league, MacNeil said, would offer her son exposure and connections he wouldn't get playing for a public school team.
LaLonde, who started at Colchester Christian Academy in the summer of 2016, told the families that tuition — $4,650 per year — and any game-related travel expenses would be paid for through corporate sponsorship, MacNeil said.
She and her stepson, Julius McGee, had no idea anything was amiss until they got a call from Colchester Christian Academy's new principal, Betty Johnson, two weeks before the start of this school year.
"[She said] that the basketball program was no longer in existence and that all the money they said they had had not existed either," MacNeil said.
McGee, who dreams of one day playing in the NBA, was crushed. "I was definitely disappointed and definitely frightened," he said.
There was never anything in writing.- Stephen LaLonde , former basketball coach
Johnson, who would only speak to CBC via email, said while the school didn't conduct an official investigation, there was "concern" about LaLonde's lack of evidence around any sponsorship for the basketball team.
The small amount of money that had been raised was offered back to the sponsors, she said, and the students' application fees were refunded.
"Mr. LaLonde resigned just prior to the start of the school year," she said. "However, there is no reason to believe that Mr. LaLonde took any funds from the school either as part of, or outside of, the basketball program."
She wouldn't comment further on Lalonde's departure, citing confidentiality.
Already having doubts
But Stephanie Folahan said even before the program was cancelled, she was having doubts about LaLonde. Folahan and her husband, Naofall (Ming) Folahan, both work in Halifax's basketball scene.
Her husband was supposed to be LaLonde's assistant coach and she co-ordinated with parents about the logistics of bringing their children to play for the Truro team.
Folahan said she became particularly concerned when she learned that LaLonde had been charged with embezzlement in 2010 after collecting $1,725 from football players in Bennington, Vt., to purchase sweatshirts — and then didn't deliver.
"My stomach just turned," Folahan said. "We contacted [Colchester Christian Academy]. They said they'd done an investigation, they'd followed up and they were satisfied with his version of the story."
Johnson, who was not principal when LaLonde was hired, would not confirm whether the school was aware of the Vermont incident at that time. Former principal Steve VanderKwaak did not respond to CBC's requests for comment.
Lt. David Dutcher, with the Bennington Police Force, told CBC News that LaLonde pleaded guilty but failed to show up to his sentencing hearing. He also said there is still an active warrant out for LaLonde's arrest.
LaLonde told CBC News the incident in Bennington was "a huge misunderstanding." He blames paranoia from parents and an athletic director who feared LaLonde was gunning for his job for blowing the story out of proportion.
"If you were to look into it, all the kids received their sweatshirts, the company was paid in full," he said. He also denied that he pleaded guilty and said he's fighting the charges with a lawyer in Bennington.
He said the arrest warrant has "all been taken care of," despite police stating there is still one out for him.
Former AUS coach of the year
LaLonde is perhaps best known for his time working as a football coach with Mount Allison University. In 2006, he won the Atlantic University Sport coach of the year award.
He left abruptly in 2008 shortly before the start of the football season. He said it was for personal reasons.
University spokesperson Laura Dillman Ripley confirmed LaLonde worked at Mount A from 2005 to 2008 before resigning. She declined to comment further.
'There was never anything illegal'
As for the Truro scholarships that fell through, LaLonde said "there was never any malicious intent, there was never anything illegal done."
He blames the program's demise on the new principal, Betty Johnson, for not agreeing to continue until they had more sponsorship money.
"There was some soft commitments; there wasn't any signed contracts. But I do believe that, given time, the businesses would have come around and been able to support the program financially," he said.
"What we needed was the school to give the tuition assistance for that first month and that's where that new administration completely said 'no.'"
He also said only three kids were promised scholarships, not five. "There was never anything in writing."
LaLonde said he resigned because he had a personality conflict with Johnson and had taken a pay cut; he said he's now working for a trucking company.
"I know parents are upset and they're disappointed in things and they're looking for a scapegoat … I believe that, given time, we could have made a run at it," he said.
"I wanted what was best for the kids, and I tried my best to do it."
New team created in Halifax
There was a happy ending for the aspiring basketball stars.
The Folahans created their own team, Halifax Prep, based out of J.L. Ilsley High School in Spryfield. It's the only team in Nova Scotia currently registered to play with the National Preparatory League.
"Once we got the OK to start, it was a no-brainer for us," Ming Folahan said. "We're always trying to turn a negative into a positive, especially for those kids that got screwed."
All five of the boys scouted for Colchester Christian Academy were offered a spot on the new squad, and two, including Julius McGee, have decided to continue on with Halifax Prep.
"For the first month, it was kind of unorganized. But we managed to get through it and we're going strong now," McGee said.
The Folahans and MacNeil said while they were initially upset Colchester Christian Academy wouldn't honour the scholarships, they were more frustrated that the school was doing little to hold LaLonde to account.
"I really want to make sure Jacques [LaLonde] never gets to do this to somebody again," said Stephanie Folahan.