Hoop dreams come true:Toronto Raptors give $50K grant to Indigenous basketball program

The Thunder Hawks Indigenous basketball program at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ont., has scored a slam dunk. The school was awarded a $50,000 Toronto Raptors Community Action Grant to promote the sport in the classroom and in the 24 remote First Nations communities it serves.

Money helps Thunder Bay high school buy shoes, organize tournament for players from remote First Nations

The cheque presentation for the $50,000 Toronto Raptors Community Action Grant was made at halftime at centre court. Pictured, left to right, are staff members from MLSE And Just Energy!, with, second from right, Dennis Franklin Cromarty student Jaden Meekis of Deer Lake First Nation and, far right, Northern Nishnawbe Education Council executive director Norma Kejick. (Aaron Guthrie)

The Thunder Hawks Indigenous basketball program at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ont., has scored a slam dunk.

The school, which is run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, was awarded a $50,000 Toronto Raptors Community Action Grant to help promote the sport both in the classroom and in the 24 remote First Nations communities it serves.

"I'm on top of the world," said Aaron Guthrie, the coach of the boys basketball team at the school and the healthy active living teacher.

"We're really excited, we're really thankful and we've got some big plans of what we're going to do with that money."

The boys basketball program at the city's only Indigenous high school is just three years old, with the girls team getting underway in the fall of 2016.

But the payoffs are obvious already said Guthrie, pointing to the example of student Morley Quill from Deer Lake First Nation.

Courtside while the Toronto Raptors practice are, left to right, Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School principal Sharon Angeconeb, Northern Nishnawbe Education Council special projects coordinator A.J. Haapa, Aaron Guthrie, Aaliyah McPherson, Myrna McPherson, Morley Quill, Jaden Meekis and NNEC executive director, Norma Kejick. (Aaron Guthrie )

"He'd never been involved in any kind of team, and at the beginning of the year, we'd be in the gym practicing and I could see him outside the gym, kind of watching through the window in the door."

Guthrie invited Quill to join in.

He was hesitant at first, said Guthrie, just sitting on the stage and watching the other boys play until one day he stepped onto the court too.

"Fast forward months to where we are today, most of the time I can't kick him out of the gym. When we're playing, he's the first one there, and he loves it. There's just this big, huge smile. He's having fun, he's learning, he's getting fit, he's meeting some friends and he's part of a community now."

In fact, Quill was one of four students, along with Guthrie and other members of the NNEC, invited to attend the Toronto Raptors game Monday night and accept the cheque at half-time from the MLSE Foundation and the Just Energy Foundation.

The painting was created by Dennis Franklin Cromarty student Noel Chikane during Woodlands art workshop with Saul Williams in March. The artwork was given to the MLSE Entertainment Foundation and Just Energy Foundation officials as a gift to show the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council's appreciation for the grant. (Aaron Guthrie )

Some of the money will go towards new equipment, uniforms and even running shoes, since many of the girls were using shoes donated to them from other high school players in Thunder Bay.

But Guthrie "started dreaming a little bigger" and thought of sending basketball kits to northern communities to encourage younger kids to pick up the sport.

Ultimately, he hopes to see DFC run a tournament for Grade 7 and 8 students from all across the north.

"What an amazing opportunity that would be for those kids to come to Thunder Bay to see what Dennis Franklin Cromarty looks like, as opposed to what they've heard maybe in the news, and it also would put our current students in a leadership position where they could maybe coach those teams, maybe ref the games, maybe help run the tournament," he said.

"It's so nice to see those kids being supported and being given opportunities they deserve, just as much as any other kid in town. ... and now that door is open, just a little bit more."

Twins Aaliyah and Myrna McPherson of Sandy Lake First Nation watch the Toronto Raptors warm up for their Monday night game against the Orlando Magic. The girls were given the jerseys as part of the Toronto Raptors Community Action Grant cheque presentation. (Aaron Guthrie)