Basketball player Jonathan Nicola 17, not 29, recruiter asserts

The man behind basketball player Jonathan Nicola's application to Canada says he believes the native of South Sudan is 17 and not 29 as Canadian immigration officials allege.

'The only age I know of is 17 at the time,' says man who helped bring talented player from South Sudan

Jonathan Nicola was listed on the Windsor Essex County Secondary School Athletic Association website as playing for Catholic Central (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

The man behind basketball player Jonathan Nicola's application to Canada says he believes the native of South Sudan is 17 and not 29 as Canadian immigration officials allege.

Deng D'Awol, a Sudanese man who played college basketball in the United States, said he spotted Nicola as a talented player in South Sudan and wanted to help him out.

"I'm still in shock about what is happening," D'Awol said. "As far as I know, he's a 17-year-old basketball player. That's as far as I know."   

D'Awol said he's currently in South Sudan visiting Nicola's mother and she also told him that Nicola is 17.

"The only age I know of is 17 at the time," D'Awol said. "I saw his passport and his mother told me he was 17."

Played on high school team

After coming to Canada through the Homestay program, Nicola played at Catholic Central High School in Windsor, Ont. He's listed on at least one of the team's box scores which shows he scored 11 points in a game against W.F. Herman Secondary School in January.

Though his passport lists his birth date as November 1997, when Nicola applied for a U.S visitor visa in April, his fingerprints matched an individual who'd already applied for a visa with a birth date in November 1986, Canada Border Services Agency alleges.   

That would make Nicola 29.

Nicola was detained April 15 for allegedly contravening sections of the Immigration Refugee Protection  Act. He is being held because the Immigration and Refugee Board determined he is a flight risk. His next detention review is April 26. 

On Friday, the CBSA sent CBC News a statement repeating its allegations that Nicola misrepresented facts in his application to study in Canada. 

"I saw somebody that was talented, naturally gifted, OK," D'Awol told CBC News. "I informed some people there is somebody that could be interesting for you. Everybody is looking for a big man."

Nicola remembered as defensive talent

During this season, Catholic Central played against St. Anne high school three times, with Nicola seeing playing time in all three games. Andy Kiss, the boy's basketball coach at St. Anne, said he remembered Nicola as a six-foot-10-inch defensive talent with potential.  

"[He was] an effective player at both ends of the floor, but I thought he really left his mark defensively, he blocked several shots, really showed a lot of promise and potential," Kiss said.  

"Physically he appeared older, but my observation isn't uncommon with anyone else who saw Jonathan for the first time," he said.  

Kiss told CBC News he doesn't believe Catholic Central head coach Pete Cusumano would have allowed Nicola to play if he had believed him to be an adult, though Kiss did observe that Nicola appeared older than a high school player.   

"I know Pete Cusumano, he's a good man. He has a big heart, he's always been a true teacher, he's got a big heart and he's looking to help kids and this case is no exception," he said.

Kiss said Cusumano addressed Kiss's initial concerns about Nicola's age by saying that Nicola had a hard life growing up in South Sudan. 

"I believe that if he is in fact 29 as has been asserted, Pete Cusumano did not know," Kiss said. "I'm a coach too, and if a player shows up at my school with the proper documentation and wants to play for my team, I would have taken him on too."

With files from the CBC's Stacey Janzer