Editor's Note: Guillaume Payen Boucard wrote this for CBC Sports in January, intending to publish as soon as the CEBL season resumed. Six months and a pandemic later, that day has arrived. Boucard's message endures- even as COVID-19 continues to rewrite the rules for physical gatherings.
My basketball career has played out in smaller cities, so I can’t compare my experience to pro ball in bigger markets. But I can definitely say that smaller communities bring familiar fan faces and community bonds that build fast and last a long time. No matter what your business is, close relationships mean fewer assumptions and reduced prejudices. In the case of professional sports, when fans can interact often with athletes, they tend to show more support. Small town fans are there for teams through the ups and downs because they see us as more than just athletes. If you play in a small city, you are a person that the fans know.
Communities like Niagara, where I play, have more empathy for the sacrifices that come with being a professional athlete. As pro athletes, we may be "living our best life" because we are fulfilling our childhood dreams, but it comes with a cost. Being far away from home, family, friends and loved ones is never easy. But where I have played, I have been lucky enough to feel the fans’ understanding and deep bonds with our team. I have seen and experienced people going out of their way to make me and my teammates feel as ‘’homey” and comfortable as possible.
Prior to the pandemic, families brought us home-cooked meals at random times during the season. Some even baked cakes for our birthdays. I was invited to BBQs, dinners, and into family homes just to enjoy the swimming pool during hot summer days. These gestures and memories have stuck with me everywhere I’ve had the chance to play.
I am an introvert. Not the biggest social person. I rarely reach out to others, which is something that I have to work on. It takes time for me to warm up to new teammates and when I finally do, it is not always easy for me to express. My teammates in Niagara joke about my quietness and how I must 'hate everybody'. My coaches have said that 'I don’t have feelings' in interviews. My mother often messages me about how commentators at our games referred to me as the “Kawhi of the CEBL” because of how silent I was on the court.
Even though introverts can be hard to read, I felt a great relationship with everyone at the Niagara River Lions. We had the best team chemistry I’ve ever experienced as a pro athlete. Everybody had a voice and an opinion that mattered. I learned that I need to build connections without waiting for others to reach out to me, and I need to be more vocal about letting people know I appreciate them. You never know what friendship, opportunity or learning experience awaits.
I was originally a part of the Niagara River Lions in 2017 when the team competed in its final season in the NBL. Having the chance to join the team again in the CEBL last season allowed me to see a lot of kids that have been coming to the games, looking up to me since then. I can see their growth. I enjoy being asked for advice by kids and parents. They want to know what path I took to play professionally, and they are hungry for training tips that they can apply themselves. I am still in contact with parents and kids that I met in Niagara and I try to help them as best I can.
It was always great to share stories with new faces when we visited schools. The aim remains - to inspire kids to chase what makes them happy, and help them understand how discipline and commitment are necessary if they want to achieve goals.
Speaking of discipline and commitment, another thing I love about playing basketball in smaller cities is that they help me focus on my single purpose, which is to perform to the best of my capabilities. The fewer distractions, the better. I very rarely hit bars or clubs, let alone drink alcohol, so I appreciate the wholesome vibe that is usually part of small town culture. I can dedicate my time to basketball without compromise.
As full-time athletes, now that school is done, we may have time on our hands that we were not used to having before. For some players, that’s heaven. They can spend their spare hours on entertainment or socializing. But for athletes looking to develop multiple streams of income (for now or the future) smaller city life can present difficulties.
So if there’s a downside to professional sports in small markets, it would simply be that bigger cities offer more opportunities for athletes who want to do more outside their sport. But even in saying this, I should acknowledge that my anti-social tendencies may affect my perceptions. Maybe I am blind to smaller market opportunities because chasing them is still outside my comfort zone. But hey, I'm working on it … and looking forward to playing in the CEBL again next summer.
(Top large images submitted by Canadian Elite Basketball League)
The Guillaume Payen Boucard edition
Q: The best book you've read?
A: The Amos Daragon fantasy fiction series by Bryan Perro. I absolutely loved them when I was growing up. Still remember most of the story today.
Q: Must-listen podcast?
A: ‘Serial’ if you are into murder investigation thrillers.
Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: You are who you surround yourself with.
Q: If your life is a movie, what would it be called?
Q: Word or phrase you over use?
Q: Skill you wish you had?
A: The ability ability to hide or show emotions at will.
Q: Something no one would guess about you?
A: l'm a nerd.
Q: What scares you?
A: To not live up to my full potential.
Q: Who gets an invite to your ultimate influential dinner party?
A: Lebron James, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington.
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: Feeling of being helpless in a situation that I deeply care about.
Q: Next goal?
A: Make my first real estate investment.