Cross Country Checkup

This Toronto program is teaching kids Pythagorean theorem — using basketballs

In his teens, Dave McNee let his math grades slide in favour of basketball. Now, as managing director of Quantum Sports Learning Association, he pairs athletics and mathematics to give young players a chance at the big leagues.

The QSLA Centre pairs athletics and math to give young players a chance at the big leagues

Students work on an assignment as part of the QSLA Ballmatics program. (Quantum Sports & Learning Association)

If you ask Dave McNee about Toronto Raptors player Kawhi Leonard's now-iconic buzzer beater, he'll tell you it was much more than just a good shot — it was a teachable moment.

Students at Toronto's Quantum Sports & Learning Association (QSLA) Centre, where McNee is managing director, use basketball techniques to learn tricky math concepts, like parabolas and the Pythagorean theorem.

Though athletically-gifted, McNee says that math can be a weak point for the students QSLA works with.

"They believe that they can be the next LeBron James if they just practice," he told Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue. "But to actually become very proficient and solid in math, it escapes them."

Students work on math equations and concepts while playing basketball. (Quantum Sports & Learning Association)

QSLA combines athletics and education in a bid to improve students' skills on the court and in the classroom.

"We develop their game in the shots, show them the technique and then we throw in the math: Which quadrant would be the better shot for that particular player?" McNee explained about the organization's Ballmatics program.

"Would it be the shot closest to the top of the key? Would it be underneath the bucket?"

Approaching the lessons in this way, McNee says, keeps a student's head in the game.

"They don't have to feel that they have to do the math to get on the court — they're doing the math while they're on the court," he said.

A unique intervention

The idea for Ballmatics came to McNee a decade ago when a colleague — who now works with QSLA — was struggling to find work as a math teacher.

"Her having a hard time with math … and me seeing that there is an opportunity for a lot of the young students who aren't really moving on academically, can we have an intervention?" he asked.

But the experiences faced by the NBA hopefuls McNee now works with are deeply personal.

The Toronto native loved basketball growing up, spending time playing in the city's Moss Park neighbourhood. After moving north of the city to Richmond Hill, Ont., however, things changed.

"I found myself more disengaged from the academics and I would only really go to school, most of the time, for my basketball game," he recalled. "But as I would get better with basketball, I would find my grades suffering."

Using his past as inspiration, McNee created Ballmatics.

"If I were to be engaged academically while I was on the court, I would just remember a lot of the certain [concepts]: parabolas, Pythagorean theorem, the key words that are in the math curriculum."

Growing interest

According to McNee, basketball is growing in Canada with young people eagerly taking up the game.

While many of them dream of a career in the NBA, some are missing out on opportunities because of poor grades.

"A lot of the great players that are coming out of the inner cities, particularly, just don't have the math skills to make it on to UPLAY Canadian basketball or even going on NCAA," McNee said.

McNee says that while many players might have the on-court chops for professional leagues, their grades hold them back. (Quantum Sports & Learning Association)

Aside from their math program, QSLA now boasts an elite basketball team.

Though excitement for the Toronto Raptors, which skyrocketed last week as the team inched toward the NBA Eastern Conference finals, is good for the organization's numbers, McNee says it's a double-edged sword.

"The more they [the Raptors] win, the more young players think that all they need to do is work on my game and not worry about anything else," he said.

"The [education] ministry's mandate for math is crucial for these young players to move on to a college or university of their choice."

About the Author

Jason Vermes

Digital Associate Producer

Jason Vermes is an award-winning digital and radio producer for CBC Radio’s Day 6 and Cross Country Checkup. He has previously worked on As It Happens, The Current and Spark, and reported on accessibility & disability for Accessible Media Inc. You can contact him by email: jason.vermes@cbc.ca.

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