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True North: NFB series explores how the Toronto Raptors changed the game for young Toronto basketball players

The series explores the city's red-hot youth basketball culture, history and immigrant roots.

The series explores the city's red-hot youth basketball culture, history and immigrant roots

Elijah Fisher is one of the young Toronto basketball players featured in True North, a riveting documentary series about the city's youth basketball scene. (Yasin Osman)

With the Toronto Raptors just one game away from clinching Canada's first NBA title, millions of eyes across Canada have been glued to TV sets.

But kids coming up in Toronto's red-hot youth basketball system aren't only watching elite NBA players put their city on the world map: they are watching what they hope will be their future.

Those kids, and the city that's cultivating their hoop dreams, are the subject of True North — an NFB documentary series that explores Toronto's ever-growing relationship with basketball, from the neighbourhood gyms that cultivate new talent to the effect of the Raptors' arrival north of the 49th.

 

Along the way, the nine-part series — which you can watch in the embedded videos below and at Luminato this weekend — follows several youth who have set their sights on the big time and are working non-stop to achieve their goals in a fiercely competitive sport.

The films also explore the system of leagues, coaches, gyms and communities lifting them up, and feature commentary by veteran coaches and players, among them Damon Stoudamire, Steve Nash and Cory Joseph.

When filmmaker Ryan Sidhoo was growing up in Vancouver, hockey was the top sport, but he felt more comfortable on the basketball court, where he found a more inclusive and ethnically diverse crowd.

He began to notice that in the U.S., youth basketball was fast becoming an industry, with parents posting slick highlight reels of their kids on YouTube and other social media, hoping to get them noticed.

 

"I was like, 'Wow, this is like Hoop Dreams for the 2.0 digital era,'" says Sidhoo in a phone interview with q. At the same time, the popularity of the sport was exploding in Canada, so Sidhoo trained his lens on the Canadian youth pushing to land hefty scholarships and spots in high-profile tournaments – and just maybe, a spot in the NBA.

"There were a few names and it was starting to bubble," says Sidhoo, who highlights early Canadian success stories such as Jamaal Magloire and Vince Carter, and more recent stars like Cory Joseph and Andrew Wiggins. "That was really a big stepping stone, I think, for basketball in the country," says Sidhoo about Wiggins. "When Canada had a number one draft pick, that really brought a lot of the global attention to Canada as a basketball hotbed."

 

Sidhoo took his idea to the National Film Board, and began shaping the documentary series in 2016. Because there had been so little done on the history of basketball in Canada, the filmmaker opted to combine the history of the sport in the country with stories of today's up-and-coming youth, many of whom come from Toronto immigrant communities. (In the series, rapper Kardinal Offishall also talks about the ongoing influence of the 1970s Caribbean diaspora.)

"It's more welcoming than hockey, and more diverse and more multicultural, so I think that with Toronto being so diverse and having so many immigrants, basketball was also this interesting new way into Canadian culture," says Sidhoo. "And I think that really sparked this boom."

Of course the story isn't always a happy one, and Sidhoo didn't shy away from exploring the darker side of Canadian kids with big hoop dreams. Only a tiny fraction of players ever make it to the top leagues, and many hearts invariably get broken along the way. What's more, shoe companies target ever-younger kids, and while they often provide essential sponsorships, the money is getting bigger and can come at a cost.

 

"A lot of kids want that, and they go all in on that because it feeds their egos," explains Sidhoo, who says the money can also influence the decisions of coaches and parents. "But if you're in a shoe-sponsored team, it's all about one or two kids who are being showcased to be potential superstars at the expense of other kids — and those other kids may not be playing, or they might be buried on the bench."

Add to that the intense pressure of social media, and it can be a pressure cooker for the players, many of whom are in their early or mid-teens.

If someone makes an amazing play it's going to go viral," he says. "People are going to find out about 'The Kid.'- filmmaker Ryan Sidhoo

"The thing is, you can't stop it. That's what I realized," says Sidhoo, who produced the film with the NFB and Red Bull Media. "In this day and age, you can't stop people from pulling out their phones and filming a kid if he's a prodigy, and if someone makes an amazing play it's going to go viral," he says. "People are going to find out about 'The Kid.'"

The Celestine Prodigy

When Curtis Celestine emigrated from Trinidad to Montreal as a child in the 1970s, he was a diehard soccer fan, but soon fell in love with basketball because it was the sport of choice among his friends.

"The black community really got involved in basketball because it was cheap to play. When we migrated to Canada, hockey was out of the question because it was so expensive," remembers Celestine, who says the Montreal winters also kept him from playing soccer. "It was too cold to play a lot of times so the season was short, and when it did extend into the fall period, it was way too cold. So most of us started to look at basketball because it was an indoor sport."

Celestine played through high school, landed a scholarship, moved to Toronto, then played professionally overseas — which was, at the time, as big as a Canadian dared to wish for.

 

"Back in my day our dream was really and truly NCAA, if you could be lucky enough to get that. And after that my dream was to play in Europe. When it came to the NBA it wasn't something we thought was achievable," says Celestine, who adds that Canadian TV stations only aired two NBA games per week. "The NBA was so far from our grasp that we didn't dream that big."

That dream, however, is not outside the grasp of Celestine's son Jalen, who is featured in True North along with his dad. A natural athlete, Jalen took to the sport as a child, and landed a scholarship at the prestigious Long Island Lutheran Middle and High School in Brookville, NY.

For the Celestines, basketball is a family affair. Jalen Celestine with mother Earlene, father Curtis and sister Jade. (Yasin Osman)

"It's great that he's able to chase his dreams. What comes of it, that's up to him," says Celestine, now a police constable in Toronto. "But his future looks bright."

Celestine says that kids coming up in the digital age face a whole new level of pressure, so his job is to keep Jalen grounded and unswayed by the social media chatter.

"As parents it's for us to keep him on that even keel and not worry about that outside noise," says Celestine, who has always encouraged Jalen to also excel in school because, as he puts it, "at some point the ball will stop bouncing" and he'll need a different plan. "But he's really good with that. He's pretty easygoing, so the pressure doesn't really affect him."

 

So just how important has the presence of the Toronto Raptors been for players like Jalen?

"It's been very, very, very, very, very important. Like I said, when I was growing up as a child, we didn't have that dream," he says. "But to have a team in your backyard, you grow up thinking, 'Hey, I can do this, too.'

"And even before they got this far, just the Raptors being in our community is a big deal for these kids — and this run has even heightened interest in the game across the country," he says. "And to think it's only been 24 years [since the Raptors franchise began], and we're in the finals and should win it. That's going to mean such big things for the country, and such big things for future generations."

But when it comes down to celebrating the Raptors' incredible run and watching the final games, Celestine says he won't be joining the huge crowds.

"It's funny, I'm at work and my partner just asked me where I'm watching the game. He said, 'Are you going downtown in the chaos, or at a bar or anything?' And I said, 'No I'm actually going to watch it with my family,'" he says.

"I think it's such an important moment that I feel like I have to watch it with Jalen and the rest of the family and just take it in," he says. "And 20 years from now we can say this is where we were, and this is how important the moment was."

The first four instalments of True North are screening at Harbourfront Centre's Studio Theatre Saturday, June 15 as part of Toronto's Luminato Festival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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