Canada's basketball brain drain?
When Greater Toronto Area natives Tristan Thompson and Corey Joseph entered the 2011 NBA Rookie Draft, it appeared the future of basketball in Canada was reaching a new pinnacle.
The increased exposure of Canadians in the US made it seem like hoops in Canada was finally catching up to the competition south of the border.
Yet their success masks a growing concern in Canadian basketball circles. This perceived improvement is not the product of our high school programs developing quality athletes; rather, it’s our best players leaving the nation to seek better opportunities in basketball academies across the US.
It’s a trend that has affected even some of the most prestigious high school programs in Canada.
"A lot of kids walked in our doors in the beginning of September and went to prep schools…With the prep school situation down south it’s difficult. I hear some teams this year lost six or seven guys and those are key players," said Eastern Commerce Saints head coach, Kevin Jeffers.
Considering the Saints lay claim to eight provincial titles in Ontario and have captured city championships in the Quad-A division in six of the last nine seasons in Toronto, they no longer have the luxury of relying on their winning pedigree to lure players.
It’s hard to imagine a school with a storied tradition is no longer the preferred destination amongst some of the more talented athletes in Canada, but in a time when people are looking for more Canadian high schools are providing less.
"You either get better or you get worse, no one stays the same. That's kind of what happened with our high schools, they're not getting better, and they’re getting worse because it’s not how it used to be. It's not coaches living at the school anymore, they do their work [and] they go home," said Regional Elite Development Academy [REDA] founder and head coach, Tarry Upshaw.
In response to this dilemma, many academies have begun to open here in Canada. For the past three years, Upshaw has led his squad in competitions against other prep schools in the US, before joining Canada’s first prep school league the National Prep School Athletic Association [NPSAA] in 2010 — winning the inaugural National Prep School Championship tournament.
His program provides Canadians an opportunity to focus on skill development, while allowing them to stay at home — training at the Act Fitness and Athletics Program in Orangeville — may ensure athletes don’t feel abandoned by their country while pursuing their dreams in basketball.
"Here in Canada, in a high school scenario there’s really not a lot of skill development done, there’s no strength and conditioning program, you’re playing way too many games and not getting in the gym enough and it’s a very short condensed season, where as we start in September and finish in May," said Upshaw. "If you have a great coach that cares, that’s there, really works hard and wants his program to be great, you’re going to be good. If you got a guy that’s just showing up and he’s rolling the ball out trying to win games instead of trying to build players you’re not going to be good. I’m in the business of building players."
The cost of building players is $3,000 a year for Upshaw’s REDA program, raising the issue, how much is a parent willing to spend to improve their child as basketball players?
"Anybody who’s serious at this point will find a way to afford it. The reality is if you can’t afford it, your life is going to be impacted by that in more than just sports," said NPSAA founder, Wayne Dawkins. "If you want to create opportunities for your child you’re going to have to spend money."
With high school basketball not delivering like it once did, programs across the US have emerged as home to an abundance of the top athletes from across Canada. Just look at Thompson and Joseph, both were members of Findlay Prep — an elite prep school program based in Las Vegas, Nevada — before heading to the University of Texas.
The exodus to US based programs is worrisome for a number of reasons.
Kids leaving the country to enhance their chances of pursuing a career in basketball may result in them not returning to represent their nation down the road. For every Thompson and Joseph there’s a story of a player who didn’t quite pan out and though many leave with the intent of landing a full athletic scholarship, the move doesn’t ensure success.
"If you’re going to sit on the bench somewhere and you’re not going to develop then I don’t think you need to go to the States," said Upshaw.
Not only is there a threat a player may not develop the skills to get to the next level, there may be some repercussions beyond the hard court.
"It's difficult, you take a kid who’s 15 or 16 [and] ship him out to the States, he has no parenting, he has no guidance, the coach gives him what he can and they have to raise themselves," said Jeffers.
As traditional high school programs struggle to keep up with the vastly changing landscape of high school basketball, it appears the academy approach may be the preferred destination for players with serious aspirations of playing at the next level. Whether those competitors credit Canadians for their achievements, as opposed to US programs, may determine where the future of basketball in Canada is truly headed.