Basketball

From washing dishes to the NBA: The unlikely rise of Raptors' Chris Boucher

The future didn't look very bright for 19-year-old Chris Boucher. He was earning less than $10 an hour as a part-time cook and dishwasher at a St-Hubert restaurant in Montreal. Then a serendipitous day that changed everything.

An inside look at the serendipitous day that changed everything

In the summer of 2012, Chris Boucher agreed to play in a basketball tournament in Montreal. It was a decision that would change the course of his life. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The future didn't look very bright for 19-year-old Chris Boucher.

He was earning less than $10 an hour as a part-time cook and dishwasher at a St-Hubert restaurant in Montreal. He had dropped out of high school when he was 16.

Everyone around him seemed to have more going on in their lives than he did. 

"I was not going to school. The only thing I was doing was working, but if I wasn't working that day, I really had nothing to do," said Boucher. 

He was good at basketball despite the fact he'd only started playing the sport a year earlier. But he only played in city parks and recreational centres and his father, Jean-Guy, didn't see a purpose in his son spending time playing basketball.

Despite this, Boucher filled out an email form on the QC United team website in March 2012, listing his height at 6-foot-8.

'It must be a lie'

Igor Rwigema set up Alma Academy in 2012, partnering up with QC United Sports Club to create the first-ever French basketball academy in North America. He didn't put much stock in the authenticity of Boucher's email. 

"I felt like I knew all the kids that were 6-foot-6 and up in the city," said Rwigema. "So when I saw 6-foot-8 I thought ... it must be a lie."

According to Igor's brother, Loic, players often fabricated their height on registration forms.

"We've always gotten emails from kids saying 'I'm 6-foot-4' and then we see the kid, he's 5-foot-11," said Loic. "So when Igor got the email that the kid's 6-foot-8, we didn't take it seriously."

Boucher never got a response.

In early July, Boucher's friends told him about an upcoming basketball tournament that required a team fee in order to participate.

"I said, 'I don't have money like that, but if you all want me on the team, I'll go,'" said Boucher.

Fortunately, he played.

The discovery of CJ Slick

Loic was in the crowd at the Little Burgundy Sports Centre the day Boucher played. He was trying to recruit kids to come to his private high school, College Durocher Saint-Lambert.

He was supposed to go home after the game he was watching had finished. There was no reason to stay for the men's game that was to come. The players were too old to for him to recruit.

But still, the impending matchup intrigued him.

I think I found someone special ... a gem. This kid is not normal.- Loic Rwigema

On one side of the court was Brookwood Elite, one of the premiere basketball programs in Quebec. The other team looked a tad different.

"It was like 10 boys playing against an organized team. I thought, 'This is going to be interesting', because they didn't have a coach. I was intrigued to see how it was going to play out," said Loic.

As expected, Brookwood Elite blew out the rag tag team of players from Montreal North.

But Loic noticed Boucher.

"There was a tall, lanky athletic kid," said Loic. "He didn't quit even though they were down 40 points."

Loic gave his brother Igor a call. "I think I found someone special," he said.  "A gem. This kid is not normal."

After the game, Loic approached one of Boucher's teammates on the bench to find out the name of this hidden talent.

"His name's Chris," said Boucher's teammate. "He used to be called CJ Slick. Go find him on Facebook. His Facebook is CJ Slick."

Boucher said that CJ stood for "Chris Joseph." He'd given himself the name "Slick" because he felt no one would ever notice him when he was out in public. 

"I was always under the radar," said Boucher.

After getting his contact information, Loic told his brother to go see Boucher play the following morning at 8 a.m. Igor didn't want to wake up that early, but begrudgingly, he headed to the gym.

Igor called Loic to corroborate his brother's hunch.

"Yeah, he's something else," said Igor, referring to the 6-foot-8 talent who, as it turned out, did exist. 

'Do you really think he has a chance?'

Igor contacted Boucher, a.k.a. CJ Slick, on Facebook to let him know about Alma Academy.

"When he came to my house, that's when everything started," said Boucher. "I thought, 'Ok he's serious. He's taking the time to come to my house, talk to my dad."

Jean-Guy was surprised someone was actually recruiting his son, and it wasn't very difficult to convince him.

"I think it took like five minutes for him [Jean-Guy] to say, 'You know what, if you think you can do something with my son, then just take him.' I didn't really have to convince him," said Igor.

Path to the NBA  

Playing on an organized team for the first time in his life, Boucher quickly thrived.

After a year at Alma Academy, he was recruited to the United States where he spent a year apiece at New Mexico Junior College and Northwest College. He then spent two years at the University of Oregon.

Boucher celebrates with students after winning a game with the Oregon Ducks in February 2017. (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

In March 2017, Boucher tore his ACL. As a result, he wasn't selected in the NBA draft that summer.

Undrafted, he spent last season on a two-way contract with the Golden State Warriors. He was released by the Warriors in June of this year, and signed another two-way contract with the Toronto Raptors in October.

Since then, he's been dominating the G League with the Raptors 905, averaging 28.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game as of Dec. 12.

Last Monday, he was named G League Player of the Week.

Return to Montreal

Back in October, the Raptors played a pre-season game against the Brooklyn Nets in Montreal.

With just over seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter and the Raptors holding a 29-point lead, Boucher checked into the game.

"That was the day that I really realized that I had support. Obviously I knew that people were following me, I just didn't know how much," said Boucher.

Once upon a time, nobody in Montreal knew who he was. Now, more than 20,000 people at the Bell Centre were chanting his name. 

CJ Slick certainly wasn't under the radar anymore.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.