Canadian Anthony Bennett welcomed by Cavaliers

Anthony Bennett made history on Thursday when he became the first Canadian selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft, and his path to the NBA wasn't exactly a smooth one.

Made history as 1st ever Canuck chosen 1st overall in NBA draft Thursday

Cleveland Cavaliers first-overall pick Anthony Bennett, left, shakes hands with general manager Chris Grant on Friday after becoming the first ever Canadian selected in the No. 1 spot the night before. (Mark Duncan/Associated Press)

Anthony Bennett's path to the NBA began on a couple of basketball courts in north Toronto's hardscrabble neighbourhood of Jane and Finch, and was paved by a mom who takes hard work to an entirely different level.

The 20-year-old Bennett made history on Thursday when he became the first Canadian selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft. And when he was introduced by the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Friday, Bennett and his mom talked about a journey that may have seemed improbable. But to them, nothing's impossible.

"Anyone who sets a goal for themselves and wants to achieve it, you work hard, you can accomplish anything," Edith Bennett said. "So that's what he did."

Basketball for Bennett began as a way to keep busy in Jane and Finch, a neighbourhood that has a notorious reputation for its poverty, guns and drugs.

"Jane and Finch is what they say is a ghetto but it's not," Edith Bennett said. "It depends on the individual. You could grow up in the worst part of the community, that won't stop you. It depends on the person."

The single mom moved the family to Brampton when Bennett was 10 to give them a "better life" and get him away from certain friends. 

'Jane and Finch is what they say is a ghetto but it's not. It depends on the individual. You could grow up in the worst part of the community, that won't stop you. It depends on the person.'—Anthony Bennett's mother Edith

All the while, Edith Bennett was working two full time nursing jobs, beginning her days at 7 a.m. at a Toronto rehab hospital, and finishing at 11 at night at a psychiatric facility.

Her work ethic obviously rubbed off on her son.

"He's a hard worker," Edith said. "It's in the family because I am a hard worker and he saw me work hard and then he said he wanted to do the same, so it motivated him to never stop working, push to the extreme and achieve what he wants."

There were no basketball courts where they moved to in Brampton, a newer community of just houses and dirt lots.

So it wasn't until six or seven years ago, when his mom signed him up for a club, that he began taking the sport seriously.

"I just started growing," Bennett said, through a wide grin. "And everyone said, 'You should probably play basketball.' So I said, 'All right. I'll give it a shot.' Look where it got me now."

Look indeed.

Top Canadian

The six-foot-seven power forward from UNLV topped fellow Brampton native Tristan Thompson — they grew up less than five minutes from each other — for top Canadian. Thompson went fourth overall two years ago, also to Cleveland.

"Canada basketball is really on the rise right now," Cavs general manager Chris Grant said. "I have a feeling there will be another Canadian picked rather high next year too [Andrew Wiggins].

"So they've done a nice job, kids have grown and become talented, and we're excited to be part of that. Tristan has grown amazingly the last two years and we expect Anthony to do the same thing."

Bennett's accomplishment comes in the midst of heady days for Canadian basketball, with Wiggins being touted as the top pick next year — and more where Wiggins came from.

"It's huge," Bennett's agent Mike George said on Thursday night's historical event.

"It just shows how far we've come. We've come from a hockey country, and having this growth within basketball, and you can see by the different guys who are successful in college, and obviously by the pros who are in the NBA now, and this is kind of the pinnacle part where you've got a No. 1 draft pick, first time in Canadian history.

"And that could be repeated next year, which is incredible."

Bennett, who was the Mountain West Conference player of the year and averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds for the Runnin' Rebels, said his strengths are his versatility, his rebounding and his unselfishness.

He's a decent dunker too. The Canadian laughed when asked about a list he used to keep of players he'd dunked on.

"I just though it was pretty fun to do," Bennett said. "It was between me and my friends growing up in Canada. It went up every game, every game, it kept going. I think I gave it to a year and a half, until I got to like 100. Then I stopped."

He's looking forward to playing alongside Thompson — although there's a chance he could wind up being the other Canadian's backup.

'Best friends'

"I feel like me and Tristan will become best friends," Bennett said. "He's going to be my go-to guy just because he's from Canada. I'm sure there are lot more guys on that team I can go to, but just because even if I'm here in Cleveland or back home in Brampton, I can talk to him anywhere I am."

Both Brampton players attended Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, Bennett's mom sending him to the elite basketball school when he was just 16.

"To let your son leave, it was very hard, very difficult," Edith Bennett said.

She's happy she'll finally be able to make most of his games.

"Just a four-hour drive," she said, smiling.

Edith Bennett still works two nursing jobs, but only one of them is fulltime now.

"I'm not going to stop," she said. "I like working, taking care of patients and to see the expression on their face when you do something nice for them."

For Anthony Bennett, the next few months will be continuing his gruelling rehab from his shoulder surgery in May. Bennett will miss summer league, but is expected to be back in time for training camp. As for his mom, she still works two nursing jobs, one full-time and the other part-time.