New wave of French-Canadians changing the face of Canadian basketball

At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds Arizona State's Luguentz Dort looks like a basketball player. But, when he opens his mouth, it's clear he's different. Dort is the son of Haitian immigrants and he's part of a wave of first- and second-generation Canadians living in Quebec that are changing the face — and tongue — of Canadian basketball.

Haiti, West Africa ties in Montreal making a difference

Montreal native Luguentz Dort has plenty of qualities that should land him in the NBA. (David Becker/Getty Images)

At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds Arizona State's Luguentz Dort looks like a basketball player.

He has chiselled biceps, tree-trunk thick thighs, and to the average basketball fan, there's nothing particularly unusual about the 19-year-old projected first-round NBA draft pick. But, when he opens his mouth, it's clear he's different.

Dort is the son of Haitian immigrants and he's part of a wave of first- and second-generation Canadians living in Quebec that are changing the face — and tongue — of Canadian basketball.

While Ontario has traditionally been Canada's basketball powerhouse, producing the vast majority of the country's NBA and NCAA basketball talent, there has quietly been a group of French-Canadians with ties to Haiti and West Africa that is putting the province on the basketball map.

"It's very possible that Quebec produces five NBA players in the next five years," Wesley Brown, a Canadian basketball scout at the Monday Morning Scouting Report, said. "Dort, Quincy [Gurrier], Keeshawn [Barthélémy] and a few other younger guys all have potential NBA talent."

These boys are all part of a Montreal-based AAU program called the Brookwood Elite. It's a program started in 2004, by Joey McKitterick, but it's become one of Canada's premier AAU programs since Nelson Ossé became a co-director in 2010.

Ossé is a second-generation Canadian of Haitian descent who has been called the "godfather" of Quebec basketball. He's become a mentor to the dozens of children who sign up for his basketball programs.

"I was doing Brookwood Elite… and we were OK," McKitterick said. "I was drawing from some other programs and I wanted some of the best players."

Nelson Ossé, right, has been a mentor to Dort (7) and plenty of other aspiring basketball players in Quebec. (Submitted by Nelson Ossé)

High-end talent

That high-end talent is what Ossé had access to. Since 2005, Ossé has been in charge of a local basketball program in Parc Extension, known as the Parc Ex Knights. It's a no-nonsense program that demands good grades, discipline, and respect in Montreal's most underprivileged neighbourhood.

"If you come to a Parc Ex practice, the first thing you're going to see is that practice starts at 5:30 [p.m.]," Gerson Rosalva, a coach at Parc Ex, said. "Any kids that get there at 5:31, they've got to sit on the side until somebody tells you to join in."

This discipline has become a hallmark of Montreal's top basketball players, according to Charles Hantoumakos, who previously coached Dort and currently coaches two former Parc Ex and Brookwood Elite players.

"The one thing that's very different with the kids in Montreal, comparatively speaking, with the kids in Ontario is just the humility," Hantoumakos said. "That goes back to Nelson and Joey back in Montreal instilling that in them from a young age."

At Parc Ex, they're focused on helping to get children into college with athletic scholarships in order to alleviate the burden of university tuition.

Part of that plan means keeping the entrance fee to the Parc Ex program low. It costs about $100, plus the cost of a jersey and running shoes to join the Knights. It's a negligible price compared to hockey, which can cost upward of $1,000 a year.

The low cost of playing basketball has led to the sport's boom within Montreal's immigrant community.

"Household revenues can be an issue," Ossé said. "Where I'm from, not every parent can afford for their kids to play hockey and sometimes soccer."

Ossé says he now sees more local children playing basketball in the neighbourhood parks than ever before.

Rapid expansion

The sport's popularity has led to the rapid expansion of the Montreal Basketball League, an organization run by McKitterick. Since taking over the league in 2011, McKitterick says the organization has doubled in size to almost 100 teams, a boom he partially attributes to the city's growing immigrant population.

He says the basketball community in Montreal has been influenced by Quebec's adoption of The Charter of French Language — also known as Bill 101 — in 1977.

"We got a large influx of Haitian and French-speaking Africans [after 1977]," McKitterick said. "So, our basketball community is reflective of that now."

Keeshawn Barthélémy when he was a member of the U16 Canadian national team in 2017. (Submitted by Nelson Ossé)

Canada Basketball has noticed the rise in Montreal's basketball talent. Mike Meeks, Canada Basketball's manager of youth player development, says he attributes the increase in skill to Montreal's immigrant demographics and a stronger emphasis on grassroots basketball development.

Many Quebec basketball players believe they are now at a point where they can compete head-to-head with Ontario for Canadian basketball supremacy.

"Every time we heard about Toronto… they were just bigger than us," Dort said. "Now, I just feel like we don't really care about that anymore."

Barthélémy says he thinks Quebec would beat Ontario in a province-versus-province showdown, a comment he doesn't think he could have made five to 10 years ago.

However, Ossé acknowledges there is still work to be done. He thinks the level of coaching within Quebec still lags behind Ontario and wants to attract the attention of Canadian politicians to increase funding for grassroots basketball.

"I believe at some point, someone, somehow, somewhere, is going to have to get the attention of our prime minister. There is not enough help for coaches and programs." Ossé said. "We're doing a lot with less. Imagine if we had the proper support."