Road To The Olympic Games

Basketball

Amid buzz of NBA players, rock-solid Melvin Ejim a stalwart of Canada's men's basketball team

Melvin Ejim represents the bridge between then and now for Canada basketball, a Toronto native struggled to find courts to play on as a child but persevered and now sees the fruits of that labour in the kids who can pick up a basketball and play the game at a moment's notice. This is how Ejim built his path.

Toronto veteran hopes to be part of team's Olympic resurgence

Melvin Ejim has turned his perseverance on make-shift basketball courts growing up in Toronto into a shot at an Olympic medal. (Getty Images)

Choose to engage in the game of basketball in Canada now and there are options aplenty.

Rims on driveways and courts by the park are standard practice. Turn on the TV during the NBA season and Canada is the most represented nation outside of the U.S. Your viewing pleasure can avail of Kia Nurse, Natalie Achonwa or Bridget Carleton if you're watching a WNBA game featuring either the Phoenix Mercury or Minnesota Lynx. Want a truly Canadian fix? The Canadian Elite Basketball League is entering its third season. A high school in a small city northwest of Toronto — Orangeville Prep — has become renowned for its ability to churn out NCAA Division 1 basketball players. You get the idea.

The game invented by Almonte, Ont., native Dr. James Naismith is flourishing in a land whose doors have long been engraved by skates and pucks. There is a defined path to the NBA and the road to getting there has been paved by the likes of journeymen Ernie Vandeweghe, Stewart Granger, Mike Smrek and in more recent times, stars such as Steve Nash, Andrew Wiggins, and Jamal Murray.

While those names are more synonymous with the world's best basketball league, plenty of opportunities exist outside the top league in professional basketball, too, and there are few better current examples of what exists beyond that landscape than Melvin Ejim. Forging a terrific career for himself across Italy, Spain and now Montenegro, Ejim has also been a staple of Canada Basketball alongside the likes of Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk.

A 6-foot-7 forward who fits basketball's modern prototype of being able to defend multiple positions, spread the floor with an outside shot, and mix it up with the trees inside for rebounds, the 30-year-old Ejim hopes to be one of Canada's 12 men in Victoria, B.C., next week, at the last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament. They will be looking to end the nation's drought of Olympic appearances on the men's side since a Nash-led squad made it to the quarter-finals in Sydney in 2000. On a team with a strong mix of veteran experience and young talent, Ejim is expected to be the glue that helps it all mesh.

He represents the last of a bridge between then and now, a Toronto native who struggled to find courts to play on as a child, but persevered and now sees the fruits of that labour in the kids who can pick up a basketball and play the game at a moment's notice.

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This is how Ejim built his path.

Ejim and Kelly Olynyk celebrate a win over the Dominican Republic during a FIBA Basketball World Cup qualifier game in 2018. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Love of the game

Passion for soccer runs deep in Ejim's family. From his parents to uncles and aunts to grandparents, there is an electrocardiogram showing the through line of soccer in the hearts of this Nigerian-based family. Melvin grew up playing soccer just like the rest of his family and never really spent time watching the NBA or playing basketball.

How, then, does it enter the equation?

Enter Uncle David Omoghan — Melvin's mother's brother — who came to Canada from Nigeria in 1990 as a soccer-loving seven-year-old, but grew to love basketball because he had what was then a rare instance of growing up near a court with proper rims. He knew little about the game but was hungry to learn.

Growing up in a northwest pocket of Toronto, David's hoops teachers weren't NBA stars, they were the people who showed up to that Rexdale-area court. He would get teased for his lack of skills, but took that as motivation and started watching the players with a pen and notepad, writing down their moves. After the court cleared out, David would practice move after move until he could do it better than anyone he saw there. A basketball player was emerging, but so was a coach.

With just an eight-year gap between David and Melvin, David was happy to spend time with him and his younger brothers and show them the ropes, both of basketball and life. A regular day was filled with heading to Elizabeth's house after a workout, watching Dragon Ball Z, and just hanging out. To Melvin, Ryan, Kenny and Deon, it was like having a celebrity in the house. They had seen David's name in the newspaper, seen tapes of him playing, and knew he was the best at his school and so hung onto his every word. The compassion David has for the boys stemmed from his brother, Paul, showing him the same, putting time into watching his games, soccer at first and basketball later.

David also felt a need to occupy their time to keep them on the straight and narrow, away from the criminal activity he knew painfully well was always nearby.

"I've been through a lot," David says. "I was in gangs, I was pistol-whipped in Grade 9 in school, the only thing that kept me out of trouble was playing basketball. I love my baby nephews, I didn't want them to get involved [in that]."

The Ejim boys. (Courtesy Elizabeth Ejim)

Building blocks

It was the family's move to Brampton while Ejim was still in elementary school when life with basketball really began. David knew the boys needed structure, and made a plan to teach Melvin and his brothers either after school or weekday mornings. All those moves he had written down and practised, those were going to be the routines for the boys day-in, day-out.

This being the early 2000s, basketball courts, or even just rims to shoot at, were only beginning to crop up. There was one court with a "janky" rim because it was low enough for people to dunk on, and when that wasn't available, David would take Melvin to shoot at a brick wall and challenge him to hit the same 10-foot high brick over and over.

"It was the worst," Ejim says. "It was kind of part of the grind, and I think that's what gave me that drive and hunger because when I got on the court, I wanted it to mean something. I knew I wasn't gonna be able to play on an indoor court, play somewhere nice, play somewhere competitive for a while."

No matter the limitations, Uncle David was always looking to make sure the boys didn't miss the boat. Whether he drove without a licence to pick them up or rode bikes or sometimes even walked, the journey to a decent basketball court was always worth it for them. Even when it came to walking, there was no time to be wasted. David would pick them up at 5 a.m., equip the brothers with two basketballs each and conduct dribbling drills all the way to the YMCA.

It has paid off for not only Melvin, as his brothers all have gone on to pursue careers in basketball as well. Ryan helped the Saskatchewan Rattlers win the inaugural CEBL title in 2019. Kenny plays professionally in Spain and the youngest, Deon, plays college ball with the Illinois-Chicago Flames.

"We can't thank David enough because he was the one who saw it in all of us," Ryan says. "We all knew Melvin was going to be a really good basketball player, but David would always raise the stakes and say all of us were going to play professional basketball. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this guy's actually going to be right."

David would always raise the stakes and say all of us were going to play professional basketball. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this guy's actually going to be right.- Ryan Ejim, Melvin's brother, on his uncle and basketball teacher

The path to their respective destinations was a different YMCA each time. First-time visitors to a particular location could receive a free visitor's pass with a valid health card and that was their ticket to get in. Once the week's worth of usage was up at one location, it was on to the next. Ejim figures he's been to every YMCA with a gym in and around Toronto.

As Ejim continued to get the feel of basketball, Uncle David knew he needed more competition and took him to the Malton Mavericks tryouts as a 13-year-old. The Mavericks started out as a gym league with pick-up basketball in 2006 but quickly evolved into an organized home for basketball in its community. Mike George, who was running the program at the time, was there and let David know that Melvin lacked skill, but had good energy and wanted to block shots. That was enough for George to want to work with Melvin.

"That really changed my life because that's when I got introduced to what real basketball was, how to work in basketball, how to appreciate basketball, how to be part of a team," Ejim says. "Until then, I was just a guy that was at school and was taller than everyone, faster and stronger than everyone, and just played."

Ejim (3) with the Iowa State Cyclones at the 2012 NCAA men's tournament. (Getty Images)

Finding a path to the States

As Ejim's skills developed, he started to come face-to-face with the best Canada had to offer at the time. Tristan Thompson played for the Brampton Blue Devils and Cory Joseph was leading the Scarborough Blues. He still had no clue on how to approach basketball as a career, though, whether it was to be drafted one day or even be scouted by American colleges. With a path that for Canadians still was murky in the mid-2000s, Ejim looked around him to figure out next steps.

Seeing is believing, and representation played a huge role in making Ejim think he could aspire toward the highest levels of basketball. He saw players like Junior Cadougan and Jevohn Shepherd make names for themselves at different tournaments, picked up on where one could build a reputation to create waves across the border, and as he saw those he had just started to rub shoulders with become popular on the U.S. basketball scene, it built a whole new perspective.

"That shift, for me, was like, 'Wow, if you're good enough, maybe you can get an opportunity to play in the U.S., get a scholarship and play D1," Ejim says. "And then from there you never know. Once you get to a certain place and you're playing and putting your work in to make it to the highest level, understanding that part didn't come to me until later."

Ejim transferred to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire after convincing his mother that this was a necessary step to get where he wanted. Education for her children has always been at the forefront of Elizabeth's mind, and the idea of a career in sports was foreign to her. It took not only Melvin, but Uncle David as well to convince her.

David's words mattered most because he was a living, breathing example that good things are possible. David had received his own scholarship to play in New Mexico while studying out of Lincoln M. Alexander Secondary School in Brampton, and that helped ease Elizabeth's nerves.

With all parties in favour, he got the experience of playing against the best high schoolers in the U.S., the likes of the McDonald's All-Americans, and that's when the fruits of his labour manifested in the form of recruitment. No program stood out more than Iowa State, primarily due to then assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger.

"We went [to Iowa State] and he showed us everything, that's when I started seeing, 'Oh, this isn't bad,'" Elizabeth says. "Coach T.J. even came to Canada, came to the house and talked to us and was very good with everything we needed to know with Melvin going from high school to university."

Ejim, left, had a tryout with the Orlando Magic's Summer League team in 2015. (Getty Images)

Becoming a pro

But playing Division 1 basketball proved a culture shock for Ejim; this was a new level he hadn't played at before. He was surrounded by players who were really good, including Will Barton, now playing guard for the Denver Nuggets.

"To go one-and-done like Cory (Joseph) and Tristan (Thompson) did is unbelievable," Ejim says, referencing the two Canadians drafted into the NBA after just one year of college ball. "Those guys played at an extremely high level as soon as they came in and I realized there's levels to this. Basketball is great and you're doing well, but it might not still be for you."

Ejim wanted to make sure he was in a position to succeed regardless of what came of basketball and focused on doing well academically, with a plan to graduate with degrees in both history and business. But through his freshman and sophomore seasons, despite helping bring team success, he didn't feel like he was doing enough on an individual level to make his ultimate dream a reality.

In search of opportunities to continue to develop his game, he received an invite from the Nigerian national team to join them on a tour of China in the summer prior to his junior season. They were aware of Ejim's Nigerian background and as is the case with international competition, tried to be first movers to see if they could add talent outside of their domestic pool.

Ejim found himself playing alongside teammates such as NBAer Al Farouq-Aminu and others playing professionally in Europe, all willing to share their experiences of what it took to make it.

"That was really a huge eye opener for me," Ejim says. "I got to see what level they were at, I got to see what made them good, I really got to see where I was at and began to think, 'Maybe, you know what, I do have a chance.'"

While the experience was making Ejim feel better about his game, the invite didn't extend past that and Ejim was forced to contend with that bitterness of failing to crack an international team roster and mentally regroup ahead of his third college season. He was adding more tools to his game, specifically via a three-point shot. The improvements led to opportunity, as his Iowa State exploits impressed onlookers from the Canadian national team enough to offer him a spot on the World University Games roster. Ejim played alongside and against some of the best talent available in his age group and it once again served as a psychological boost that he had enough in his game to hold his own against everyone around him.

In his final college season of 2013-14, everything clicked and he was able to put to bed any doubts he had about his abilities. He continued to develop his game and was doing well enough to become a prominent figure on the team, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting over 50 per cent from the field. His season was highlighted by a 48-point performance, a Canadian single-game total bettered only by Vancouver native Bob Houbregs' 49 points in 1953 for the Washington Huskies.

That raised a few eyebrows and heading into the 2014 NBA draft, Ejim had sparked interest from the San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic. But when draft night was over and Ejim found himself without a team, he wasn't without a plan.

I'm not gonna sit here and be devastated, I'm gonna go try to make the most of my opportunity and go abroad and create some value in my game and maybe bring some value back.- Melvin Ejim after not being drafted into NBA

"I knew that I might not get drafted," he says, remembering his thought process. "[But] I'm not gonna sit here and be devastated, I'm gonna go try to make the most of my opportunity and go abroad and create some value in my game and maybe bring some value back."

Melvin had received interest from Italian club Virtus Roma, but that wasn't his only option. Graduating cum laude with a GPA in the 3.7-4.0 range, he was offered a research position by one of his professors. By now, though, he was all-in on basketball. The opportunity to get paid to play the game he loved and experience living in Italy was undeniable.

Ejim, second from left, and teammates during the gold-medal game against Brazil at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Forming the glue

In the years since, Ejim has built up a terrific career overseas and become a fixture in Canada's basketball exploits. Watch him play for Team Canada and he'll slide over seamlessly to defend when his teammate gets beat. Defensive rotations are his bread and butter with his mixture of size and mobility, but above all there is a level of "want to" that is rare on that end of the floor. On offensive side, he's setting screens to create space for his teammates or putting back offensive rebounds after misses. Despite being more of a focal point on the European franchises he's played for, the ego is easily set aside when it comes to doing what's necessary for the red and white.

Rowan Barrett, general manager of the Canada men's national team program and a former player who was a key figure for that 2000 Olympic team, sees a man who refuses to let his flag be trampled. Barrett can remember the ribbing he would take from Serbians, Croats, Spaniards, and especially the French — who ended Canada's hopes in 2000 with a 68-63 quarter-final victory — as he plied his trade in Europe. It wasn't a pleasant feeling. Barrett would take mental notes of those who would constantly remind him of their bragging rights and go to work on them at club level.

He sees that same pride and passion for the country in Ejim.

"He's just a rock in every single way," Barrett said of Ejim as training camp for the Olympic qualifiers got underway in Tampa, Fla. "What he adds to the group, just in terms of maturity, this is never the guy that's going to be running outside of the plan, he's always going to be helping guide the group, guide us in the right way.

"I think he's great also for some of the young guys coming in as well. And then on the court, again, sturdy, tough, defensive, he can rebound, tremendous experience now playing at a very high level — he has been for a number of years in Europe.

This is never the guy that's going to be running outside of the plan, he's always going to be helping guide the group, guide us in the right way.- Team Canada GM Rowan Barrett on Ejim

"I think that we've seen him play for us for many years, and he even sometimes becomes a little bit of a fan favourite, right, just because you can feel the mucking it up under the boards, the delivering of a hard screen, the guy that's gonna stick his nose in there and make the difficult play.

"We always love Melvin, and Melvin's always ready and wants to participate for his country."

Ejim and his family dream of seeing him representing Canada at the Olympics, but such is the state of the sport now in the country that there is no guarantee that he will crack that final roster if Canada gains a spot. When Barrett addressed the media ahead of this weeks training camp, he thanked those who had served the team for years but unfortunately couldn't make the cut with the nation now able to boast several NBA talents. Just as Ejim took someone else's spot when he first cracked the roster, he can see someone coming for him.

Ejim with Team Canada and Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse during a training session at the FIBA World Cup in Australia in 2019. (Getty Images)

Nurse wants balanced roster

Front and centre in making those final decisions will be head coach Nick Nurse, who wants a roster with a blend between international experience, players who have been there and done that in FIBA competition, along with the young emerging talent that is set to get its first taste at the senior level.

So, how vital is Ejim to Nurse's plans over the coming months? Nurse would send messages periodically to the pool of players in the mix to represent the nation over the past year, usually to check in on how they were doing, how they were feeling about their season, etc. As Nurse began to zero in on who would make the cut, he sent an email to Ejim asking if he'd be able to commit for the entire summer through August 7. After waiting a few minutes for a response, a notification flashed across his screen with a reply:

"You don't have to ask me, man, I'm in."

Nurse became the head coach after winning the 2019 NBA championship with the Raptors and so has only been a part of the program for a couple years, but recognizes the importance of having someone who's been synonymous with Canada Basketball. The value of Ejim's institutional knowledge is immense and his ability to make those new to the setup feel at ease has also shone through early at camp. After a hard session of practice on Saturday, their third in four days, the team gathered for its customary huddle to close. Bringing some levity to the scene, Ejim recognized that it was newcomer teenager Bennedict Mathurin's birthday and gathered the other rookies to sing "Happy Birthday."

"He's a leader," Nurse said of Ejim. "He's been there a long time … he's an awesome person and a great symbol of the program."

Whatever the final roster in either Victoria or potentially Tokyo looks like, it has no impact on Ejim's mindset. He knows his role to a tee and that's to be the connector of the group, maintain a calm presence whether it's a high or low tide, and put everything on the line for his country.

"Most of my basketball career has been about sacrificing in one way or another," Ejim said. "I felt like I had developed that skill of being able to sacrifice but still being able to do what I do really well. Being able to allow other people to do what they're good at and excel in something I'm good at as well.

"It never bothered me to be in that role because I had really made my career and excelled being in that role."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vivek is a sports journalist based in Toronto who primarily covers basketball, but is also passionate about soccer, tennis, and cricket. When not committed to the "Ball is Life" grind ... Let's not kid ourselves, that's all he does.

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