||07-09-2012 11:02 PM
ESPN: Canadian ballers
Five Canadians -- Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Andrew Nicholson, Robert Sacre and Kris Joseph -- were selected in the last two NBA drafts. Andrew Wiggins is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2014 recruiting class.
Those connected to the Canadian hoops scene suggest that the number of basketball prodigies birthed by the country will multiply in the coming years. Many will hail from the minority communities that arrived in the 1970s through more relaxed immigration policies.
"A number of components have come together to create this wave of talent we're in the process of unleashing," said Wayne Parrish, CEO of Canada Basketball, the nation's official basketball governing body.
Immigrants come, children choose basketball
The soldiers arrived at dusk and yelled for Texas guard Myck Kabongo's father. Toure Kabongo told his wife, Nene, and children to hide under a bed.
Nene, however, jumped from a window in the laundry room and alerted a neighbor, an ex-bodyguard with a gun collection. The man grabbed his gun and fired two shots into the air. The soldiers fled.
Violent and intimidating military displays were common enough in the tumultuous Democratic Republic of the Congo that the Kabongo family decided to leave that day.
Toure journeyed to the United States alone, but during a trip to Canada, his wife's brother persuaded him to take advantage of that country's immigration policies. So he moved to Canada after being granted entry as a political refugee.
Five years after he left Africa, Toure brought his family to the nation.
"My husband wanted us to do better, have a good life," said Nene.
In 1976, Canada eliminated a ban on non-European immigrants. Its new policies catered to three groups: the educated, families seeking reunification and refugees. Since that time, the country has become one of the most diverse nations in the world. From 1996 through 2006, Canada granted 2 million-plus immigrants and refugees -- most from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean -- permanent resident status, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Many settled into Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto -- home to more than one-third of the country's population -- and moved to urban communities as they sought fresh starts. Their children chose hoops over hockey sticks.
Basketball was identified as the fastest-growing sport in Canada in a 2006 study conducted by Solutions Research Group. The same study listed basketball as the No. 1 sport among "fast-growing visible minority groups."
"In the same way that basketball became an outlet for inner city kids in American cities, it sort of worked out that way for minority kids from fairly recent immigrant communities in Canadian cities," said Christopher Moore, a Canadian historian.
Thompson's parents are Jamaican. Wiggins' mother was born in Barbados. Marquette standout Junior Cadougan's mother was born in Trinidad and Tobago but grew up in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. All three are Toronto natives.
"Every area really had community centers, and people would just always come after school to play. We had night runs where you could go back and play at night," said Myck Kabongo, adding that basketball helped him stay safe and focused while living in one of Toronto's roughest areas. "The gyms were always open for us to play in. You fall in love with it playing every day, really."
The sport's swelling fan base forced the NBA to take notice. In 1995, the league arrived and changed the way an entire country viewed the game.
Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos tried hockey.
An uncle played in the NHL. The Washington Capitals drafted his cousin.
But the ice didn't offer the same thrills he experienced on the hardwood. And as Nash developed into a superstar in the NBA, Pangos -- and children throughout Canada -- chose alternative paths.
Regardless of age, race or location, Nash was the model for young Canadian basketball players.
"It was always Steve Nash, being Canadian and seeing that it's possible. And he's about the same height as me," Pangos said. "Steve Nash … is probably the biggest [inspiration]."
Pangos has basketball blood. His father, Bill, is the coach of the women's team at York University in Toronto, where he coaches Pangos' sister, Kayla. His mother, Patty, played college basketball in Canada.
In his youth, he played for various national and provincial squads but couldn't consistently find high-level competition in Ontario. He often trained alone or with his father.
Canadian visionaries have tried to eliminate those obstacles by reconfiguring the entire system so that the country's best players have access to the resources they need.
Although the Canadian high school landscape offers limited competition for the country's elite, a burgeoning club system gives children who want to play against more talented athletes an option. Wayne Dawkins, founder of Phase1 Basketball, created a national prep league for the top club teams three years ago.
Nash was recently named general manager of the country's senior men's team, a move praised throughout Canada's basketball community. Many believe it will lead to greater interest and more structure as the national icon leads the effort.
Canadian national team officials are also identifying the country's top players earlier. Steve Nash Youth Basketball -- the nation's version of Pop Warner football, Parrish said -- has affected more than 25,000 Canadian children ages 5-13.
"You've got this steady stream of athletes coming through," Parrish said. "We have a lot of very strong athletes. They're getting very early training, primarily."
AAU coaches helped by creating all-star squads that brought the top players, many from the inner city, together for the first time. Ro Russell, founder of Toronto-based Grassroots Canada, coached Thompson, Joseph and a multitude of players from the Toronto area that eventually left the country to play at prep schools and colleges in the United States.