Say the words Canadian Basketball and the name “Ro Russell” comes to mind. Founder of Grassroots Canada Elite, dubbed “Canada’s pipeline to the NBA” and with an extensive track record that traces back to the late 1980’s, Russell at the ripe age of 45, has seen it all. Primarily responsible for opening the floodgates of what is now an all-time record number of Canadians leaving to the United States for a taste of the bright lights and the lures of Prep, AAU and NCAA basketball to being the subject of a comprehensive investigation by Canada’s National broadcaster – CBC’s The Fifth Estate for allegations of fraud.
Ro Russell sits down with BasketballBuzz for an extensive, all-exclusive interview to discuss those allegations, motives behind the documentary and to give us his thoughts on basketball in the early 90’s, including the importance of his family and his vision for the future of the sport in Canada.
BB: You have been doing this for a very long time, what made you start Grassroots Canada Elite?
RR: What made me start Grassroots Canada was in ‘88, I started coaching summer leagues with high school kids when, I myself graduated from high school and was going to college. In the summer times I would come back and try to work with the younger upcoming guys to get them better and get them opportunities. That was kind of the start of it, in terms of finding out a way for these good players who I thought should be going to the NCAA schools as well, how to help them, that’s when I start doing research in ‘89 on AAU, U.S camps contacting colleges in the States and those kinds of things and created a program in ‘91 called Toronto Elite and then we trained, played. And that was the spot where everybody came, if you were a player you needed to be there! And at that point there had been some other, brief AAU programs that had started up, you know all respect to them for what they have done over the years, but that was kind of the start and you know 20-plus years later I’m still here.
BB: You have been labelled Pro-America, Pro-NCAA. What do you have to say about that, given that you knew what you were doing and understood that some of the infrastructure wasn’t here and created a pathway to what we are seeing and experiencing today?
RR: Well it’s kind of funny because of all the different labels that I have been given over the years the different identities have also now followed suit. Whether it be AAU, you know different entities are doing AAU (Ontario Basketball), you know most of the players on the National team played NCAA basketball, played AAU, so you can see that it’s something that had to happen and it wasn’t me being Pro-American, you will hardly find somebody that is more Pro-Canadian then I am, but I was saying, hey these Canadians can play and in order to get that credence, that credibility that respect you got to go down to America and prove ourselves, whether it be high school, camps or AAU.
BB: What drives Ro Russell after all these years?
RR: My belief, my faith with God, it’s sort of my ministry to help these young men get that guidance and look forward to where their places is in the society and I feel God has put me on earth to do that. With the skills he has given me I feel like I can impact these kids’ lives, I can counsel them, I can show them, I can work with them and mentor them to be able to be positive role models themselves one day in the community and be able to take care of their families at the same time. It’s something that we’ve been doing for the last 25 years and it’s great to see. My mother who was a big humanitarian over the years has also been a big inspiration to me. Growing up and seeing her send money over to Africa and doing different missions through the church and going and doing different food drives in the community and taking in people when I was younger and helping young mothers and just helping people in the community both in Canada and Jamaica where I was born. Also now myself I feel the same need and obligation to help people. My wife has been very very supportive, she is a huge part of my ability and capability of being able to do what I’ve done over the years because it takes an extraordinary woman to be able to allow me to do what I do, to be away for periods of time to spend summer times that I would normally spend with my family with another young man who may have an issue, who may need counselling or help in some fashion, to have a wife like that has been great a help, and my two sons who are growing up being great young men are now helping my program, have been through the program and have been very supportive of the program as well, it’s taken a bunch of people in my family to be the person who I am and I’m proud of that!
BB: How do you find quality time with the family given the amount of time spent on the road travelling and the hours that you put in the gym?
RR: Social Media has been a big part of that, whether it be phone, texting, emailing, facebooking when I’m away, and just having set times where you know, hey someone needs to take care of some business in the office or in the gym, I got to spend some time with the family and just putting aside special time for the family has been great and a lot of early morning times with family, breakfast, late nights, we have been very creative in being able to find some quality time with family in order to maintain what I do. Before my sister passed away she was a huge part of helping me with that whole process, to be able to allow me to be away from the program so she could help out and keep it going and keep business as usual, she passed away on May 7th 2013 and she is sorely missed but she was a great inspiration and a great aid to myself personally as well as the organization.
CBC THE FIFTH ESTATE DOCUMENTARY
BB: What are your overall thoughts about the CBC The Fifth Estate Documentary “Fast Break” and how did that come about?
RR: I feel that sometimes when you’re an independent entity and you’re being successful and doing your thing, the system is going to try to slow you down and keep you quiet as much as possible to maintain their authority. I think there are people out there that didn’t like the fact that I was able to help young men achieve their goals and their dreams and make things happen without the full need of the system. The National program, whoever it is and if you step on enough toes they are going to try to put together something to slow you down a little bit or try to bring about a negative stereotype of what you are trying to do. It is something that is part of the business, something you’ve got to take the lumps when they come and fight back and use it as motivation and keep it moving. I think that it’s something that I have grown from and the fact that I am still here and our organization is still here, strong, vibrant and expanding, improving and moving forward has shown that the different allegations and the different perceptions and things that were addressed in that documentary weren’t true. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. I am not perfect but I did my best and that is why I have maintained strong relationships with the young men that I have been involved with over the last few years when I was down in North Carolina. To this day one of our former guys that was almost the centre of that documentary, Braeden Anderson, reached out to me on Twitter when there was a recent story out there in regards to another young man (Xavier Rathan-Mayes) that had some academic issues going to college. He reached out to me in encouragement to keep my head up and keep strong. That must have shocked a lot of people who thought that he might be someone who wouldn’t do something like that. People in the know, know what it is, and that’s why we are growing in numbers and growing in volunteers and growing in support and we’ll keep going.
Where would you put the CBC documentary as a challenging time, did that rank up there?
RR: Yeah I think so, I think that it ranked up there because you had to do a lot of damage control to really let people that you know and that support you know, that this is not what it is. The organization is still the same and what’s been painted there’s a reason behind it. Just getting the word out as much as possible was the most challenging part for me, because the people that have a negative perception based on being threatened by what we do or being jealous of what we do, they are not going to change their opinion but you want to make sure the people that are either neutral or the people that support you know what’s really going on. So getting that word out and just rallying the troops around was the biggest challenge. My family was there for me every step of the way, they didn’t even watch the documentary, they wouldn’t even give that satisfaction to CBC to let their eyes look at the documentary because they already know the real Ro Russell they didn’t need to see their choreographed negative perception. I think that there are a lot of positives in starting out a prep school program because in America people are starting prep schools all-over the place, but you gotta have help, gotta have resources and you have to have delegation and because I was really enthusiastic in making it work and making it happen and had a lot of knowledge of what to do I tried to do it on my own and sometimes you are not able to cross your T’s and dot your I’s and if anything, if I can change that, it would be to have a lot of more help.
BB: CBC The Fifth Estate is not a show many people want to be featured on, they usually don’t put people there for the right reasons. When we were here back in March 2013 you did your own research and found out what the Fifth Estate is. Was that a little bit over the over the top?
RR: Very much over the top, because usually the people you have on the Firth Estate are people that have impacted the society, the country the world on very largely negative platform, and all of the hundreds, thousands of kids that I have helped almost got thrown out the door for a couple negative examples, you know what I mean. So they totally negated the whole 25 years of all the positive things that I have done over a couple negatives and I would challenge them (CBC) or anybody to show anyone out there that has done 100% great work without any hitches, any issues, any challenges, any problems and that can never be done. So, it was totally over the top and that’s why I feel it was a personal vendetta and thanks to the Lord and support that I have that I’m still here alive, vibrant and moving on. That also shows them that putting me on that show was totally over the top and totally unnecessary.
BB: Obviously you were there for specific reasons, there were serious allegations, they were very serious, the word was “Fraud.” At any point when you were doing this did you not know that you weren’t dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s and leaving yourself open for the scrutiny that has come your way?
RR: Not necessarily because you are trying to make it happen, you’re busy trying to find solutions, move forward, create this program and make it happen and you got advice from other people in America that were doing the same thing and there were no issues with them and so things came up on a dime that you weren’t expecting and you had to make the best decisions you could to make it happen. The fact that I never been contacted by the police, Revenue Canada or any government agency after the show aired showed that there was no fraud, there was no intent of fraud or anything like that. I lost thousands of dollars personally, it almost impacted my marriage, financially, based on that situation because so many things came up that you didn’t expect that you had to go out and deal with, and a lot of that needed financial attention and you are working with young men who played in your organization so you have no reason or thought to do anything to exploit them. They’re kids you have had since they were in the 7th grade that you are looking to help get scholarships and get opportunities. The last thing on your mind is to exploit them and their parents who came multiple times to visit them and myself and went back home and left their young men with me and the following year brought him right back. So a lot of it was totally blown out of proportion and two isolated incidents over the course of many doesn’t institute anything that I did negatively or fraudulently.
BB: AAU has been around for a long time and it ain’t going anywhere, why is it so heavily scrutinized?
RR: AAU is heavily scrutinized because of a couple of big stories that have come out over the years that have portrayed it in a negative light in regards to the money that can be gotten from it, from certain specific situations and in certain activities of either agents involvement or coaches integrity. So those stories are more attractive for the media to put out there than the everyday stuff that happens. So you have 99% of that is great, one thing happens that’s not so great and they focus on that, and that’s kind of what happened to me as well, where over the years, like if people thought about it, 300 hundred kids going division one that’s up there in the Top 5 in North America ever! They never talk about that, you know, they talk about the one or two situations that didn’t work out because those things are a lot more newsworthy from their perspective to put out there. So because of the potential of those couple of incidents that have happened where either players or families got some money from colleges or agents involved with players and how they found out afterwards, whether it be OJ Mayo or Marcus Camby or whatever then there’s that perception that this is what it’s all about. So when I bring AAU to Canada some people have seen those stories as their introduction to AAU and they don’t know the daily things that happened from back in the 40’s so they think okay, AAU is not good, but like I said before the proof is in the pudding when you have a guy like Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Myck Kabongo the list goes on who have benefited greatly from it, and rose to that level where they achieved their goals of being McDonald’s All-American. They’ve gotten tons of opportunity and met great people and traveled all across the country and played in great events. There is way more positive that outweighs the negative and it’s because Canada is new to it that they have kind of received in a negative light. But as time goes on you can see that’s changing because even some of their programs that they do, whether it be OBA, provincial program, they’re doing AAU! When that happened last summer it gave me a chuckle to see that those same people that were ridiculing me for AAU are now doing the exact same thing and so it makes you feel good being a pioneer knowing that eventually they will understand why you did it, but at the beginning they are pretty negative and skeptical about what you are doing but as a visionary you can kinda see forward that eventually people will know that it’s a good thing for the country.
BB: The OBA situation hit home with a lot of people, do you feel that had anything to with that documentary? Obviously, it’s a competition for the top kids, Grassroots on a negative light, OBA on a positive light, what do you think about that?
RR: No, because even after the documentary we had an overwhelming increase of kids coming out to our tryouts, people wanted to get involved with us in voluntarily level, or people wanted to come step up and support the program financially, so that didn’t deter people because they knew better, they did their research and looked past it and saw that there was more than what the documentary showed. For instance in the documentary one of the main people was Leo Rautins who at the time was the National Head Coach and he was speaking negatively about AAU, which his son (Andy Rautins) played for most of his high school career. So people saw through all that and said that just didn’t add up. If he didn’t like it then why did his son play, why did 90% of players on the national team play and those kinds of things. It didn’t really have that much of an effect on people either not wanting to play AAU or wanting to play OBA, they knew better, they go to these tournaments and they see the competition and they see the scouts, they see the coaching and they say how it helps their game to be ready for college and how it brings out the best in them how they come back and they see that they gotta work on certain things to be more efficient and more productive in this basketball game, they learn a lot from each experience they get. They get so many opportunities from it, from the way they play and now we have been able to help break the basketball barriers from Canada to the USA so now that’s why you see so many guys getting opportunities to be drafted, to play in the D-League, to play in the summer league, to getting a host of opportunities. The last person to get drafted in the first round was Jamaal Magloire eleven years ago, now you almost have every year somebody who is getting drafted in the first round. That is going to continue and we’ll have more multiple first round draft picks as time goes on. Again, the proof is in the pudding and I will just sit back and keep doing what I’m doing and have a little smile.
BB: Where do you envision AAU in Canada in the next twenty (20) years?
RR:In twenty years from now, high school basketball as we know it, will almost be gone, I think that academies are now taking the place of the high school system of elite basketball, both with kids going down to high school in the US and now going over to academies. Through that, AAU is going to be commonplace in most cities across Canada. It’s good for the country, it was good for America, you know what I’m saying, so I think that the competition and the opportunity for these kids will help more kids, unfortunately, go down to U.S, go stateside. That’s the only drawback from the whole process is CIS programs, other than fallback kids, are losing out on these good talented players, but until, the government steps up and gives full scholarships and opens it up like how Ryerson University is doing, that’s how they will keep some kids in house. But for the big picture it’s gonna help kids be more ready to play division one basketball, be effective players in the NBA and also eventually help the National Program to show what the potential is that they can one day medal at these World Championships and these Olympics.
BB: What is your relationships and level of communication with all the other competitive clubs in Toronto?
RR: Well, most of the competitive organizations now kinda had their start with Grassroots, most of the top programs, they played for me in the past or they worked with me and then branched out and started their own entity. So at the end of the day you were responsible for producing these other organizations so it’s all good to be competitive as long as they keep it ethical but at the same time it’s good to know that you had a part in their development and where they are at now, because of where the start was with the program.
BB: Jane and Finch is not known to be best areas in Toronto or in Canada? What does Grassroots mean to the community overall?
RR: Just like Rucker Park is to Brooklyn I think this is what Falstaff has become, even though there are some negative sides to the area, there are some great positive sides to the area. This is a haven for kids to come away from the negativity, the distractions, the tough times, and they can come here knowing that an opportunity is going to be given, they can be around positive people, people that are going to mentor them, that are going to help out, work with them and help a lot of these young men realize their goals and dreams and because of that we’ve had people from Vancouver all the way to Halifax in this gym and in between. We’ve had the likes Tristan Thompson, Denham Brown and even Andrew Wiggins been in this gym and all types of other guys outside that. Basketball people, people of promise have found their way to Falstaff. No matter what the media has said or the news has said, we never had an issue directly. The community embraces it and even the police around the area are very involved and very supportive of what we are trying to.
BB: Has it ever been part of your ambition to perhaps coach a National Team, Have you thought about going down that path?
RR: Absolutely, you know most of the kids, you coached a lot of the kids, you know what can be done, you seen it, you have your mentality of certain things that can help and improve, I’ve always had the mindset that one day I would love to be a part of the staff, coach a team, be involved with their training sessions and those kinds of things, we’ll see we’ll see, what happens.
BB: What’s next for yourself and Grassroots Canada?
RR: We are a very resilient organization and because with have been pioneers and started a lot of things it’s going to be perceived not so great at the moment but as time goes on that will change and we are moving forward we’ve adjusted our infrastructure we brought in Farley Flex a very known public figure in the community to be our president and some other people have come on board to strengthen our organization and in the meantime I will be embarking on opportunity in the United States, having learned what I’ve learned over the last few years in the terms of resources and having that backing and having that manpower to make a successful prep school program work. I’m embarking on opportunity which was given to me by Phase 1 academy in Arizona to go and coach a prep school program down there and that hasn’t been publicly announced yet so that’s something that has happened recently and it’s a great situation and if any positives come out from the former situation I had at North Carolina being able to know exactly which direction to go as it comes and what things to put in place from the beginning to make it a very vibrant opportunity and from the feedback that the parents are giving us and the feedback that the players that are in Arizona are giving to the parents then we are on our way, in being able to establish a high level prep school program.
BB: Where does education rank in the Grassroots mantra?
RR: At the top! Whether it be actually academics or life skills, that’s the biggest thing that we stand for, we use basketball as tool to give these guys an opportunity to get free an education and to have a career, to be successful people in the community, citizens of the community and we are forever mentoring. We are forever teaching these kids life skills, how to do the right thing, how to present themselves, how to carry themselves, how to be successful in life and take these opportunities that are out there and become something, teaching these parents as well to be involved in these kids lives because it’s a village that helps to build these kids up. Education is the number one thing, over everything, because without education there’s nothing to fall back on. Most of these kids play basketball for maybe 20-to-25 years of their life, but they have another 50-to-70 of their life to live, so education is number one.
BB: Any last words for Canada, anything you perhaps wanted to say that you’ve wanted to get it out of your chest or wish anybody good luck?
BB: Chuckle…There’s some things that I would like to say and maybe one day I will, but for now I just want people to know I’ve done this over the course of 25 years the way I felt was the best way to do it, for the betterment of Basketball in Canada and for the betterment of kids. I go to bed each night sleeping soundly, knowing that my heart is in the right place and that I have impacted enough kids’ lives in the last couple decades to one day be thought about overall in a positive light. No matter what people say at the end of the day, I did something things, I made some stuff happen that I think won’t be duplicated and imitated and I’m proud of that and still got some years left in me! #FreeRussell…