It’s all about fame, television, March Madness…and a free education. These are the thoughts of many high school stars across Canada who dream of playing before 15,000 fans, international TV coverage and the blur of neon lights in the land of Stars and Stripes. Whatever happened to a quality Canadian education and five solid years of basketball, in that order?
Gary Johnson, Director of Statistics for the NCAA says “that the number of Canadian kids playing NCAA basketball continues to grow, there are currently about 75 male players from Canada playing Division One basketball.” Denham Brown of Toronto and the Connecticut Huskies is the most prominent of the group receiving 26 minutes and averaging 10 points per game. Beyond that, it’s a dog’s breakfast with a myriad of minutes, points, rebounds, divisions, prep schools, educational experiences and coaches as Canadian players say “should I pay or should I go?” Therein lies the debate.
Steve Konchalski, head coach of St.Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, maintains that U.S. scholarships serve some Canadian players well. “For Leo Rautins, Steve Nash, and Jamaal Magloire, it’s been a free education and NBA contracts. For others, research is the issue as many players don’t investigate the roles they’ll be playing or the school recruiting program from junior colleges that can create instant impact into a line-up and the stability of a coach. Colin Charles played at St. John’s and had three different coaches in four years. Every year at the NCAA Division One level, 60 to 65 coaches change jobs, that’s 1 of every 7 which means line-ups and status of scholarships will change due to the pressure to win. Players ask this question all the time – “Am I good enough for Division One, rather than the other way around?”
Coach Konchalski, a former head coach of the Canadian National Team, has 2 exceptional players playing on the Canadian Under-21 squad in 6-10 Behemoth Neil McDonald from Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia and Gary Gallimore, a smooth 6-3 guard from Ottawa. They played a colourful schedule last year including exhibition wins over Harvard and New Hampshire, and an exciting last second loss to Georgia. The tempo picks up again for the upcoming season including a date with Maryland and George Mason on the calendar. Combined with tuition assistance, Canadian players can benefit from an education at home while playing in the CIS or CCAA. The issue of a free education is best posed to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities as well as the posse of politicians in Ottawa.
Olivier Lamoureux, a 6-9 post player has decided to return to the hotbed of Quebec and the McGill Redmen after red-shirting at the University of Massachusetts. As a rookie playing with the Minutemen, he struggled with injuries and received a medical red-shirt. The Minutemen, which finished the year at 16 –12 and were not selected to participate in the NIT, fired head coach Steve Lappas and replaced him with Travis Ford at the end of last season. Much to the delight of Craig Norman, the CIS Coach of the Year in 2003–04, Lamoureux will be one of ten players heavily recruited to add depth and impact. That adds to his vision of being on a consistent national contender and at a school with a great academic reputation.
Over five years of covering the high school beat, Jason Paul, a sport reporter with the Toronto Sun has heard the old adage “I want to play in the big time” from many players. He adds “players have little knowledge of academic standing, living standards, status of scholarships or whether they come with strings, or coaches with a win at all cost attitude.” While Rowan Barrett, formerly of the St. John’s RedStorm and the Canadian National Team, thought about packing it in several times. So too did Cordell Llewellyn, another former National Team player who transferred from Wake Forest to Rhode Island playing in the backcourt with NBA star Cutino Mobley. Both cited fierce coaching attitudes and making money in the world of neon and D1.
A significant amount of players have taken a stab at playing in the NCAA only to find themselves soon returning to Canada. This was the situation for many such as Pasha Bains and Kyle Wilson who had a run in the NCAA, before coming back to the serenity of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University. Bob Huggins, former coach of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats said it all when he told a Canadian recruiter that “(I am) there to coach basketball and produce a championship team, let the administrators worry about player academic eligibility.” The word former, cannot be underscored enough, as Cincinnati has produced amongst the worst percentages of graduate players in the NCAA.
Ro Russell, a long-time Toronto area recruiter and Director of Grassroots Canada Basketball, offers this analogy: “For many high school stars, it’s an economic situation. Players are willing to trade off the minutes for the sake of free education. They don’t want to see their parents take out loans and bury themselves in debt to play at the Canadian university level. Some Canadian schools like Brandon and Cape Breton have been creative with their recruiting and tuition. N’Kruma Hylton usually worked summer camps to offset his costs while playing with the Capers while Brandon has a storied history of recruiting under legendary former coach, Jerry Hemmings”.
Legendary high school coach and former Toronto Raptors Community Relations Manager Al Quance, is a proponent of Canadian content. “Keep the kids at home; however, the issue of academic standing does come into the equation. Many are funnelled through the prep school system in the States which feeds D1, 2 and 3. The high schools are not doing enough to meet academic requirements of Canadian post-secondary education – we’re not producing a quality product. Basketball players are attempting to research for consistent sources of information and there have been attempts by Basketball Ontario and the Toronto Raptors to address this issue; however, it’s never come to fruition as a difference in philosophies and mandates has emanated from the Toronto Raptors front office”.
Kevin Kloostra, a 6-4 swingman, has decided to transfer to the University of Windsor and play with coach Chris Oliver’s Lancers. Kloostra, from Chatham, Ontario played last season at Casper College in Wyoming where he led the region in scoring with 21.4 points per game and was named an all-star. Academics, good schedule (including NCAA competition) and being close to home were contributing factors in his decision.
Mike Katz, men’s basketball coach at the University of Toronto and a former National Team coach offers this million dollar question, “Where are they going? Many parents, coaches and advisers don’t understand or have a perspective of the scholarship issue”. The father of McMaster star Ben Katz, informs players looking for an ideal situation including the economic factor, to look at Ontario schools. “For the first time, merit-based scholarships are being awarded starting in the player’s second year. The criteria includes maintaining a B average and other certain academic standards. The coach will obviously have an influence on who in his line-up will be awarded these prestigious sums of money. The difference comes down to scholarship money”.
University of Victoria coach, Craig Beaucamp, thinks the U.S. scholarship issue is a lot about perception and glamour.” UVic has always sold its program on playing significant roles and a quality education, something not always available to scholarship athletes in the States”. The Vikings came away with a win and a loss last year against Creighton, a top 20 D1 school from the year before, and Kansas State, respectively. The upcoming season includes a tour of Brigham Young, Weber State and Colorado State. “We can compete with the lower half of NCAA Division One schools”.
Over the years, we have seen many stars come back from the Promised Land with disappointment. Eric Hammond, John Karpis, Roger Rollocks, Chaka Harris and Dan Eves are a courtful of players that come to mind to the many basketball junkies north of the border. Yet many will continue to be drawn towards U.S. schools, instead of exploring post-secondary options at home in Canada as they watch the minutes logged by players like Kingsley Costain at Pepperdine, Andrew Carpenter at Denver and Jermaine Bucknor at Richmond. The spotlight, TV cameras, and free education can all attract players to the U.S.; unfortunately, it’s not always sufficient to keep them.