The Great Canadian Hoops Hope

Despite a disappointing rookie season in the NBA, Anthony Bennett’s star couldn’t be any brighter in the impoverished Toronto neighborhood of his youth.

The Great Canadian Hoops Hope

The high-rise towers in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighborhood stretch into the sky in shades of faded brown and gray, but at dusk, lit by the flame of the sun, they glow like the burning end of a match.

In February, the sun fades as the workday ends, and the Jane Street bus bumps down the snow-caked road, standing room only at six in the evening. It’s filled with chatter in different dialects — Jamaican Creole, Spanish, Portuguese. A reggae song plays on someone’s cell phone. The bus creeps forward, inches from the bumper in front of it. The wind pushes north up Jane, barreling past Finch Avenue.

In this corridor of northwest Toronto, there is hope and ambition, but the nuance of ordinary life rarely filters into the mainstream. The media comes around when another body drops, and it leaves shortly after. There is a history in Jane and Finch, an oft-told narrative that only further perpetuates the community’s problems — violence, gangs, poverty, isolation.

There are other stories — of happiness and strength, of those overcoming ghettoization and a lifestyle dictated by its environment — but it’s mostly on mute to the world on the other side; the crime makes too much noise.

The townhouse complex known as The Lanes in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto.
The townhouse complex known as The Lanes in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto.

At 300 Grandravine Drive, there is a 306-unit townhouse development known locally as The Lanes. The homes are stacked back and forth in rows, a labyrinth of alleys and tarmac and brick walls. The blinds in each home, uniform in sun-bleached pastel, are mostly drawn shut. Front walks are peppered with tricycles and rusted-out barbecues, chained in place and buried beneath the snow. A sagging wood fence, coated in chipped green paint, winds up and down the enclosure.

The surrounding landscape is flat and treeless, concrete and steel. On one brown brick wall, “FAMILY FIRST” is written in white chalk and block letters. The imprint is fading, washed out by time and weather.

Anthony Bennett grew up here.

This past June, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern called Bennett up to the stage at Barclays Center in Brooklyn as the number one overall pick in the NBA draft. It was the first time in the NBA’s sixty-eight-year history that a Canadian was the top pick. No one, not even Bennett, was expecting it. When Stern called out his name, the room rattled with nervous chatter. Bill Simmons, an ESPN analyst, could only shout with surprise, before quipping, “I need medical help.”

UNLV's Anthony Bennett, who was selected first by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA basketball draft, speaks during a news conference Thursday, June 27, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, who was selected first by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA basketball draft, speaks during a news conference Thursday, June 27, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Two days later, Bennett held his first press conference back in The Lanes.

He stood on a stage of wooden pallets, the high summer sun beating down, and told the community that this was still his home. “I came from just down the street,” he said. “I’m just like you guys.”

The local children momentarily stood still as the sudden hero stepped into their world and the camera crews and reporters followed — there, this time, to celebrate a measure of success.

Bennett draped his massive arms around the residents, a black polo shirt hanging loosely from his frame, and they laughed and shouted his name. He posed for pictures and walked through the neighborhood, over the same tarmac against which he’d spent countless hours pounding a basketball as a child.

He’d returned as a basketball player, but his importance stretches beyond athletics. He is a source of inspiration; a running and dunking testament of success.

When he left, he promised to come back again.

Bennett entered the NBA at twenty years old, not quite old enough to have a drink in his new city, but old enough to carry the weight of its basketball fans. Cleveland lost its son, the self-appointed Chosen One, when LeBron James, born and raised in Akron, headed to South Beach four years ago. In his place, a young point guard, Kyrie Irving, is trying to restore the faith of the city’s basketball fans, a responsibility that Bennett now shares.

The Cleveland Cavaliers' Anthony Bennett dunks in front of Detroit Pistons' Andre Drummond during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Anthony Bennett dunks in front of Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Bennett is 6’8”, 260 pounds, with wide eyes, full cheeks and a face that makes him look even younger than his twenty years. He is also, unexpectedly, at the forefront of an unprecedented wave of Canadian basketball talent.

This past year more than one hundred Canadians played NCAA Division 1 basketball; many were impact players with professional potential, and more are on the way. Next year, Trey Lyles, a 6’10” forward from Canada’s central prairies, widely considered the best Canadian in the high school class of 2014, is expected to start at Kentucky. Andrew Wiggins, who declared for the NBA draft this month after one college season at Kansas, could become the second Canadian to go first overall. Canada’s national basketball program has begun identifying talented kids who are still in grade school, placing them into their system, and grooming them to follow in the wake carved by Bennett and the rest. Canada’s basketball pipeline, for the foreseeable future, is surging.

Some of these players, like Wiggins, have the potential to be transformative talents and saviors of an NBA franchise. They could, eventually, outshine Bennett. At worst, his career could be reduced to a footnote, a piece of trivia, his one brief historical moment all that is preserved — but it’s far too early to tell and in Toronto, there’s an entire community betting otherwise.

At Ryerson University’s Athletic Centre in Toronto’s downtown core, Drew Ebanks sits in the top row of hard plastic bleachers. For almost seventy years the building was home to the Toronto Maple Leafs; now it’s three parts university facility — weight room, basketball court, hockey rink — and one part grocery store. On the court, the Ryerson Rams are playing the Queen’s Gaels in the first round of the Canadian University playoffs.

Ebanks is the founder and co-creator of On Point Basketball, a series devoted to the Canadian basketball scene that airs on NBA TV Canada. He’s been part of Toronto’s basketball community — a family, he calls it — for much of his life.

“The basketball support in Toronto is unbelievable,” he says, his head swiveling with the action on the court as his cousin, Roshane Roberts, brings the ball up for Queens. “The guys that are finding some success are role models, and they’re always quick to come back and go out to events and offer advice to the younger kids. It’s a close-knit group. Everyone pushes each other to find success.”

During the breaks in play, he tweets out the score and snaps photos of the players on his cellphone. More than once, local athletes come over to check in with Ebanks and say hello.

He remembers the night in June when David Stern read out Bennett’s name. “I wasn’t expecting number one; no one was expecting number one,” he says. “When that happened I freaked out. My phone blew up with text messages. I was so happy for Canada.”

“AB’s the future, man,” he continues, leaning forward into his words. “He’s tailor-made for the NBA. He’s athletic, highly skilled, has tremendous body size. I remember watching him play in the city. He reminded me of the old-school guys, like Larry Johnson. He was just attacking rims, attacking without abandon.”

In a preseason a game against the Orlando Magic, Bennett, for a few moments, looked ready to meet those expectations. He took control of the game in the final six minutes, scoring fourteen straight points. He scored on step-back and turnaround jump shots, in an array of post moves, and from beyond the three-point line, displaying a shot with beautiful mechanics.

With less than two minutes left and the Cavs up by two, he picked an errant pass from up off the floor, squared up to the basket and launched a deep three that fell through the mesh and pushed the lead to five points.

At the other end of the court, the Cavaliers’ bench erupted. His teammates jumped up and down, waved towels in the air and shouted encouragement. Bennett back-pedaled across midcourt, bouncing on his toes, trying to keep a straight face and his emotion contained.

“He’s accepted into the fold now,” Austin Carr, the Cavaliers color commentator and ten-year NBA veteran told those watching. “The young fella is part of the Cavaliers team now.”

There haven’t been many more moments like that. In his first four games in the NBA Bennett missed every shot he took. By the second month of the season his struggles had only gotten worse. His confidence was shot, he was out of shape, his playing time was sparse and erratic, and the Cavaliers struggled with chemistry, unable to find any semblance of on-court cohesiveness or identity. The losses mounted and Bennett became a target of collective anxiety. Fans and sports columnists gaped at his mostly empty box scores, game after game, like motorists passing an accident.

Sports pundits materialized in shouting unanimity: Bennett was a wasted pick. He was a bust and he’d set the franchise back. He was lazy. He didn’t care about himself, or the team, or Cleveland. For the most hyperbolic, less than three months into his first season, Bennett’s NBA career was already over. It was time to move on.

In Jane and Finch the families watched, their support tethered to their shared roots. Bennett was still the same neighborhood kid — a kind, gentle soul, a torrent of gregarious laughter and long limbs, tearing up and down the local basketball courts. From The Lanes, they sent out tweets with the hashtag #WeBelieveInAB. They had no reason not to.

There was circumstance to Bennett’s struggles. A muscle tear in his left shoulder had ended his sole college season at UNLV early, and the resulting time away from the game caused him to miss the NBA pre-draft workouts, the draft combine and the summer league — essential training for any rookie but especially the first overall pick, whose good fortune is accompanied by relentless pressure and un-tempered expectations.

Bennett played on, waiting for the skills he displayed in that long forgotten Orlando game to return. The critics’ voices rose louder, their words washing over each missed shot and dropped pass and fumbled rebound. It was a tumultuous season, a failed season by any basketball measure, but in Jane and Finch, the support drummed on.

At 308B Grandravine Drive, in the heart of The Lanes, laughter spills out from behind the front door of the Boys and Girls Club.

The newly refurbished building opened this past September, after eight years of funding initiatives. The space is clean and bright, with red chairs and round tables and new computers. There’s a lounge, a weight room, a recording studio and a dance studio.

Jon Blak takes a photo of Robin Pariagh in front of the mural that reads "Dream" and depicts basketball player Anthony Bennett.
Jon Blak takes a photo of Robin Pariagh in front of the mural that reads “Dream” and depicts basketball player Anthony Bennett.

Behind the club and buried beneath mounds of grey, silted snow, there’s a basketball court. In February, icicles hang from the mesh-less rims and snow floats down through the hoop. The snow shrinks as the month pass, and in April, with the temperature hovering above zero, children run up and down the court’s sun-faded green surface. Their hands, numbed by the cold, intermittently disappear inside sweater sleeves. The edges of the court are frayed, the asphalt wicking away in thin clumps. In the red hue of the early evening sun, two young boys take turns shooting at a basket. The rhythm of the bouncing ball echoes around the courtyard and front doors begin to creak open, tiny heads popping out behind them, looking to see who is on the court. Within minutes there are eight children playing, boys and girls, separate games of one-on-one unfolding underneath the same basket. They shout and laugh and mimic the players they’ve seen on television.

“I’m too fresh for you,” shouts one boy. “You can’t guard me,” comes another.

Behind them, painted on the back end of the Boys and Girls Club, a mural of Bennett overlooks the court. He soars through the air, in splashes of red and white, his arms cocked back behind his head, a basketball in his hands, ready to be slammed through a net. Beside it, in large colorful letters, reads “DREAM.”

Community director Rayon Brown at the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club Youth Center in Toronto.
Community director Rayon Brown at the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club Youth Center in Toronto.

Inside the club, Chris Blackwood and Rayon Brown sit at a table, planning an upcoming talent show for the community. The two men, each in their thirties, are trying to change the culture of Jane and Finch from the inside out. Bennett factors into their plans.

Blackwood is short and thickly built, with high energy and carrying an obvious passion for what he does. He’s the founder of a nonprofit that offers after-school programs to youth, the same type of programs that Bennett used to rely on as a kid.

Blackwood grew up in Jane and Finch and still calls it home. He left briefly for school when his basketball skills landed him a partial scholarship to Concordia University in Montreal. After graduating with a degree in human relations, he came back and began working with Brown, the community director of the Boys and Girls Club.

“When AB got drafted, it added a whole new life to the kids around here,” Blackwood says. “In the summer the basketball courts are packed now. You can go anywhere in Jane and Finch and ball is running outside. It wasn’t like that prior to AB going number one.”

Inside the dance studio, Donte Francis, eleven, sits crookedly on a plastic chair, his feet suspended over glowing hardwood, his Air Jordan sneakers reflecting in the wood’s grain. He says Bennett’s success and his NBA status have made him think about his own future. “Anthony showed us he can play in the NBA,” he says. “So we know we can play there, too.”

There’s a long history of basketball talent coming out of Jane and Finch but there’s also a history of roadblocks — whether it was violence, injuries or some unforeseen element grabbing hold of a life and rerouting it. Bennett’s story and his success has brought basketball back into the community.

Dance instructor and youth mentor Cheyenne Salmon (L) and Priscilla Ware practice a routine at the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club Youth Center in Toronto.
Dance instructor and youth mentor Cheyenne Salmon (L) and Priscilla Ware practice a routine at the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club Youth Center in Toronto.

Before Bennett there was Denham Brown, who vaulted to the top of the Toronto hoops scene after scoring 111 points in a high school game. He went on to play college ball at the University of Connecticut, helping the Huskies capture a national championship in 2004. In the 2006 NBA draft he was drafted fortieth overall by the Seattle Supersonics but never found success with the league. He’s spent most of his professional career in Europe.

Olu Famutimi is another Jane and Finch product, a captivating athlete who moved to Flint, Michigan, for his final high school years. At one point he was rated the number seven prospect in the nation by ESPN before a knee injury robbed him of the athleticism he’d built his game on. A poor decision to declare early for the 2005 NBA draft followed. He was passed over by every team.

Junior Cadougan left Jane and Finch at fifteen years old and moved to Atlanta for greater exposure — at the time he was considered one of the top teenage point guards in the world. Weeks before he left, Junior’s four-year-old brother, Shaquan, got caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting and was hit by four stray bullets while on the family’s front porch. After a successful college career at Marquette, he spent this past summer playing for the Milwaukee Bucks’ summer league team but hasn’t yet cracked an NBA roster.

Bennett’s success is rooted in the work ethic he learned from his mother, Edith. She raised Anthony and his older siblings Danielle and Sheldon on her own, while working two full-time nursing jobs, one at a hospital and another at a mental health facility. She would glide in and out of the home, arriving from one shift only to leave for another. When the streetlights came on, the rule was Anthony had to be back inside. He filled the hours in between at the Boys and Girls Club.

When he was ten years old, the family moved to Brampton, a city on the outskirts of Toronto, and into suburbia, where there were no basketball courts. Bennett stopped playing the game for three years.

“It was just school, homework, and going to sleep,” he said in an interview with the CBC. “I was just a regular kid, not an athlete.” Eventually, the skills he cultivated in Jane and Finch pulled him back.

“The Boys and Girls Club really helped me out,” he said. “I’d be there six days a week, getting my school work done. Everyone was pushing all the kids to stay focused, to stay in school and avoid the street life.”

Priscilla Ware (L) gets help from Diandra Greaves as part of the Raising the Grade after-school program at the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club Youth Center in Toronto.
Priscilla Ware (L) gets help from Diandra Greaves as part of the Raising the Grade after-school program at the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club Youth Center in Toronto.

Now, in Jane and Finch, a community basketball league is in its early stages, born on the heels of Bennett’s success and the new influx of basketball fans. The game is an outlet, a place for talent to deepen and grow, but it’s also more than that.

“We’re using basketball as a tool to teach the kids life skills,” says Raymond Dei, a staff member of the Boys and Girls Club. He speaks while leaning against the wall of the basement recording studio, where soft white light emanates from the computers. Three local kids, members of the new basketball league, sit at the desk across from him, holding their own conversation about their favorite NBA players.

“We’re trying to show the kids there’s more to the world than Jane and Finch,” Dei continues. “Sometimes it just takes somebody to push you outside that box. A lot of people are scared to take that step.”

He motions to the kids. “And these guys better come with their water bottles full tomorrow cause they know they’re going to be running. We got practice. We got work to do.”

Early morning on a Tuesday in late February, the media is lined up in the basement of the Air Canada Center, the home of the Toronto Raptors. The grey hallway carpet is wet with snow and stained with salt licked from the soles of winter boots. Reporters and videographers lean against the concrete walls of the corridor, mostly silent, staring at phones and drinking coffee from paper cups.

Tonight, Bennett makes his return to Toronto, his first NBA game in his hometown. Shortly after ten a.m., he emerges in the tunnel, dressed in grey jogging pants and a red sweatshirt, the hood pulled over his head. When he looks up, he’s startled, surprised by the amount of people there to see him.

The media steps forward and he puts his head back down, walking past the questions and into the visitor’s locker room. When he reemerges minutes later, he speaks softly as the reporters heave questions. They squeeze in around him and his body seems to shrink. His shoulders round forward, the cameras and microphones inches from his face. His eyes are heavy.

That evening, on his first trip down the court, he shoots a mid-range jumper that rattles through the rim. He follows it up a few minutes later with a dunk. At the half, he has six points and two rebounds; modest numbers, but a long way from where he started the season. As the teams walk into the locker room, his coach, Mike Brown, gives him a hug at center court.

Up in the stands, Rayon Brown watches on, along with a crew of kids from Jane and Finch, their tickets provided by Bennett.

“Everyone has an eye on him,” Brown says. “We talk about him, we speak about his struggles. The kids all had faith he would get out of that early slump. You know, Anthony sincerely loves Jane and Finch. The community gave him love and support and in turn he gives it back. He keeps on reaching out and connecting with us, it shows the kids that someone out there cares about them.”

A child plays basketball on one of the courts in the townhouse complex known as The Lanes in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto.
A child plays basketball on one of the courts in the townhouse complex known as The Lanes in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto.

In the third quarter, Bennett streaks toward the basket, down the center of the court. He moves at full speed, gliding past the defense, before catching a pass at the edge of the foul line. He takes two steps from there and then, from the middle of the key, launches his massive frame into the air, the ball cocked back behind his head, just like in the mural.

Bennett’s best moments this season have come in the flow of the game, when the pressure’s rescinded from his mind: When it’s just basketball. This moment, like the others, is a reminder of the skill that he possesses. His talent is immense but it takes the right combination of time, space, setting and luck for it all to come together. There’s still hope that it will. As he floats to the basket, a defender whacks him across the arm. The whistle blows and the ball bounces high in the air, out of play. The moment passes.

After the game, a loss for Cleveland, the players walk around the locker room with their heads down, the sound of their shuffling feet filling the space. Luol Deng, a nine-year NBA vet, sits unmoving at his locker, staring forward.

A few lockers down, Bennett quickly pulls a shirt over his head. He rolls up his sleeves, revealing a tattoo of the CN Tower that stretches across the back of his right forearm, maple leaves etched beside it. His muscles are clearly defined beneath his shirt, the extra weight he carried earlier in the season now shed from his frame.

He leaves the locker room first. He walks down the hallway, over the same salt-stained grey carpet, through the tunnel and back into the stadium. The night crew is out now, wrapping up audio and video cables and collecting garbage from the stands. A man pushes a large mop up and down the court, leaving gleaming strips of hardwood in its wake.

In the corner of the stadium, a crowd has gathered among the otherwise empty seats. As Bennett approaches, children begin to shout—“Anthony! Anthony!”

He moves through the crowd, exchanging long hugs, posing for photos, signing autographs. His voice, barely above a whisper most of the day, is now booming. His cheeks puff out as his smile deepens. Beside the court, security guards in un-tucked blue shirts fold up chairs. Two men roll up a carpet and carry it down the tunnel, out of sight. The stadium lights dim. The speakers click off. Bennett laughs, and the kids laugh, too.

*   *   *

Marta Iwanek is a freelance photographer currently based in Toronto, Canada. She is a graduate of the journalism program at Ryerson University and the photojournalism program at Loyalist College.