In the past 10 years, it’s hard to think of any sport that’s experienced as much growth in Canada as basketball.
Sure, we had a few stars come along before then. Steve Nash was a two-time MVP. Rick Fox was part of the legendary Lakers three-peat. Bill Wennington played with Jordan. But they were always viewed as outliers, weird flukes, anything other than the possibility that one day we could become a true basketball powerhouse. But then suddenly, that all changed.
As the 2000s turned to the 2010s, the kids that were enamored by the Vinsanity era were all grown up and ready to start NBA careers of their own. The level of talent Canada has put out – and the popularity of the sport because of it – has been growing ever since. Standing near the front of that line was current Ottawa BlackJack, Kris Joseph.
The Montreal native left home early in hopes of getting noticed by a major program. His dedication paid off, and a couple years later he was enrolled at Syracuse University. While there, he, along with Texas teammates Tristan Thompson and Corey Joseph, were the first group of Canadians to find themselves in the national spotlight south of the border. When he looks back at the landscape that was Canada basketball before he started his career and what it has evolved into now, the 32-year-old can’t help but smile.
“It’s amazing,” Joseph said while attending BlackJacks training camp. “I’m glad that I was able to be part of that, along with guys like Junior Cadougan as well, who’s here at camp with us. We were kind of the first players from Canada – the first wave of guys going to play Division-1 basketball – so that was great. And it kind of gave kids the vision and the opportunity knowing that they can do it as well. So, to see where Canada basketball is today is amazing.”
“I’m a proud Canadian today just seeing how many guys… if you look at the Canadian basketball roster today, more than half the guys are NBA players, currently on an NBA roster. Canada basketball has grown, and it’s going to keep on growing.”
There’s another player on this BlackJacks teams that was also an early pioneer as far as Canadians taking over the NCAA. Though he did it with far less fanfare and media coverage. Eric Kibi also endured a similar journey, going from Montreal to eventually landing in the states before earning a scholarship. Also like Joseph, he’s pleased to see the sport he loves develop such a stronghold in his homeland, and can’t wait to see what further progress gets made.
“I think you can even take it back to maybe like, when I was graduating high school in 2008, 2007,” Kibi said. “As far as Ottawa is concerned, guys weren’t really going to America to play. I think now we have a lot of Division-1 players from here. Toronto always kind of had the talent but now I think it’s being discovered a little bit more all over the place. You got guys in Vancouver, guys kind of all over the place. I think the talent is just being discovered, and I think that’s grown over the last ten years. I think the Raptors winning the championship has helped a lot, obviously, growing the game. Hopefully team Canada can qualify for the Olympics. I think that will help the growth as well. I think another 10 years, I think we’re on the right path.”
Of course, for all the success both men have had in their careers, it came at the sacrifice of having to move away from family at a young age. Joseph and Kibi feel that the growth Canada basketball has seen in terms of talent means more schools, programs and leagues will be willing to look up North for new talent, and the next generation won’t have to travel to the states in hopes of being noticed.
“You know, even from the AAU stand point, guys are getting seen,” Joseph said. “Basketball has grown so much in the past decade where the AAU teams… there’s a lot more Canadian AAU teams, there’s a lot more prep schools that are providing kids opportunities to travel to the States to play in tournaments. So, as opposed to me who had to go to the States to play 2 years of high school, now you can go to tournaments and get exposure. It’s great for the kids coming up now, all the opportunities that they’re given.”
“I think we’re already there,” Kibi added. “We got a prep school league; guys are getting Division-1 scholarships just from playing in the prep school league here. I think we’ve already reached that point. Guys are not having to go to the States as much. I think If they do go to the States, it’s to get a little better competition, if anything. Other than that, I think we’re already there. We’re already there where guys are not having to go to the States to get Division-1 scholarships. I think it was Jamal Murray who started that, he didn’t go to the States… he was at Orangeville Prep. So, I think we’re already here.”
Another major shift in the Canadian basketball landscape has been the growth of national leagues. With the formation of the NBL-Canada in 2011 and then the CEBL coming to existence in 2019, Canadians now have the opportunity to make a living playing the sport they love without having to travel overseas. While it’s not something either player was able to take advantage of early in their careers, both are happy to have the opportunity presented to them now, and are excited for what it means to those just looking to get their careers started.
“It’s amazing,” said Joseph. “It really is a great feeling to be able to come home and play in your backyard, essentially. Unfortunately, we’re not able to have fans and things like that, but my dream was always for my family to be able to watch me play overseas, and they were never able to make that visit. So, for them to have to opportunity – one day, assuming I play for a couple more years in the CEBL – for them to be able to see me play professional sports, a professional game, that would mean the world to me. The CEBL is really giving guys, Canadians especially, an opportunity for that.”
“It’s always a blessing,” Kibi said. “I never take it for granted. I’m one of many guys in my group of friends or my group of guys that grew up playing basketball. I think Johnny (Berhanemeskel)… we played against each other in high school but he was 2 years younger than me, but I think we’re some of the only 2 from our generation that are still playing. So, whether it’s luck… obviously it’s hard work everything, but I definitely don’t take it for granted. It’s a blessing and I’m just representing a lot of people, so I don’t take it for granted, for sure.”
Playing for Ottawa has even more significance for Kibi, a 30-year-old with both Canadian and Congolese citizenship, who spent part of his childhood growing up in the city and still has family that lives here. After being forced in to a bubble for the Summer Series last year, he’s glad to be able to finally return home for real this time around.
“It’s nice to be home,” he said. “It kind of sucked to have to go to Niagara and be stuck at the hotel in the bubble. I’ve never actually played in TD Place, like an actual game, so for me I think it will be really nice to play. I think guys are looking forward to it. We hope that we can get some fans out this year, so we’ll see how that goes. But it’s definitely exciting. I hope we’re going to be able to take full advantage of it.”
In just it’s third year in operation, the CEBL has already made some dramatic impact on the international level. Teams this year will boast players from the NBA G-League, as well as players who are stars in some of the best leagues overseas. However, the rapid ascension doesn’t come as a surprise for two men that have seen firsthand just how professionally the league is run.
“I played in the NBL (Canada) for 2 years, but I also played in the CEBL for all 3 years,” Kibi said. “I was present in the first ever game, I was playing for Saskatchewan. When I saw that day how professional it was, I told myself – that was what, 2019? – I told myself there’s a lot of potential for this league. And now here we are 3 years later. I think it’s grown tremendously. The league is expanding; there’s a team in Montreal coming, now there’s a team in Ottawa… I think everything is done professionally. If we keep going with this progress, it’s going to become one of the best international leagues in the world.
“No, I’m not surprised (how fast the league has grown),” Joseph said in agreeance. “From the first year, and just last year when I participated in the bubble, just to see the skill level of the guys that were playing, the competition level was great. And with social media and things like that, the exposure is endless. People are hearing about it, people are interested, and it gives guys an opportunity to play high level basketball in the summer. Who wouldn’t want that? Especially given the circumstances of the pandemic and gyms not being open, being given the opportunity to play basketball in the summer at a high level is something everybody should want, and that’s what the CEBL is providing us.”
Another opportunity the CEBL supplies the veteran hoopers with is the ability to act as mentors to the next generation of Canadian stars; a role both players appear more than happy to fill. Through the CEBL’s U SPORTS program, the BlackJacks currently house four university players who will return to school in the fall after spending the summer learning the ropes on how to be a professional. Also on the team is Kadre Gray, one of the most prolific and decorated athletes in the history of Canadian university sports, who just recently graduated.
While both men are willing to serve their mentor roles, they’re both in agreeance that the attitude and dedication of the young players has meant they haven’t needed to do much.
“For one, we (as veterans) asked them to ask as many questions as they can think of,” Joseph said. “There’s no bad questions; to learn you have to ask questions. They’re playing really hard. Like I said, they’re taking the instructions and they’re able to apply it right away, and for young guys that are having their first taste of professional basketball, they’re really doing a good job of listening and executing. That’s all we can ask of them, and they’re really doing a good job of that.”
“They don’t need much advice,” Kibi concurred. “They came in hungry; they’ve actually impressed me a lot. Kadre (Gray) and Ali (Sow)– Ali is an Ottawa guy – Alain (Louis)… they came in and they looked like pros. Of course, the speed of the game is a bit faster than university and that will take some game time, but they’ve really impressed me. There’s nothing I can really say. There might be a couple things here and there, but as far as their game and their attitude, they’re already pros, they already have a pro mindset. Everyday they’re the last ones to leave, so they already have a professional attitude. I’m really happy for them. They’re definitely going to be an asset to the team.”
Canada basketball has truly undergone a metamorphosis of some kind. Gone are the days when our Olympic hopes lay on the shoulders of Samuel Dalembert, as they did just a short time ago. The success of players like Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Andrew Wiggins in the NBA has cemented our place as one of the top basketball nations in the world. The NBA offers only a brief glimpse of the talent that we’ve produced over the past decade. Countless players have gone on to have incredibly successful careers in Europe, and are now converging back home this summer in the CEBL. The league is set to have perhaps it’s most successful season ever, and the Canadian players are a large part of why.
The league is still just getting started, and it’s scary to think of what it can become in the next few years. The CEBL – and Canadian basketball – is here for the long haul.