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'We're winning': Southern Ontario growth into basketball hotbed

(from L to R) Northern Kings 16U Coach Samy Mohamed, Austin Goode and Haiden Johns
Thomas O'Neil-White
(from L to R) Northern Kings 16U Coach Samy Mohamed, Austin Goode and Haiden Johns

Hockey and maple syrup aren’t the only great Ontario exports these days. Looking across the basketball landscape in the United States — whether it’s NCAA Division I or the National Basketball Association — there is a wealth of basketball talent flowing over the border.

Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets, RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors are just a few prominent NBA players from Southern Ontario.

Ontario native James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891, and that was the high mark of Canadian basketball for a long time as their neighbors to the south came to dominate the game.

In 1995 the NBA expanded, creating two Canadian teams, the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies.

Will Tso grew up in Toronto and now lives and works in Western New York.

Toronto native Will Tso
Thomas O'Neil-White
Toronto native Will Tso

He remembers the early years of pro basketball in this hockey-mad town.

“It was a point where even when we did have the Raptors it was so unknown and it was like, ‘What is this sport?’ It was so foreign," he said.

The city had to learn the A-B-C’s of attending a basketball game.

“I remember a time where they had to put it in the newspaper,” Tso said. “How to cheer for a basketball game because growing up being huge hockey fans you're always like pounding on the wall and stuff like that. So, they had to put it in the newspaper how to cheer like when we were shooting free throws.”

But while the Grizzlies floundered in Vancouver, eventually relocating to Memphis Toronto found gold with a NBA draft day trade for University of North Carolina product Vince Carter in 1998.

Carter’s high flying, above the rim game turned him into an international star and the Raptors into must see television.

Tso, who was in elementary school when Carter was drafted fondly remembers the era known as Vin-sanity.

“Vince brought in this whole electricity to the city,” he recalled. “[Carter] made a bunch of young kids want to play basketball. He brought in the American tradition and in the culture with that.”

The Raptors set NBA attendance records for three straight years from 2000 to 2002.

It’s been over 20 years since Carter’s ascension and it feels as if the regions talent is really starting to bear fruit.

Integral to that development is Vidal Massiah.

The Hoop Factory and Northern Kings Founder Vidal Massiah
The Hoop Factory
The Hoop Factory
The Hoop Factory and Northern Kings Founder Vidal Massiah

The Toronto native played four seasons at St. Bonaventure before taking his talents overseas. He has also suited up for the Canadian National team.

From there he developed the Hoop Factory summer camp in 2004 as a way to give back to the city that helped raise him up.

The Hoop Factory is now a developmental academy in Pickering, Ontario.

At 44, he said the 16-year old Massiah never would’ve dreamed of being in the position he is in now.

“Basketball found me fairly late I didn't start playing competitively till I was going into my junior season in high school,” Massiah said.

As Vince Carter’s star shined in his hometown Massiah viewed it from afar in Olean, New York.

So, what is in the water in Southern Ontario?

In addition to the NBA players mentioned there has been an abundance of players at high level college basketball programs, notably Toronto’s Zach Edey.

The 7’4 center from Purdue University was First Team All-American and National Player of the Year this past season. He has also trained under Massiah with Massiah’s Northern Kings Amateur Athletic Union basketball teams.

“So, I'm prepping them for what may potentially be their ceiling,” Massiah said. “Or their floors. So, in a case like Zach it's like, ‘Hey man you got NBA potential let's start working towards that goal.’”

During a recent AAU tournament at Niagara Falls High School the Northern Kings 16 and under squad got to showcase its talent against several Western New York teams.

Haiden Johns is a 6’5 guard from Kitchener, Ontario.

“Well this is my first year here,” he said of playing for the Northern Kings. “But it's very organized I feel like it's helping my game develop like different aspects before I was known as like just a shooter but now I'm developing different aspects of my game like driving the ball and playing better defense.”

Opposing player Carter Lampke took the measure of the Northern Kings.

“Pretty athletic, pretty tall. They hustle and rebound,” said the Williamsville South High School sophomore.

 Williamsville South player Carter Lampke during a basketball tournament at Niagara Falls High School
Thomas O'Neil-White
Williamsville South player Carter Lampke

Northern Kings 16 and Under coach Samy Mohamed has been coaching the Northern Kings since 2019.

“The salt and pepper of everything we do within Northern Kings is energy and intensity,” he said. “Everything we're doing with our practices, games we try to instill that in everything we do, we have to do with energy, intensity so we're doing that at a higher level.”

And it shows in how they play. Apart from standing out with their size, the Northern Kings execute their game plan like a top-flight college program.

Power Forward Austin Goode is been with the Northern Kings since seventh grade and at 6’8, towers over most of his teammates.

“My game has really developed over the years playing with Northern Kings,” he said. “You know just being a dog working hard getting after it.”

Massiah takes a more European approach when it comes to player development versus the scholastic path that is more prominent in the United States.

“We need to approach basketball here kind of like the way Europeans approach soccer,” he said.

Massiah said there are about 300 families for The Hoop Factory’s winter program. The spring and summer months are for the AAU teams.

On court development has positive impact off the court.

“There's a natural carryover we hear from parents all the time,” Massiah said. “Like, ‘Hey my kids doing a better job of making his bed and just getting up and being on task,’ and so we love hearing that.”

He said being up front about a player’s future prospects is vital.

“Those things are all very positive in my mind right because you're working with kids,” Massiah said. “And the vast majority are not going to make the NBA playing for any money ever so our job at this level-- it's to develop you, develop you holistically and build on your skills again both on and off the court.”

And on the court the result speaks for itself.

“We win a lot when it counts,” he said of player successes. “We've got 70 Plus Division One players in a 10-year span — like you're winning right? Again, it’s all relative to having people understand how tough that actually is right? But it's also — we've had 20 guys play for Team Canada. We're winning.”

And representation is not lost on the future of Canadian basketball. Here’s Northern Kings player Austin Goode.

“It’s big,” he said of watching his countrymen excel at the sport’s highest level. “[Toronto native] Andrew Wiggins definitely put on for the city you know he won the ‘chip last year with the Golden State Warriors so you know that was big for Canada as a whole.”

Northern Kings Power Forward Austin Goode attempts a free throw during a tournament in Niagara Falls, NY.
Thomas O'Neil-White
Northern Kings Power Forward Austin Goode attempts a free throw during a tournament in Niagara Falls, NY.

And Haiden Johns.

“I love it. I feel like Jamal Murray is another one who's really putting on right now especially because he's from my area, Kitchener. So, he's really putting on in the playoffs,” he said.

With the Raptors winning the NBA title in 2019, Toronto firmly established itself as a basketball hotbed in North America … and maybe … possibly supplanting the Maple Leafs as kings of the city.

Will Tso believes it.

“With the '19 championship I think that was the one where like this might be more of a basketball city," he said. “You're seeing more Toronto guys, Ontario guys were making the league now. Team Canada is a lot of Ontario guys now.”

And with the Hoop Factory and Northern Kings programs talent from Southern Ontario will continue to make names for themselves in Toronto and over the border.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.