Four years ago Texas Longhorn teammates Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson became the first duo of Canadians to be taken in the first round of the NBA Draft in almost 30 years. Two years later, the Cleveland Cavaliers made Anthony Bennett the first Canadian-born player to be drafted No. 1 overall. And last year, Andrew Wiggins and the Cavaliers made it two in a row. But before all of this, there was Jim Calhoun, Denham Brown and the 111 point game.
Contrary to public belief, Steve Nash is not solely responsible for the resurrection of Canadian basketball. No, that title must be shared with Toronto native Denham Brown with a little help from the foresighted recruitment efforts of Jim Calhoun and the UConn Huskies.
The above video is part of the Toronto Raptors #MyNorth marketing campaign which aims to highlight the history of the basketball scene in the Greater Toronto Area. There is no better place to start than Denham Brown. Though his 111 points came in a seemingly meaningless game (school had already been disqualified from the playoffs), the true impact was anything but meaningless for the Canadian basketball landscape. Brown was one of the first Canadian’s who followed the typical trajectory of an American recruit, frequently participating in AAU tournaments in the United States. Brown’s play caught the attention of UConn Head Coach Jim Calhoun, who chartered a plane north of the border to see the Canadian stud work out at a local Community Centre.
Jim Calhoun and the UConn Huskies were already ahead of the curve when it came to recruiting international talent. Said Calhoun in 2012, “When I first came here in 1986, we couldn’t compete (in recruiting) because we had five consecutive losing seasons. We were competing with the Villanovas, the St. Johns, the Georgetowns, the Syracuses… we needed to expand the parameters where UConn recruited.” Jim Calhoun is no dummy. He knew he was not in the running for top East Coast talent and took his search overseas. In fact, since 1999, UConn has had 12 foreign players on scholarship- from Israel to Tanzania (notable examples below). That’s more than traditional powerhouses North Carolina (2), Duke (4), UCLA (5), Michigan State (4) and Kentucky (4) according to numbers from 2012. As a competitor, Calhoun wanted the best talent- regardless of country. Little did he know one particular signing would open the door to a new wave of basketball talent for years to come.
Emergence of Canada’s other sport
Canadian players lacked exposure and Brown, largely considered the top recruit in the country, brought that exposure. His performance, though controversial in Canada, was featured in American publication SLAM Magazine, unprecedented at the time for a Canadian hoopster. Brown was one of the first true Toronto basketball success stories, a kid who was able to parlay his AAU showcases into a Division One scholarship into a National Championship. Now, it is much easier for this new wave of Canadian talent to find homes in the United States because NCAA programs are willing to look North of the border. Even Findlay Prep, a high school basketball powerhouse in Las Vegas, has taken on Canadian players such as Thompson, Bennett and Joseph in recent years. “Take a guy like Denham,” says Mike George, agent for Bennett. “He’s been playing against Americans here and there, but he doesn’t really do it on a full-time basis. Now, Anthony and Tristan Thompson and some of these guys have been playing against American high-level competition from September to September. They’ve gotten used to it…”
Roy Rana, head coach of the Canadian under-18 national team, adds: “People started investigating. People started to get more motivated to figure it out. How do I get a kid in a major school? How can I help a young man get a Division One scholarship? I think it was really the result of some people deciding to take teams of young Canadians, mostly Toronto basketball players, into the United States and explore that system, and learn and grow from that system, and use it here.” For this system to work you need a relateable success story- Denham Brown- and a program who is willing to take a chance- UConn.
According to Canada Basketball, the country’s organizing body for the sport, participation rates among children in Canada have doubled since 2005, or, one year after Brown’s National Championship with UConn. Today, over 100 Canadians play NCAA Division One basketball, including the #7 overall player in the class of 2014, Kentucky’s Trey Lyles. Says Andrew Wiggins, “They really opened doors for younger people watching, for us to grow up and believe we can do the same they have done. Tristan, Cory, Denham Brown, Phil Dixon, Steve Nash, Jamaal Magloire, guys like that, they have really paved the way for young guys like me and even younger guys who are coming.”
Pioneer of the new movement
The recent retirement of Steve Nash has drawn many to credit the probable Hall-of-Famer with the resurrection of Canadian basketball. Not to take anything away from Mr. Nash but Denham Brown stakes just as much claim to that title. First, Nash was raised outside of Vancouver, roughly 2,100 miles (or 3,392 km) from the Greater Toronto Area where much of the talent has originated (Wiggins, Bennett, Joseph, Thompson among others). Second, Nash’s journey was a remarkably different story from many of the Greater Toronto Area hoopsters. Here is an excerpt from Brian Daly’s Canada’s Other Game: Basketball from Naismith to Nash, depicting Nash’s childhood.
“It was December of 1990, and the sun had just set behind the mountains overlooking picturesque Victoria, British Columbia, leaving only a single spotlight to illuminate a hoop in the schoolyard of Hillcrest Elementary School in the town of Saanich, a north end suburb of the B.C. capital. Large and medium-sized detached homes lay nestled among an eclectic array of trees and bushes in the Gordon Head neighbourhood, with well-kept gardens displayed year-round in Canada’s only snow-free capital region. Less than a kilometre away, waterside mansions and rugged shoreline gave way to the sparkling blue waters of the Haro Strait, a great whale-watching area separating southern Vancouver Island from adjacent islands off the west coast of Washington State.”
Nash grew up on soccer, hockey and rugby and worshipped the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. When Nash initially struggled in high school his parents were able to send him to St. Michaels, a private boarding school only 30 miles from the border of the United States.
On the opposite coast, Denham Brown was raised in the Lawrence Heights neighborhood of Toronto, home to the city’s first public housing project. When his high school closed following junior year, Brown transferred to a public school in the Eastern Toronto district of Scarborough or “Scarlem” as coined by the Canadian magazine Toronto Life. Years later, Minnesota Timerbwolves forward Anthony Bennett and his family would relocate to the nearby Jane and Finch neighborhood, a community known for one of the largest concentrations of criminal gangs in all of Canada. At the same time Andrew Wiggins, Cory Joseph and Tyler Ennis (Phoenix Suns via Syracuse) were all growing up in diverse neighborhoods surrounding Greater Toronto, worshipping then-star Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors. In an interview with USA Today, Canadian Nik Stauskas (Sacramento Kings via Michigan) comments: “There was Steve Nash, but he didn’t really have that path of going to prep school in America. We paved the way for the Canadians trying to make that move. There’s always a new guy coming up and let’s hope they take the same path.” Though Brown did not attend prep school in the United States, he put Toronto on the map, making it possible for Stauskas and others.
I could never downplay the impact Steve Nash has made on the perception of Canadian basketball but I am simply unconvinced a young Anthony Bennett relates to the story of Steve Nash more so than Denham Brown. Assuming Nash was the sole inspiration behind this new wave of Canadian basketball ignores important factors such as geography and privilege. Brown’s high school coach Marv Spencer puts it best at the end of the My North campaign video:
“He (Denham) laid the foundation for the American sports industry to understand that there is talent here. Wiggins and the young guys that are making it now, I admire them, I love what they are doing but we are talking about the pioneer of the whole new movement. Denham Brown is the pioneer of the new movement and when the young guys get a chance to see him, salute the King.”
According to slamonline.com, there are now close to 50 men and 20 women playing Division One basketball from the Greater Toronto Area. As a UConn fan, Denham Brown’s contribution to the 2004 National Championship team is remembered in points and rebounds but his contribution to his country is immeasureable. Ultimately, whether through Steve Nash or Denham Brown, the most important storyline is that Canadian players have finally gained the exposure they deserve and that is what matters most.