Hoops catching on in the capital

In the wake of Raptors fever, grassroots basketball expected to grow locally

Eddie Ekiyor, pictured in 2014, playing in an East-West high school all-star game. Ekiyor is one of the best basketball players to emerge from Ottawa, has said he will play pro somewhere in Europe this fall.  Photo By Mike Carroccetto

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that the Toronto Raptors captured the entire nation’s interest by winning the NBA championship earlier this summer.


Even if your kid isn’t the next Marial Shayok, Ottawa’s first ever NBA draft pick, has basketball suddenly become a sport your son or daughter is gravitating to?


Shayok, 24, was drafted in June by the Philadelphia 76ers. In fact, out of a total of 60 overall selections, six were Canadians, four of them in the first round alone.


Basketball has come a long way since its humble beginnings in nearby Almonte well over a century ago. There has been strong growth right across Canada. But is hoops ready to explode locally?


“I’ve noticed an increase over the last few years,” says Tony House, the founder and director of Canada TopFlight Academy, the only boys’ basketball prep school in the Ottawa area. “We’ve had record number of campers the last few summers (at Rautins-House Basketball School) and expect the same this summer, our 30th.”


In the wake of the Raptors title run, House suspects participation levels will spike this fall, with gym space at a premium. 


More than ever before, kids as young as four and five are picking up a basketball. 


If you over hear other parents saying their kids dribble, it might be a basketball reference, and how young children are when they start playing. Go to any neighbourhood in Ottawa and count how many driveways now have a basketball net. Parks in the suburbs are routinely constructed with basketball nets. 


In Ottawa, there are many league options for all ages, skill and talent levels, whether that is recreation or house league, competitive or elite. 


Fifty-three high schools in Ottawa have programs, as do many middle schools. Club programs, of which there are more than a few, offer competitive and elite male and female players a chance to play more often and keep developing. Canada TopFlight Academy, entering its fourth year this fall, has recently added a girls’ program. There are also two other girls’ basketball prep schools operating in the city. 


What should young ballers work on? 


“Ball handling skills and shooting skills,” says Richard Peters, co-owner of Above The Rim basketball school. “Fundamental shooting skills are expected from all players if they hope to play at the next level. And all players (regardless of position) should be able to pass the ball like a point guard.” Peters says Above The Rim has nearly tripled the number of kids in their evening programs over the past decade, while summer camps have doubled over the same time. 


Only a few of the best players will get a shot at the NBA, of course, but the reality is many will go on to play in the OUA, with a few of those having an opportunity to play pro somewhere. Canada has two professional leagues, plus the NBA has the G League, a minor pro league, in which Shayok is expected to play this fall.


Carleton Ravens and U Sports Final-8 MVP Eddie Ekiyor, a 6’9” forward from Barrhaven, has recently informed the university that he will be leaving to turn pro. Ekiyor expects to catch on with a team in Europe, which is a realistic option for players not quite ready for the NBA. 


In the far west end, Dee Whitmore, club administrator for the Goulbourn Basketball Association, says his club has seen about 10 percent growth year over year over the past five years. “This year, registration is already at 150 percent compared to last year at this time,” he says.


Basketball is an affordable sport. However, “gym time is an issue for clubs,” Whitmore says. 


“The game of basketball is for everyone. And cost effective,” adds Whitmore. To play hoops, “all you need is a pair of shorts, a shirt, shoes and a basketball.”