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It took a village to raise a basketball Olympian

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David Turcotte continues column series focused on journey to world stage

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As March Madness gripped basketball fans everywhere, tracking Canadians thriving in the NCAA tournaments like Yvonne Ejim from Calgary or Toronto’s Zach Edy was a perfect precursor to the Paris Olympics this summer.

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The qualification of the men’s and women’s teams creates opportunities for Canadian gold unseen in at least a quarter century. Our men and women’s teams are simultaneously capable of seizing the podium for the first time since 1936, evidence of our growth as a basketball nation.  

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For me, basketball never leaves my daily consciousness. Whether celebrating the journeys of our newest Olympians, reminiscing with past teammates or trying to find new ways to continue to play (despite the litany of lingering injuries), it’s a love of country, community and the game of basketball for all who have represented Canada. 

As I spoke with some of our latest Olympians, I learned that their love of the game and the journey to the Olympics began close to home, in basketball communities like ours. In places like Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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Still the highest per-capita producer of basketball Olympians in the country, what made our basketball community so vibrant in the late ’70s and early ’80s? That is the focus of this article: the Sudbury basketball community that shaped me, launching me on my own basketball journey. 

Everyone immediately draws the parallels between Eli Pasquale and me, because we both played for Lockerby Composite School — which, as I write this, is still the only Canadian High School to produce two basketball Olympians. Though Eli always was and remains an inspiration (we were teammates for nine years), role model and national hoops icon, he was not the beginning of my basketball journey. 

For me, I fell in love with the game during my first ever basketball camp. It was run by Mitch Lalonde and Mary Collinson at Lockerby during my eighth-grade summer. I was just a bull-headed hockey player, following around his older brother, Kevin the band geek (before you get all judgy if you know my family, you know I mean that in the coolest, most respectful way possible!). I had never touched a basketball in my life, but for whatever reason, something just clicked. Whether it was the pace, the player-on-player competitive game within the game or the vertical physicality, something took hold of me. I couldn’t get enough of it, needed to play and needed to get better. 

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At first, all I wanted to do was be better than my older brother, but for some strange reason, Mitch and Mary took extra time after camp ended to show me ball-handling drills on the sidewalk outside Lockerby’s gym. I remember telling them I wanted “to be really good.” but as I see it now, it was not about me at all. Mitch and Mary were the kind of coaches that gave their time freely and generously to every kid who wanted to improve. They did that often in and around Sudbury for their own kids at Secondary, Lasalle and even hockey players like me from rival schools all the same.

Every NBA and Olympic player I played with or interviewed for these articles had their Mitch Lalonde or Mary Collinson. For me and many other players from Sudbury, they provided that critical first step on a basketball journey of a thousand life-changing experiences and I remain grateful to them to this day for those extra drills on the sidewalk.  

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After that, things moved fast for me as my personal basketball community took shape with players from all over Sudbury. Players like Ted Leslie, Mike Powers, Dario Zulich, Mike Forestell, Rob Thurkill, Tony Rhealt, Mary Ann Kowal, Michael, Danny and, of course, Carol Hamilton. Lockerby teammate Danny Rain showed up and put in work with me just about every day for years, as did my sister, Carole. When you add eventual teammates like Vito Pasquale, Kevin Hart, Bruce Frasier, Bill Sandbloom, Gordie Herbert and Tim Yawney, my basketball community was as good as anyone’s. 

After that first camp, I never stopped playing and practising basketball relentlessly ever again. I lived next to Laurentian University and hit that gym every day for the rest of the summer. That was when I really saw Eli Pasquale for the first time. Whether practising alone or playing with Vito and past Vikings like Bobby Tassone, Diego Favero, Eddie Pico and Mike Sheridan, I realized that Eli and his crew represented a whole other level. 

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I got to the gym at least a hour before they showed up every day, did my ball-handling and shooting drills, but at first, I never had the courage to talk to any of them. I stayed in my corner, practising on my own, the non-player kid routinely annoying the real players every time one of my errant shots bounced into the middle of their pickup game.

The only words Eli humoured me with that first summer were “keep working” — as he walked out of Laurentian before leaving for the University of Victoria. 

Then, what could only be described as a basketball miracle happened: the summer ended and as I was dreading ninth grade at Lockerby, the 1980 teacher’s strike gifted me with seven more months of relentless hoops heaven. Everyone in my basketball community, all those great young Sudbury players, converged every day, all day, to practise, play pickup and talk trash at Laurentian. It gave me the opportunity to put in more work than any ninth-grader has probably ever put into his game — eight hours every day — for the rest of that year and it separated me from every other player my age. 

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Every day during the strike, Ted Leslie, Dario Zulich, Danny Rain, Carol Hamilton and I worked out, played one on one, did shooting drills and, once in a while, got into a minor fight just to keep things real. I bet if you asked any one of them, they would all tell you we played thousands of games against each other. Ted Leslie was crazy quick with great handles and attacked fearlessly; Dario Zulich was taller, a better shooter and could jump out of the gym back then, creating a whole different set of problems; Carol was by far the most skilled, had great ball control and a beautiful mid-range jumper that routinely resulted in her kicking my ass. I lost repeatedly, most days ending with Danny Rain and I putting up a few hundred extra shots after they all went home before we called it a night. 

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When we returned for the 10th grade, I was a totally different player. Gary Orasi, a credit to our local basketball community like Mitch and Mary, focused me on exactly the right fundamentals, opened our gym and invested a lot of time in me. My all-day, everyday approach continued at Laurentian after school and on weekends, where I pestered guys like Mike Sheridan, Phil Rowe, Don Jones and Jeff McKibbon. The only way you got into pickup games with them was by hitting what is now the top-of-the-key three-pointer. I must have shot an extra 200 of those every night to force myself into those games and, as you might expect, the university players were not pleased. By their standards, I was terrible. I had no clue where to be, when to cut and I remember Peter Domengoni (who later coached me on the provincial team) yelling “Get the shit out of there!” as I stood idle, clogging the middle of the lane. 

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Unfortunately for them, I kept hitting that three-pointer and getting into their games, but playing with guys like Mike Sheridan, who was incredible without the ball, cutting and moving to score and rebound better than anyone I had ever seen, and Jeff McKibbon (a teammate years later on the national team), who worked out with me and taught me about hoops at the next level, my game elevated quickly and their angst over me hitting that top-of-the-key shot started to fade. 

Then came the summer of Grade 11, the year Eli Pasquale took notice. Eli would return from UVIC, practise and play pickup at Laurentian. He would do the drills everyone else was doing, just more of them, but he did one workout no one wanted to do with him – full court one-on-one. Bloody hell. At that point, I knew of the legend of Eli, his great Lockerby and UVIC teams, but I had no clue about his work ethic and conditioning. It was eye-opening. He never once took his foot off the gas, pushed us both at a relentless pace. Every game, every workout with Eli was a lesson in not only what skills I lacked, but the level of work and effort it would take to get to his level. I did not win a single game, but that reality check helped me define myself as a player. This time, when Eli left for UVIC, I told him I would keep working and that next summer, I would get him. He replied, “Sure you will, Chooch” which I thought was awesome — until I found out later what it meant. 

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In my last two years at Lockerby, my basketball career exploded. Grant Taylor stepped in to replace Bill Morse, who retired from coaching after Vito Pasquale and his starters graduated. Grant showed an enormous amount of patience with me and my lack of maturity. He deserves a lot of credit for sticking it out for our team and ultimately winning at Lockerby. I had grown to 6-foot-3 and, thanks to plyometric training advice from Karl Subban, added a 40-plus-inch vertical to my hockey player lateral quickness. That really differentiated me as a two-way player and people noticed. I made our regional, provincial and junior national teams, leading all of them in scoring, then joined the national team, leading our B team in scoring as an alternate on the 1984 Olympic squad. When I saw Eli again during my first national team training camp, all he said as he walked by me was “I guess you kept working.” Not much of a reunion, but Eli was different. He stayed on mission and at no time during the nine years we played together on the national team did he lose sight of what we were all after. Never a talker, no emotionally charged speeches, but man, he led by example.  

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So there you have it, my basketball community, my journey through Sudbury, the centre of Canada’s basketball universe. Without everything you have just read about, without the players I grew up with and the coaches who helped me along the way, none of the next 15 amazing years happens. 

So thank you, Sudbury. Thank you to everyone who shared my journey, worked with me, rooted for me and even those who rooted against me. In each of your own ways, you gave me exactly what I needed to make my Olympic basketball journey possible.

This is the latest in a series of columns by Sudbury native and Olympian David Turcotte which will focus on the paths followed by basketball players to the world stage, while also highlighting some of the finest talent the region has produced.

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