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Slim's Chance: Chris Boucher took an unusual route to D-I but makes the Ducks a serious title contender

Canadian important Chris Boucher found his way to Oregon at just the right time—with the Ducks a serious national title contender

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

A city bus would pull up in the darkness, to the stop at the corner of Lacordaire and des Tulipes in Montreal-Nord, running on the 380 line overnight between 1 and 5 a.m. On some nights an improbably long and rawboned teenager would slide into one of the gray plastic seats, lined with blue cloth. He'd put his headphones on to drown out the whine of the brakes and the compressed air hiss of the doors opening and closing every few blocks as the bus rumbled southwest down Boulevard Henri-Bourassa, the scenery alternating between neon in the windows of drab retail stores and the low-slung, brick apartment buildings set close to the road. Often he'd listen to Bob Marley, the island reggae bringing some sun into his mind, and he would imagine how his life could be different.

Chris Boucher left Saint Lucia on a plane for Montreal when he was five months old. His mother, Mary MacVane, was emigrating from the tiny, French-Creole-speaking island in the eastern Caribbean, to join Jean-Guy Boucher, the Quebecois man she'd met in 1989 while working as a caretaker in Montreal. They'd gotten married, and after Chris was born in Saint Lucia in 1993, they obtained the necessary paperwork in order to make a go of it as a family in Canada. Chris's maternal grandmother thought he should stay behind. Saint Lucia was a free-and-easy place for a boy, and their extended family, much of whom lived within blocks of each other near the capital of Castries, could handle raising him. But off he went to grow up in Montreal-Nord, a tough neighborhood that was a landing spot for many Caribbean and African immigrants. There was supposed to be opportunity in Montreal, but by the time he turned 19 in early 2012, Boucher had yet to find any of it.

He had bounced between multiple high schools and dropped out before getting a diploma. He worked at a St-Hubert restaurant where, as his best friend and former coworker, Morgan Michael Asibey-Bonsu puts it, "Chris was the best grill man. They liked him because he had skills, and he could make a show with the flames." But the job was part-time and minimum wage, just under $10 (Canadian) per hour. And although Boucher spent substantial hours playing basketball in city parks and recreation centers, he had yet to be part of a serious team with a coach. He had grown from 6' 1" at 16, to 6' 8", but was so skinny that with his hair in short dreadlocks, his profile was almost like that of a mop turned upside down, balancing on its end. And he did not always have someone there to prop him up.

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His parents had another son and a daughter in Montreal, but divorced when Chris was 9. After the split he lived with MacVane—until he had a falling out with her new boyfriend, who by the time Chris was 15, no longer wanted him around. He lived with his father after that, but they argued over Chris's lack of direction. Jean-Guy had dropped out of school at 14 to work and regretted it; he didn't want his eldest son to go that route and saw little point in all the time Chris spent playing basketball. It's your life if you mess it up, his dad would always say, and Chris became increasingly doubtful that he would ever accomplish anything. He would often sleep at the apartment where Asibey-Bonsu lived with his family, but on the nights that Boucher's plans fell through or he didn't feel like going home, he would catch the 380 bus and ride it to the end of the line, losing himself in his thoughts along the way.

Sure, he and Asibey-Bonsu, an aspiring battle-dancer and musician, had talked about having some genius idea that would make them millionaires, and Boucher had dreamed about making it in basketball. But by 19 he had settled on a more realistic wish list. I'd still be poor, but I wouldn't be on this bus. I'd have a little house, and it would be like when you see a guy on a TV sitcom, where you wake up in the morning and your girl is there, and then you go to a 9-to-5 job, maybe at a video-game store, and you come home and make some food. That would be a good life for me. If someone had walked up to Boucher and offered him that life, he would have taken it on the spot.

If Boucher had been offered what has since come true—four years, four stops and so many miles down the line—he would have found it inconceivable: That he would be a scholarship power forward at Oregon, coming off a junior season in which he became just the third major-conference player of this decade to average at least 17 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks per 40 minutes, with an offensive efficiency rating of at least 120—the others being Kentucky's former No. 1 draft picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis. That he would be the only three-point threat of that trio (he drained 38 last season)—an added dimension that makes him a college basketball unicorn. And that he would already have a Pac-12 title ring and be chasing a national championship as a senior, when SI projects him to be the nation's most efficient major-conference starter, on the No. 4 team in the country.

In 2012 the odds of any of that happening seemed about the same as those of the bus sprouting wings and flying Boucher back in time to Saint Lucia, where he could restart his life on a different track. How was anyone even going to find him? The closest he had come to playing on an AAU team, where he might have been seen by a college coach, was not very close at all: That March he had taken the initiative to fill out an email form on the website of a team called QC United, in hopes of being invited to a tryout.

Boucher entered his name and his birthdate, that he was 6' 8", and added his phone number and email address. He never heard back. That wasn't because QC United's coaches, Igor Rwigema and Ibrahim Appiah, didn't receive it. It was just that they already had around 100 kids signed up for the tryout, needed to pare down the roster and weren't going to make room for an old player who probably meant to type 5' 8" in the height field. The basketball scene in Montreal is so small that Rwigema said at the time, "it's impossible that there's a 6' 8" player here that I don't know about." Appiah agreed; he looked at the form and said, "There's no way this kid exists."

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Nineteen years and five months is young in the context of a lifetime, but almost hopelessly old on the time line of a basketball prospect waiting to be discovered. When the most famous Canadian basketball phenom of Caribbean descent, Andrew Wiggins, reached that age, he had already been famous in recruiting circles for five years, played one season on a top U.S. prep-school team and another as a freshman at Kansas, entered the NBA draft and been picked No. 1 by the Cavaliers, and signed an $11 million endorsement contract with Adidas.

On May 31, 2012, some regulars from the Montreal-Nord pickup-game scene had an open roster spot for their entry in the annual Hang Time tournament at Centre Sportif de la Petite Bourgogne, and invited Boucher to join. He accepted, and although his team was blown out the next day by Montreal's most established AAU program, the Adidas-sponsored Brookwood Elite, he showed off his relentless motor in that game, scoring 44 points, mostly by running in transition and fighting for put-backs. Rwigema happened to be in the crowd, and he asked one of his QC United players, "Who is this kid?"

When told it was Boucher, Igor recalled the unanswered, tryout-registration email and began laughing. He went up to Boucher afterward and confirmed that he was the one who submitted the form. "So," Rwigema said, "you really do exist!"

Rwigema and Appiah soon offered Boucher something better than an AAU tryout: a spot on the prep-school team they were starting at Alma Academy, which was still in Quebec, but a 4½-hour drive northeast of Montreal. Rwigema got his start in the province's coaching scene in 2007 by founding a summer team he called the Okapi Ballers, with a roster of players from his Congolese immigrant community in greater Montreal. Rwigema's grandfather, Barthélemy Bisengimana, had been a key member of Mobutu Sese Seko's administration in what was then known as the Zaire. Before the regime was overthrown during the first Congo civil war, in 1996, a 10-year-old Rwigema and his family found refuge in Quebec. His Okapi team grew into an AAU program he named QC United, and Appiah, a Ghanian immigrant who played briefly at High Point University, joined as a coach. They were looking to place their players in a stable living situation and coach them year-round, and Alma was the solution. Boucher says their pitch to him was simple: "You don't have anything happening [in Montreal] right now. If you come with us, we can't guarantee that you'll excel, but you'll at least have the opportunity to do it."

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His parents signed off, in different ways. Rwigema recalls that when he spoke with Boucher's father, "he basically said to me, 'My kid is useless, he isn't going to do anything with his life, but if you think you can save him, go ahead.'" (Boucher's father says he told Chris that Alma would be "a chance to make your life better.") Appiah says MacVane told them, "I'll let you take him, but if anything happens to him, I'm coming to get you." (MacVane declined SI's interview requests for this story.)

Rwigema and Appiah's initial plan was modest: Have Boucher get his secondary-school diploma, then spend two years at Alma in CEGEP—the Canadian equivalent of college prep—before evaluating his options. Boucher was not viewed as a surefire NCAA prospect, or even Alma's best prospect. He was thinking no further ahead than making the current situation work, because it gave him a consistent living and training arrangement after a childhood that even his mother characterized as "unstable" in an email to USA Today last year.

"With all the imbalance in Chris's life," says Appiah, "I don't think he ever had time to map out any plan. When you're thinking about meals or where you're going to sleep, or how you don't want to go to your mom's boyfriend's house or your dad's house, you don't think much beyond today."

But on Feb. 1, 2013, after a 10-hour van trip to Providence, Boucher did something that made his future a subject of great interest for an audience of American college coaches who'd never before scouted him. In a National (technically, international) Prep School Invitational game between Alma and New Jersey's Blair Academy, Boucher scored 29 points—only missing one of his 14 shot attempts—and had 12 rebounds, five blocks and no turnovers. Among the most intrigued onlookers was Mike Mennenga, an assistant at Canisius who had strong Canadian recruiting connections. But when he did his due diligence on Boucher, "it was already a foregone conclusion"—due to his meager academic résumé—"that first, he'd have to go to junior college."