There's a sort of buzz that radiates from most American high school gyms on weeknights in the winter. It always fascinated me when I was living in the United States that people with hardly any connection to the local high school would show up on a Thursday night in January to watch boys they barely knew play basketball.
In my four years of high school in Toronto, I never went to a single high school basketball game. I don't know if that says more about me or the culture of high school basketball in Toronto, but I didn't care, and I don't think anyone else really did either. Going to games was for parents and siblings I thought, not for the general public. Yet when I moved to the States, I met hundreds of people who went to games just for fun. To them, it was an opportunity to see what the local talent had to offer.
Looking back on it, it's so strange to me that Toronto and southern Ontario don’t have a bigger high school basketball culture. Maybe we just take the Toronto Raptors for granted. But there's something special about going to a high school basketball game and seeing Luguentz Dort jump over someone so that four years later when he's shutting down James Harden in the playoffs you can tell your friend that you saw him play before anyone else knew he was special.
That's the thing that's so strange about high school basketball culture in Toronto and southern Ontario. It isn't like it's hard to go see NBA and NCAA-level talent. If you head northwest about an hour outside Toronto there's a basketball program in Mono, Ont. that regularly produces elite basketball players. It's there at Athlete Institute that Tony McIntyre has built a basketball factory that for some reason still remains a secret.
The CBC and documentary filmmaker Michael Hamilton are hoping to change that with their new six-part series called Anyone's Game about last season's Orangeville Prep team that will premiere on CBC on January 15 at 8:30 p.m. ET. It takes you behind the scenes to show viewers what goes on at this elite basketball program seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
It wasn't long into the filming of the documentary that Hamilton said he realized that he was seeing something special. He remembered seeing former Orangeville Prep standout Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe — one of the stars of the documentary who now plays for Oklahoma State — take off from the free-throw line and hammer down a ferocious one-handed slam dunk.
"Every day I'd watch M-A [Moncrieffe] play or Orangeville or any of these guys in the Grind Session and they'd do some crazy athletic stuff and you're just like in disbelief," Hamilton said.
To him, it was that same feeling I felt when I saw ventured up north to see Dort play in 2017.
"You kind of soak in every little moment you have with these guys because you know that, hey, I got a sneak peek of greatness that is about to happen," Hamilton said.
That's what elite level high school basketball is all about. It shouldn't just be for friends and families, it's about that special feeling. That feeling you get when you know you've just witnessed something that only a few people in the world know about and that sometime soon a lot more people are going to know what you know.
That's what they've figured out in the States. Hamilton said he went to an AAU tournament in Vegas and the stands were filled with strangers hoping to catch a glimpse of LeBron James' son Bronny.
"Everyone in life is trying to get their special story right, their special moment like I was there when I met this person when I knew this before, you know what I mean, I really believe that that's the key to all these greats, especially at the high school level," Hamilton said. "Like you're witnessing something special now, but wait till they blow up, and then you can look back to say 'hey man, I was there when it began.'"
It's a strange time to be urging people to go watch Canadian high school basketball when you aren't even allowed into NBA games. But hopefully, this documentary shows Ontarians and Canadians across the country that there are special things happening in local gyms. Trust me, it's worth going to take a look.
Photo by Reuben Polansky-Shapiro/Athlete Institute