In 1991, Ro Russell began, what was then, the first AAU basketball program in Canada called the Toronto Elite. Russell wanted to showcase the talent that nobody was paying attention to. Unfortunately for Russell, basketball was not a part of the Canadian sports tradition in the 1990’s. In fact, back then, basketball wasn’t even associated with Canada.
“Only the top-rated guys would get scholarships,” said Russell. “I wanted to change that and give more guys a chance.”
In a time where the internet did not exist, Russell says he would have to cold call coaches and drive his teams down to the U.S. to places like Buffalo, New York to compete. His goal was to create their own pipeline that would give guys the type of exposure he felt Canadian players deserved.
“I would drive one team down to compete one weekend, then drive team another team down the next weekend,” said Russell.
Nowadays, it’s part of high school basketball culture to recruit guys from different areas, including Canada, to play with one another at the same school. Powerhouse programs now exist all over the U.S. because of the competitive nature that has taken over high school basketball.
Russell says that back in 90’s, people in Canada did not accept the idea of encouraging players to go to school in the U.S. at the high school or collegiate levels. He says he received negative backlash from people who didn’t understand the value of playing in the U.S. Some of that backlash, he believes, was based on the thought that Canadians at the time didn’t agree with the American way of life.
“I think it was blown out of proportion,” said Russell when asked how he thinks fellow Canadians portrayed Americans from what they saw in the media.
Russell also added that as there has been a significant increase in success for Canadian players, more people are starting to see the value in establishing pipelines to America and have become more accepting of sending guys to the U.S. to play basketball.
While there is a slow rise in support, many of the top programs in Canada depend on American shoe companies to provide the type of financial backing to become an elite-level program.
Despite very humble beginnings for the Toronto Elite, Russell had aspirations or growing something much larger and was determined to do so. Although, finding the resources to do so wasn’t easy. Even today, many Canadian companies do not see the value in sponsoring a Canadian basketball program.
However, Russell believes that as more Canadians have success at the next levels, especially in the NBA, there will be more faces that represent how marketable basketball can help make more companies who attach their names to Canadian basketball programs in the AAU circuit.
Fast forward to more recent times, the Toronto Elite transformed in to what you see today, Grassroots Canada. In 2008, Grassroots Canada won the Super 64.
“It put the exclamation mark on Canada has arrived,” said Russell when asked what impact he thought winning the Super 64 had on Canadian basketball at the time.
Grassroots Canada became the first Canadian program to win a major championship at the AAU level. At that point, Grassroots Canada was ranked number one in the AAU circuit. The team only lost two games that summer, and never lost a game when they had their full roster in place for a game.
Grassroots Canada has gone a long way in opening the doors of legitimacy and breaking many of the barriers that had previously labeled Canadian players as soft. In 2011, Tristan Thompson, who played for Grassroots Canada, became the first Canadian player to be an NBA Draft lottery pick. Cory Joseph, who also played for Grassroots Canada, was also drafted that year and served as a significant landmark that illustrated the types of players that Grassroots Canada has helped to mold over the 24 years the program has been established.
The Grassroots Canada program is value-based and emphasizes players development and growth both on and off the court. Russell says that being a Canadian player “you have to do double” referring to the fact that while barriers have been broken, there is still a stigma that exists and he and the Grassroots program is fully aware of it. Russell and his staff encourage their players to always go the extra mil to make sure that they are doing all that they can to allow basketball to provide them with the best opportunities that the game can. The program preaches that “you don’t play to shine, you play to win.”
“The number one things is character,” said Russell when asked what values he expects from guys who are in the Grassroots Canada program. “[To] carry themselves in a high character manner so others will speak highly of them,” added Russell.
Approximately 200 players have played Division I basketball since the program’s inception. Grassroots Canada has gone a long way to instill loyalty in to their guys.
Russell says he reminds guys where they came from and that you are the ones carrying the flag and will be part of the reason why the next Canadian player gets an opportunity.
Grassroots Canada has developed many great players and has many more coming up through the program today.
Here is a list of all of the notable alumni of the Grassroots Canada program that are currently playing in the college ranks:
Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Junior Cadougan (Marquette), Chris Johnson (St. Bonaventure), Myck Kabongo (Texas), Dwight Powell (Stanford), Agunwa Okolie (Harvard), Renaldo Dixon (New Mexico State), Jason Calliste (Detroit), JP Kambola (Marshall), Chadrack Lufile (Wichita State), Alwayne Bigby (Rhode Island), Christian Kabongo (Morgan State), Kaza Keane (Illinois State), Juevol Myles & Brandon Bos (South Dakota), Dwayne Smith (George Washington), Troy Joseph (Long Island), Brady Heslip (Baylor), Grant Mullins (Columbia).
The program also has notable unsigned and signed 17U 2012 players from the program as well, including: AJ Lapray (6’5″, SG, Oregon), Mikyle Mcintosh (6’6″,SF, Unsigned), Petar Rusic (6’4″,SG, Unsigned), D’Adrian Allen (6’8″, PF, Unsigned), Josh Rhodius (6’3″, G, Unsigned).
Here are some of the up-and-comers to keep an eye out for:
Jamar Ergas (2015, SG, 6’4”): Ergas is super quick and athletic with 40” vertical leap. He possesses a natural work ethic and has really put in the time to perfect his shooting and dribbling.
Kamar McKnight (2015, CG, 6’4”): Real strong physical guard who can make plays off the dribble. McKnight has the ball handling and natural skills to pass and score, but he’s also very competitive. His driven on playing the very best.
Shakur Daniel (2018, 6’3”, CG): Shakur is a top-level player in Canada that could make a major impact in America. He’s starting out early and really putting in the work. His skill level is already at an elite level, he could play at the 17U now. Daniel loves to be in the gym all the time. He has a natural feel for the game and plays beyond his years.
Coming up in 2014, look out for: 6’4” G Lincoln Samuel, 6’9” C Aaron Ariri, 6’4” W/G Jaylen Morgan, 6’6” WF Marcus Lewis, 6’8” F Fritz Corriolan, 5’9” PG Brandon Chauca, 6’5” CG Jake Babic.
With the size and athleticism coming up, this group could surprise a lot of people and put Grassroots Canada back at the level where they were in 2008.
Coach Russell told us that the Grassroots Canada program would not be what it is today without the countless hours that his staff (some of which are former alumni), board members, and supporters have put in to the program over the years. His wife and sister have also played huge roles in ensuring that Coach Russell has the time and family support that he needed to be where he is today.
We’d like to thank Ro Russell for his time and allowing this article to be possible. If you’d like to find out more about the Grassroots Canada program, you can visit their website.