Hanging in a hallway after practice, sweat-soaked and finishing each other's sentences on cue, Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson could be any other Canadian high school kids with big dreams, making their way through Shakespeare, but imagining a brighter stage.
The difference? The pair of 18-year-olds are already on that stage, starring for one of the best high school basketball teams in the United States, their stories splashed all over the Internet, the hype spilling over.
At the end of this month they will become the first Canadians in more than 20 years to play in the McDonald's High School All-American game, an honour they'll share with everyone from LeBron James to Michael Jordan. Next month they'll lead No. 3-ranked Findlay Prep into the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational - the unofficial high school championship of the United States - to defend the title they won last year.
The tournament will be televised across the United States, the high school equivalent of March Madness. Before that they'll be playing in Michael Jordan's own all-star game, sponsored by his Jordan Brand, at Madison Square Garden, no less.
"In Canada, hockey is the first sport, there's more exposure for it," says Joseph, a 6-foot-3 blur of a point guard in explaining how he left Pickering, Ont., to attend high school on the outskirts of Las Vegas. "In Canada, basketball is on the rise, but here, there's more exposure for it and all that. That's why I think I made the decision to come out here."
Says Thompson, a broad-shouldered 6-foot-10 forward from Brampton, Ont.: "Here it's a lifestyle."
Inspired by their example and others, more and more top Canadian high-schoolers are aspiring to that lifestyle themselves, to the consternation of the Canadian basketball establishment.
It's estimated that as many as 100 Canadian teenagers - primarily boys from the Toronto area, though there are girls and boys from every region in the country - are chasing their hoop dreams in the United States, often as early as the ninth grade.
"It's growing, it's not going to stop if we don't do something," says Guy Pariseau, technical director for Basketball Quebec, who says nearly all of the province's 10 best players have left for the U.S. "Everyone is shopping."
At the top of the list is a lucrative scholarship to a top Division I school and dreams of a professional career.
"Ever since I started playing basketball, from the first time I saw it on TV, I was like, 'I want to do that, I want to play there. I want to play for North Carolina or Kentucky or Texas,' " says Thompson, explaining why he left home at 16. "I want to play for those programs. It's not like there aren't good programs in Canada, I just wanted more. I wanted the highest competition out there and that's Division I, so I made that my goal."
He's reached it and will play at the University of Texas next season.
Joseph is undecided, but not because of a lack of attention. As the fifth-rated point guard in his graduating class, he's narrowed his list to five teams, but that didn't stop John Calipari, head coach of powerhouse University of Kentucky, from making a special visit to watch Joseph practise in person last month.
But getting to the top hasn't come without sacrifice.
"It's really tough mentally to come down here," says Joseph, who has scholarship offers from Connecticut, Villanova and Kansas along with a sterling academic record to show for two years spent far from home. "You go through a lot of ups and downs, and the downs are hard because you're alone. [But]my mom told me, if you want, in order to get to your highest level, you have to make sacrifices."
Says Thompson: "It's not for everyone."
It just seems that way as Canadian coaches and sports administrators have become accustomed to their best players leaving before finishing high school.
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