Junior Cadougan prays before basketball games.
He asks God to shield his team from injuries. He also appeals for their families to be kept safe, so nobody will hurt the way he did five years ago, when four bullets ripped through his four-year-old brother, then tore the teenage basketball prodigy away from his close-knit family in Toronto and sent him ricocheting across the United States.
"From 15 to the age of 20 now, I went through a lot of things. A lot of bumps. And I've overcome a lot of things at such a young age and I have a long way to go. So I'm just happy right now," Cadougan said this week.
Cadougan will make the same divine requests Friday, when his Marquette University Golden Eagles attempt to upset the powerful North Carolina Tar Heels in the regional semi-finals of the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association men's tournament.
"Everything happens for a reason, good or bad," says the sophomore point guard, one of two Canadian players remaining in the event known as "the Big Dance."
So it seems that a drive-by shooting in 2005 was the shocking catalyst that took a chubby kid raised by a single mother in one of Toronto's most crime-ridden neighbourhoods all the way to the Sweet 16.
As Cadougan steps onto the court at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the people who helped him get there will be nervously watching from homes across North America. Together, they seem more fit for a movie script than real life.
They include Olu Ashaolu, another Toronto basketball talent who convinced the then-15-year-old Cadougan to join him at a private school in Atlanta after the shooting. On their club squad in Toronto, they had been a formidable point guard and big man combination known as O-Ash and J-Dou. But in an eerie coincidence a year after teaming up in Atlanta, Cadougan became his friend's emotional ballast when Ashaolu's older brother, Sam - a basketball player at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh - nearly died after he and four teammates were shot after a campus party.
Then, there's Joy Clemons, the southern belle Cadougan calls "Mama Joy," who sheltered the homesick teen at her suburban Atlanta home for 10 months, feeding him as if every night were Sunday dinner. "It took me a while to realize it, but I needed him as much as he needed me," she says.
She had packed 30 pounds onto Caldougan by the time the Georgia team folded and he arrived on the outskirts of Houston. Head coach Carlos Wilson gladly accepted Ashaolu and Cadougan as transfers to the tiny Christian Life Center Academy with a huge basketball reputation. But he became more of a father figure that first season when, angered by Cadougan's erratic play, Wilson banished him to the locker room, only to find his normally reserved point guard "crying like a baby," racked by a flashback of the night his little brother, Shaquan, could have died.
They prayed together and haven't discussed the tears since, but "it was the turning point in our relationship," Wilson says.
Cadougan was in Grade 7 when his basketball talents first gained notice.
Ro Russell, founder of the Grassroots Canada elite program that has groomed many of Canada's top young basketball players, remembers spotting a "short, chubby kid" who "looked like he was too small to be any kind of basketball prospect." But those shortfalls vanished when he put on a shocking exhibition of court vision and ball-handling skills. Russell took him under his wing, playing him in U.S. prep-school tournaments against much older players, where he excelled.
Better competition in the U.S. prep school system soon beckoned, but it wasn't until a gunfire erupted outside his home in the Jane-Finch area of Toronto that he was forced make the leap. Shaquan was struck by bullets twice in the foot, once in the calf and once through the bladder.
Within days, Suzette Cadougan reluctantly sent her third-eldest of four children south, fearing Junior may have been the target in a bizarre trophy hunt by neighbourhood gangsters. (The alleged shooters were later acquitted for lack of evidence.)
Cadougan said he felt "messed up" when he arrived. Clemons, a school volunteer who regularly fed the team's international players, noticed - especially when Caldougan, who had been boarding with other players began strategically leaving clothes in the back of her sport utility vehicle.
"At first, I wasn't real sure what it was, but he needed some individual time with somebody. It was just far too heavy a burden to take," she recalls. "He needed a secure environment about him, and to begin with, I think that's what he liked best about our house."
The transition to Humble, Tex., was easier. Ashaolu recalled in an interview how the basketball players felt like rock stars at the school of 400, despite their uniforms of polo shirts and khaki pants. At night, they would play video games or use MSN Messenger to talk with friends back home. By the time Cadougan graduated, he was ranked one of the top point guards in the United States. He reserved two front-row seats for the graduation ceremony for his mother and Mama Joy.
He chose Marquette not because it was Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade's alma mater, but because three senior point guards had left the previous season, vacating a possible starting role. But during training camp in October of 2009, he felt a pop. His mother was by his side after the surgery to repair his torn Achilles tendon, an injury that should have ended his rookie season before it even began.
His return in the second semester might surprised his doctors, but not those who have remained in close contact, including Wilson, who saw Cadougan make a similar comeback from a broken foot in high school.
"I think what separates him is how he handles adversity," the coach says. "He takes it and uses it as fuel to get him where he's going."
This season, Cadougan has played a backup role for the Eagles, averaging 19.8 minutes, 3.9 points and 3.1 assists per game. He had nine points and three assists in 25 minutes in the Eagles' stunning 66-62 upset over the No. 3-seeded Syracuse last weekend.
Suzette Cadougan feels her son's team has another upset in store.
"A little axe cuts down a big tree," she says from her Toronto home, where she'll be watching the game with Shaquan, now a healthy 10-year-old - who claims he's the biggest basketball talent in the family.
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