Wayne Parrish was just a few months into his new job as executive director of Canada Basketball when he realized he had a growing problem, and no easy way to solve it.
He was sitting in a west end Toronto coffee shop in the spring of 2008 with Roy Rana, then a prominent high school coach, talking about challenges facing Canadian basketball - never a short list - when Rana brought to Parrish's attention a growing trend. "Roy began telling me about the number of kids in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area]leaving for the U.S. in high school. He said that high school basketball here was being hollowed out."
The numbers would seem to make the case. It's estimated as many as 100 of some of the best young basketball players in Canada - primarily boys from the Toronto area, but some girls and kids from other parts of the country - have left to play in the United States.
The exodus has the establishment scrambling to respond. Is it bad? Is it good? Will these student athletes come back with degrees and great experiences? Or with broken dreams and useless transcripts? And just as important, why do so many good players want to leave?
"What's at stake here is the development from a basketball perspective and a life perspective of our young athletes," Parrish says. "If it's negative from a basketball perspective, it will impact the competitiveness of the teams we [Canada]put on the floor. If it's negative from a life perspective, the impact is felt in all directions. Everyone knows stories of guys who haven't been able to leverage their basketball ability into success in life. That's what we don't want."
Parrish and his peers with Ontario Basketball and the Quebec Basketball Federation - representing the regions most affected by the trend - are trying to develop alternatives and make it more attractive for kids to stay home and become elite players.
Canada Basketball has commissioned the Centre for Sport and Law to survey students who are playing in the United States or have returned, plus their families, to get a better sense of what the outcomes are. Parrish says he's also looking to see if there's an advisory role his organization can play - vetting U.S. schools and coaches so athletes and parents can make more informed choices.
Rana, the former high school coach who will be coaching the Canadian team at the world under-18 championships in Germany this summer, says not all Canadian high schools properly understand what's required for students to qualify academically for Division 1 schools in the United States, which can create problems for players with dreams of a college scholarship.
"The guidance component needs to improve," he says.
He also feels part of the problem is a failure to publicize made-in-Canada success stories.
"There's no evidence that playing high school in Canada hurts your development," Rana says.
Rana had several players earn Division 1 scholarships when he was coaching the hugely successful Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute. Now coaching at Ryerson University in Toronto, he acknowledges there needs to be a more consistent approach to developing talent so that a player's opportunity to reach his potential isn't necessarily determined by his proximity to a school that happens to have an ambitious basketball program.
To that end, Ontario Basketball wants to help organize a network of high-performance teams attached to high schools on a regional basis across the province, something the Quebec federation expects to have up and running in the fall of 2011, matching programs in soccer and hockey. In the next five years, insiders foresee a super league of school teams that would provide the kind of competition, training and exposure that athletes are trying to find in the United States. There's also talk of an elite Canadian Interuniversity Sport division in which full scholarships would be available.
Similarly, there needs to be better information about the realities of playing high school basketball in a foreign country.
For every Cory Joseph or Tristan Thompson - the guard-forward combination from the Toronto area who earned McDonald's All-American honours playing for Findlay Prep near Las Vegas - there are many more that would be better off staying home. "Coming down here, it's not for everyone," says Ro Russell, a Toronto coach who launched a program at Christian Faith Centre in Creedmore, N.C.
"Everyone is not good enough, mentally tough enough. But it's become its own kind of monster and people want to be part of it."
Russell should know: As the founder of Grassroots Elite Canada, a top club program, he's been a pioneer, bringing Canadian players to the U.S. market to an unprecedented degree. This year, he started an elite basketball program attached to the Christian Faith Centre, his roster nearly entirely comprised of Canadians from Toronto and area.
But his example suggests how eager kids and their parents are to realize their ambitions through basketball. Russell started his team last summer, after a foiled effort to launch a similar program in Erie, Pa., fell through at the last minute. With almost no lead time, there were hiccups. For much of the first semester last fall, his players were studying by correspondence in order, Russell says, to get the appropriate credits to begin classroom work.
"The curriculum in North Carolina is different," Russell says. "So we had to come up with a unique academic solution so they would catch up."
Perhaps most frustrating for Canadian coaches is what they see as a false logic: If playing basketball in the United States is good, then staying home is bad. Similarly, it's a misconception that U.S. college coaches won't come to Canada in search of talent.
"If you can play, guys will find you if you're in Timbuktu," says Leo Rautins, head coach of the men's national team. He won a U.S. scholarship to Syracuse University and was the first Canadian taken in the first round of the NBA entry draft, going 17th overall to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983 after playing high school basketball in Toronto.
But Russell sees himself as providing an essential service: creating opportunities for kids from Toronto to play more competitive schedules, prove themselves against top talent, increase their exposure to U.S. college coaches and put themselves on a faster academic path recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Canadian high schools don't always understand the nuances.
Mike George, the founder of CIA Bounce, another prominent Toronto-area club program that has had several players head to the United States for high school, says Canadian officials need to have a broad view of the problem. "They need to embrace the reality of it and work with it, rather than fight it," he says.
Now two years into the job, Parrish better understands the challenges he and other basketball officials face. Certainly money is a concern. Canada Basketball's budget is notoriously threadbare - $3-million, spread over six national teams. He looks on at the resources the government made available to some Winter Olympic disciplines - low participation sports that justify the expense with the promise of medals - "with more respect than envy," he says.
The shift in government funding priorities, for example, forced the cancellation of the National Elite Development Academy after three years, even as it was making impressive contributions to the progress of Canadian youth teams internationally and generating scholarship opportunities for players who wanted them. Parrish and his peers are still struggling to find another solution. The basketball community is watching.
"They're saying to kids, stay home and we'll fix the problem," George says. "How about, fix the problem and then the kids will want to stay home?"