Among the sea of orange-clad fans who gather inside the Carrier Dome on game day, one particular T-shirt has become the thing. Worn by packs of Syracuse faithful, the shirt reads ICE MAN, with a maple leaf centering the ‘A.’ It’s a nickname they’ve adopted for their freshman point guard, the calm and cool Canadian, Tyler Ennis.
The 19-year-old native of Brampton, Ont., has mesmerized the college basketball world this season with late-game heroics – the kind that have compelled U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to call with congratulations. The poised first-year floor general is up for two player-of-the-year awards, the Naismith and John R. Wooden, and projected as a lottery pick in June’s NBA draft. He’s been central to Syracuse success heading into the NCAA tournament this week.
Up close, Ennis is nothing like the quiet and machine-like persona he projects during games. He’s warm and conversational as he sits for a wide-ranging interview court-side after practice. He relays anecdotes about his long journey to this place – a large and frenzied dome where the squad is cherished as “New York’s College Team” as the brass-wielding pep band rollicks and cheerleaders are tossed through the air. Banners hang touting the 2003 NCAA championship team, as does the No. 15 jersey of that squad’s Carmelo Anthony, another star freshman.
“We travelled to a tournament right here in this exact gym when I was a kid,” said Ennis, looking up at the vast white bubble roof overhead. “There were about 10 courts full of kids playing in this building, and I remember the amazing atmosphere. It was the first college I had ever been to, and I loved it. I saw Jonny Flynn, a point guard here, back then. I thought, ‘This is where I want to be someday.’”
His on-court maturity may seem surprising, but his game has been percolating for years – since his mother first rolled him into a Brampton gym in his baby stroller as his older brother played. He’s the third-born in a family of six kids – four boys, two girls, all basketball players.
Their father, Tony McIntyre, coached them and eventually founded a club program that would travel around to face the toughest teenaged players in North America. The club’s teams thrived with the Ennis boys and a long list of other exceptional Toronto-area players destined for big things, including Kansas freshman star Andrew Wiggins and first-round NBA draft picks Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson.
Young Ennis began playing in the basement of their family home with brothers Brandon and Dylan, five and two years older than him. The point guard who today seems quiet on court was “so hyper and chatty as a little boy,” recalls his mother, Suzette Ennis McIntyre. He would often jump in front of the family video camera trying to host “Tyler TV,” and the brothers spent their days battling one another on their Fisher Price basketball net.
“People would ask us what we wanted to do and we always said we wanted to play in the NBA,” Ennis said. “I can remember teachers saying, ‘Okay, but realistically, what do you want to do?’ and I would be like, ‘No really, the NBA.’ It was totally unheard of that kids from Canada could play in the NBA or even get a scholarship, but we always really believed it.”
As they grew, their games moved outside to a hoop by the curb, stopping intermittently for cars to pass. The competition between brothers was fiery – diving to the ground for loose balls, bloodying knees and elbows.
“Dylan and Tyler would go at it hard, and sometimes Tyler would kick the ball down the street and storm into the house, but we were always pushing one another to be better, and it was so much fun,” said the eldest brother Brandon, who recently graduated after playing on scholarship at the University of the District of Columbia. “People say Tyler is very poised, and I think always playing with the older brothers helped build that.”
Ennis also played lacrosse, where he was a physical scoring defender who had his share of tussles. He honed skills that would help his basketball too: the ability to play with his head up and execute screen-and-rolls.