Kevin Pangos has all the characteristics of Canada's celebrated wave of high school basketball talent - a surefire shot, surgical passes, and buzz that the 6-foot-1 point guard may be Canada's next Steve Nash. But his commute to school makes him the odd man out.
This week, he hopped in his mom's minivan and drove 15 minutes to the Toronto suburb of Newmarket, a typical teenage routine that is becoming rare for Canada's best young basketball players.
It's a trend with no end in sight as a growing number make the leap to prep schools in American cities, where high school hoops make the local news and National Collegiate Athletic Association Division One coaches watch from the bleachers.
"The guys keep saying, come on down to prep," Pangos says. "What's Canada doing for you? They joke around, but they know what I've done so far has been effective."
At 17, Pangos is coming off the summer of his life. He was selected to run the point in the Jordan Brand International Game, which showcased the world's best 16-and-under players and took place at Madison Square Garden. He helped his Canadian cadet team to a bronze medal at the world championship in Germany, taking individual honours for best point guard.
But September loomed. He and his parents agonized over whether he should remain in Canada or head south to finish his high school education in Florida.
Hanging in the balance, it felt at times, was his future in basketball.
"It was up and down like a roller coaster," Pangos says. "Sometimes we'd be like, you know, it's a really good option. I think I'll be heading down to the States. Then we'd be like, that's a terrible option. I don't know why we considered that."
Canada Basketball estimates 100 Canadians are playing basketball at U.S. high schools. They have included success stories such as point guard Cory Joseph of Pickering, Ont., and Canada's best big-man prospect in years, 6-foot-10 Tristan Thompson of Brampton, Ont. Both played two seasons at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., two-time U.S. high school champions. Both were named McDonald's All-Americans and are entering their freshman year at Texas University.
The slide south has troubled Canada Basketball officials, who say it promotes the false impression that Canadian coaches are subpar, and that NCAA coaches aren't willing to look north for talent. Most problematic, they say, is the weakening of competition in Canadian high school basketball.
"The game is not at the level that it was even four or five years ago," says Roy Rana, who coached the Canadian cadet squad and estimates at least half of his players go to school in the States.
That's why Pangos lobbied his parents to transfer.
"I don't get the same level of competition here as I would in the States, and that's kind of what I need," Pangos says. "I need athletes that will push me, because I'm not extremely athletic, but here, I'm considered athletic."
Dr. John M. Denison Secondary School, where he has played since Grade 9, has never won an Ontario championship, and Pangos's team was eliminated in the provincial quarter-finals. Hanging in the gym are banners for champion girls rugby and Ultimate Frisbee teams.
His mother, Patty Pangos, researched a prep school in Florida, even though her gut feeling was that this wasn't the right move. At home in Holland Landing, a rural community about an hour north of Toronto, she knew what Kevin ate, how he trained, and who cared for him if he became sick or injured. She teaches physical education at Denison, so she knows her son is getting a good education.
"We've heard good stories and bad stories," she says. "When he goes off to college, I know they're looking after him because he's a product of what they're doing. But when he goes off to high school, it's one or two years … they only care about what happens to him right now."
His father, Bill Pangos, was against the move. He played basketball for the University of Toronto and has been the women's basketball coach at York University for 24 seasons. "I believe strongly that anybody, given the opportunity and if they're dedicated enough, can succeed whether they're in Canada or the United States," he says.
One of the main reasons players head south is better exposure to NCAA coaches.
But Bernie Fine, associate head coach of the men's team at Syracuse University in upstate New York, says more and more coaches are looking north, and not just the ones close to Canada.
"We're definitely familiar with the good players up there," says Fine, who recruited Leo Rautins, now head coach of the Canadian men's team, as well as his son, Andy Rautins, now in his rookie season with the New York Knicks.
Still, Fine says, the concerns about the lower quality of play are legitimate.
"I've seen some games up there where it's tough to get a feel because the competition the kids play against is not where it needs to be."
Pangos hasn't had trouble being noticed by NCAA coaches. ("Tell him I say hi," Fines says.) That's in large part due to his play in international tournaments. Before being picked for the Jordan game, he generated buzz by winning MVP honours for the Canadian club team that won the Victor Rho Milan International Tournament in Italy in May of last year. That summer, he made a trip to Italy for an exhibition tour with the Canadian senior men's team, despite being just 16. (The senior players forced the young protégé to wear a Hello Kitty backpack.)
He's already turned some NCAA coaches down, and narrowed his choices to Michigan, Gonzaga, Boston College, Virginia and a handful of others.
Still, he knows he needs to continue to improve to be able to shine at the next level.
Pangos and his parents have decided that this season will be devoted to fitness, as a way to make up for the lack of intense game experience. They've hired a fitness trainer who has worked with other elite athletes.
Patty Pangos promised to stay late to give her son access to the school gym for shooting practice.
Pangos is content with the decision.
"Obviously I wasn't the type of guy that had hundreds of schools calling me, because not all the schools got to see me play," he says. "But the schools that heard about me from my international play, they're great schools, great options, so why would I ask for anything else?"
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