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The success of players such as Karim Mané and Chris Boucher is bringing prestige to a sport that’s gaining ground among the province’s students

Isaac Pierre-Louis scores during an April practice with CB Elite, a program for up-and-coming Montreal basketball players formed by Toronto Raptors player Chris Boucher.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Early in the NBA season, during an otherwise forgettable game between the Orlando Magic and the Houston Rockets, a young player named Karim Mané found himself defending James Harden, the Rockets’ superstar point guard.

The matchup was routine for the league’s one-time Most Valuable Player, but for Mr. Mané, a 20-year-old rookie, it was more significant.

Growing up in Montreal, he had idolized Mr. Harden, and even had a picture of the famously bearded scoring champion on his wall. In fact, Mr. Mané realized shortly after the game, he still had a picture of Mr. Harden on his wall.

Amidst all the texts of congratulations lighting up his phone after the game (“That’s crazy!” “You’re famous!”) was a message from his mother that included a photo of his childhood bedroom, which he had vacated so recently that the picture was still there.

Mr. Mané was horrified. What kind of professional has a shrine to a rival hanging in his room? He texted his mother in a panic: “ ‘Take it down!’ ”

The disorienting speed of Mr. Mané's ascent – from Harden-worshipping teen in the suburban South Shore to Harden-defending pro on his sport’s biggest stage, in a matter of months – is not a one-time fluke. He is part of a wave of Montreal basketball that has surprised the NBA this season. Four players from the city saw minutes in the league this year, more than ever before.

Karim Mané, left, faces off against Delaware Blue Coats forward Paul Reed at a game in Orlando, Fla., in March.Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

That bumper crop reflects the sport’s rapid growth in Quebec, where soccer and basketball have begun to chip away at hockey’s supremacy. The week of May 10 was a symbolic watershed: That Monday, for the first time in team history, the Montreal Canadiens had no Quebec players in their lineup. The following night, the Toronto Raptors had two.

The Quebeckers, Khem Birch and Chris Boucher, were joined by Mr. Mané and Luguentz Dort of the Oklahoma City Thunder in representing the province on the NBA stage. These aren’t just warm bodies, either: Mr. Dort took a star turn last year by tenaciously guarding Mr. Harden in a seven-game playoff series. Mr. Boucher of the Raptors blossomed as a rare bright spot in a disappointing season for the recent champions.

Now, the new batch of Quebec players is starting to inspire its own generation of local talent. Quebec may still be a hockey province, but a growing number of kids are choosing the hardwood over the ice, said Armel Mampouya, a coach at the Eastern Townships basketball academy Atelier 803, one of several up-and-coming programs churning out elite players in the province. Just in the past two years, the number of students playing competitively at all levels of school jumped from about 20,000 to more than 30,000.

“Gradually, basketball is installing itself as a major sport in Quebec,” Mr. Mampouya said.

Practice day at CB Elite. At top, coach Shawn Bowen demonstrates a drill. At middle left, Andy Fonrose and Kemuel Kouame do push-ups; Mr. Fonrose's shoe, middle right, bears a tribute to the late superstar Kobe Bryant. At bottom, players (who have masks to guard against COVID-19) chat during a short break.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

The first man to throw a leather ball into a peach basket was, in some sense, a Montrealer: James Naismith had recently left the city for a job in Springfield, Mass., when he invented “Basket Ball” in 1891. Had he developed the game a year earlier, while working as an athletics instructor at McGill University, the sport and the province might have had a very different relationship.

As it was, basketball and Quebec fell into a century of estrangement. The game never took off recreationally or professionally in la belle province, said Michel Vigneault, a sports historian and course instructor at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Organized basketball is traditionally a winter sport, a season when Québécois youth were often pomading their hair to look like Maurice Richard. The few local kids who took an interest in basketball, meanwhile, had a hard time getting noticed anywhere else. It wasn’t that Quebeckers couldn’t play, necessarily, just that no one thought they could. Andy Hertzog, Mr. Mané's head coach at Vanier College in Montreal, got used to hearing American coaches yelling at their players in frustration. “You’re losing to a bunch of nobodies!” one said. “From Canada!”

Andrew Hertzog is coach of the Vanier College Cheetahs.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

The obscurity of Quebec basketball was tied to the province’s outlier status in North America. Some U.S. recruiters were deterred by the language barrier, just as francophone players could be discouraged by the prospect of passing the English-language standardized tests long required for admission into NCAA schools and their well-funded basketball programs.

Montreal’s reputation as a slightly exotic outlaw city further dampened interest in the city’s players. For decades, a notorious local gangster did in fact sell U.S. recruiters the rights to certain young players, spooking more strait-laced programs. “Some coaches were afraid to come up here,” Mr. Hertzog recalled.

Despite these disadvantages, Quebec basketball has flourished in the past decade. A big part of that growth, especially at the elite level, has been driven by immigrants from the Caribbean and West Africa. Among the reasons many newcomers have embraced the sport is a simple financial calculus driven by the disproportionate level of poverty faced by those communities, said the coach and entrepreneur Loïc Rwigema. The availability of outdoor public courts and its relative lack of specialized equipment make the game much more affordable than sports like hockey. “Basketball is one of the cheapest sports.”

Loïc Rwigema looks out from the court at the end of a CB Elite practice session.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

The same trends have produced a golden age of basketball across the country. At least one Canadian was taken in 10 of the past 11 NBA drafts. But while focus has rested on the hoops explosion in the Greater Toronto Area, Montreal players such as Joel Anthony and Samuel Dalembert have forged a gritty basketball identity all their own, based in part on their status as overlooked outsiders.

“I think a lot of guys from Montreal play with a chip on their shoulder,” Mr. Hertzog said.

Karim Mané is emblematic of the new breed of Montreal player. He immigrated from Senegal with his parents at the age of 7 and only really took up basketball as a pre-teen. Like many young Quebeckers, he dreamed of playing pro hockey, but the cost was prohibitive. “I couldn’t be on a team because of the money,” he said.

Hockey’s loss was basketball’s gain.

Mr. Mané got better fast, and a growth spurt stretched him out to a dunkable 6-foot-5. To improve his three-point stroke, he spent long hours in the gym at Vanier with a shooting machine that spits the balls back and upped his accuracy from 20 to 40 per cent.

“I told him he spent so much time with that shooting machine he had to name it, because it was officially his girlfriend,” Mr. Hertzog said.

Mr. Mané put his energy into basketball instead of hockey, which he once dreamed of playing professionally.Vanier College/The Canadian Press

When Mr. Mané first told his coach he wanted to play in the NBA, the older man chuckled to himself. But Mr. Hertzog quickly realized this springy point guard with a killer first step was the real deal. So did American scouts. By Mr. Mané's senior year, top U.S. college coaches including Tom Izzo of Michigan State were lurking around the old stone ecclesiastical buildings of Vanier’s campus.

Despite the lure of the NCAA, Mr. Mané opted for a less conventional route, entering the NBA draft as an international player at just 19, the youngest eligible age. No one took him in either round, but just two days later the Orlando Magic signed him as a free agent. The deal would make him the first player to jump straight from CEGEP to the NBA.

Mr. Mané encountered a well-stocked Montreal fraternity in the Association. Khem Birch, a fourth-year centre with the physique of a Marvel superhero, still played for the Magic then, and became a big brother figure. Still, the rookie struggled in his first exposure to the pros, and then missed six games with a hamstring injury; the Magic released him in April. He is looking to sign with another NBA team next season.

Fortunately, Mr. Mané is endowed with the athlete’s gift of borderline overconfidence. In an interview shortly before the Magic cut him, he professed his goal of making an all-star team one day, something only two Canadians (Steve Nash and Jamaal Magloire) have managed.

Louis Daoust, one of the star players on the Vanier Cheetahs' Division 1 roster, practices free throws.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

A couple of other Montrealers might beat him to the milestone; the city’s hoopers are no longer just making the NBA but thriving there. Chris Boucher erupted into a shot-blocking, three-swishing force this season, from the most improbable beginnings. Born in Saint Lucia and raised in the working-class neighbourhood of Montreal-Nord, Mr. Boucher was washing dishes at the chicken restaurant St-Hubert when he was discovered by Loïc Rwigema during a pay-to-play tournament in Little Burgundy.

He was just a beyond-gangly teen – 6-foot-9, 180 pounds – but he also put up a solid 40 points in one game and scared everyone on defence with limbs as seemingly endless as his energy. Soon he was playing in a basketball program run by Mr. Rwigema’s brother Igor at a CEGEP in the small town of Alma, which had become a bit of a talent factory.

If Mr. Boucher was once most notable for his coat-hanger thinness, the local connoisseurs of basketball now marvel at his influence on a younger generation of Quebec players. A low media profile in the province, where hockey still dominates the airwaves, is no match for the online streaming and YouTube highlights that give kids almost unmediated access to game footage, Mr. Rwigema said.

At the CB Elite practice, a player holds the ball aloft during a warmup.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Nothing exemplifies the connection between established and up-and-coming Montreal players better than CB Elite, a group of select teams for adolescents that are funded by, and named after, Chris Boucher himself. The kids wear the initials of their hometown hero on their jerseys; Mr. Boucher sometimes even plays the online video game Fortnite with his protégés, said Shawn Bowen, the program’s co-director.

During a recent outdoor practice, members of CB Elite wove their way through dribbling and shooting drills as Mr. Bowen barked instructions in franglais. The conditions were far from perfect – spring wind and double rims turned plenty of good-looking shots into bricks – but megawatts of talent shone through. Mr. Rwigema, who is always scouting, thought especially highly of a 16-year-old guard named Bashir Ngala. “He plays with such anger,” the coach said, beaming.

That day, the future of Montreal basketball was playing in a tuque. He still looked like a kid, but there was a maturity to his game. He carved paths to the hoop with instinctive ease. His shot was smooth, almost casual, his face a mask of controlled intensity.

He wants to play pro, he said later. Watching Montrealers such as Mr. Boucher and Mr. Dort showed him the way. “Seeing some of them, it inspired me to work harder to make the NBA.”

His brow beaded with sweat under that tuque, he went to put up a few more shots before the end of practice. After all, he might have to play James Harden one day.

Bashir Ngala gets some encouragement from Mr. Bowen, the coach, while practising a drill.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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