On a rainy evening in November, hours after the school doors lock, gym lights shine brightly at Central Tech high school. The sounds of sneakers squeaking and bouncing basketballs echo off the freshly painted walls as the players methodically practice their offensive sets.
For two hours, five days a week, the teenage boys on the court, ages 15 to 18, run drills in their warm-up jerseys. At first glance, they appear like any other high school basketball team in the city. But the Central Tech Blues XXXI, in its inaugural year, is unique.
Most of the players are new to the school. They’ve come for the opportunity to be coached by Kevin Jeffers, a leader in Canadian high-school basketball. He’s new, too. He’s come for the chance to build an elite team from scratch – and help change the downtown school’s gritty reputation.
Walking amongst the scrimmaging players, Mr. Jeffers, or Mac as he’s known to them, alternates between encouragement (“Yes, that’s what I’m looking for!”) and criticism (“Why? Why did you make that pass?”).
“Breaking them down and building them up,” he explains as the players head into their first game of the season. “It’s nowhere where we want to be, [but] November’s early.”
Mr. Jeffers knows how to build a winning team. He was last head coach at Eastern Commerce, leading the Saints to multiple city championships and a provincial title before the school closed in 2015 because of low enrolment. He joined the Danforth Ave. school under the tutelage of Roy Rana, who went on to coach the Ryerson Rams men’s basketball program and Canada’s junior men’s squad. Together, they won four straight provincial titles – a first for an Ontario high school.
Over his 14-year stint, Mr. Jeffers guided many players to university programs in Canada and the United States, including major National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) schools.
He wants to repeat that success at Central Tech with a prep basketball program that will compete against the province’s best (and mostly long established) teams. He’s already earned the support of the administration and sponsors such as Jordan apparel.
Though its interest in basketball has been sporadic, Central Tech, which celebrated its centennial in 2015, has a long history of excellence in athletics. (Former student Charity Williams, a member of the rugby sevens team at the Rio Olympics, won Olympic bronze for Canada.)
The school has made big investments in sport on campus, most notably the Blues’ home field and dome, a $6-million facility that opened for use in the fall and will be the home to the school’s dominant football team and its long-respected track and field program (which has also produced Olympians and national athletes).
Principal Lisa Edwards believes in the importance of integrating high-performance sport with education. The new basketball program will be demanding, but players are still expected to excel in the classroom, she says.
“Being present, being engaged in your classroom will also lead to the engagement on the court and on the field.”
The prep program offers young men the chance to make the NCAA with the right combination of skill and academics. It’s an opportunity teens used to have to seek at prep schools in the United States before coaches such as Mr. Jeffers built up the Canadian program.
“For a time period there, we lost that, all of our talented kids went south,” Mr. Jeffers says. “Now, you see it in [Canadian high-school basketball], the kids are staying home. [Denver Nuggets guard] Jamal Murray stayed home, and look what he got.
“Coming out and being from Canada is huge.”
The players who followed Mr. Jeffers to Central Tech have made a sacrifice. By transferring schools, they forfeited their eligibility to play in the public-school league and the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations this school year. (The school also has a regular senior boys team that Mr. Jeffers coaches.) Still, they say they believe in Mr. Jeffers’s ability to build their skills on and off the court.
At Eastern, Mr. Jeffers instituted study hall for students, made SAT prep available for kids interested in U.S. colleges and set strict standards for all players. He warned players they’d be benched if their grades fell below standard. He’s followed through with his threat, even for star players.
He wants the program at Central to be on par with Toronto Basketball Academy and St. Michael’s College, Canadian schools that have produced professional-calibre players. That means high expectations for his players.
“On the court, he’s holding you accountable, if you do something wrong he’ll tell you about it. If you do it right, he’ll tell you about it,” says Evan Shadkami. The Grade 12 student, who hopes to play professionally and pursue a career in nursing, also plays for Mr. Jeffers through Peoples, a charity that teaches life skills to young men downtown while exposing them to elite-basketball training.
“He is always motivating you and he makes you really disciplined. When he yells at me, you can tell it’s for your own good. He wants you to get better.”
After Eastern’s closure, many schools reached out to Mr. Jeffers, who thought about walking away from coaching because he felt he had accomplished everything he wanted at Eastern. He was drawn back by Central Tech’s reputation.
“It’s breaking down the [school’s] stigma … You hear about Central Tech, you Google it, the first thing you’re gonna see is lock-downs, shootings and violence,” he says. “It’s their parents trusting in the decision they’re making that ‘You know what, we’re going to make this program amazing.’”
So far, his plan is working. Practices run as often as possible on weekdays and the boys have tournaments virtually every weekend. They’ve already had success on the national stage, competing against other prep teams in the National Preparatory Association, a new Canadian league created last year by amateur hoops website and scouting agency North Pole Hoops. The Blues currently sit first over all, poised to compete in that league’s national final at the end of February.
Tariq Sbiet, who co-founded North Pole Hoops with his brother, Elias, wanted the Central Tech Blues in the fold as soon as he found out where Mr. Jeffers was coaching.
“[We’ve] watched Jeffers work with youth and develop talent up close, with accountability, discipline and hard work at the forefront of his teachings,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Mac’s intentions are pure and he always puts the kids first.”