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Youth athletics

A year ago, the reputation of Crestwood Preparatory College was based solely on academics. Then the elite private school built a winning basketball team, luring top players with bursaries and the chance to work with a renowned coach. It's made Crestwood a basketball powerhouse overnight, Joe Friesen reports, and not everyone is cheering.

Crestwood Preparatory College, a relatively unknown private school in Toronto, has become a basketball powerhouse with the addition of a high-profile head coach.

Judging by the banners on the gym walls, Crestwood Preparatory College's athletic prowess has been limited, historically, to one sport: curling.

But that changed this year when Crestwood essentially spent its way to land near the top of the private school basketball heap.

The school started by hiring coach Ro Russell, a controversial figure who coached many of Canada's NBA stars when they were teens. It's hard to become a sports powerhouse without attracting great athletes, and hiring Mr. Russell instantly transformed the school into a basketball juggernaut.

The small, relatively unknown private school also gave Mr. Russell the financial backing to bring 16 promising basketball players with him. Those 16, all of whom had been in the public school system, were given financial aid to attend Crestwood, where tuition runs to $25,000 a year. They include some of the brightest young stars in Canadian basketball, including top-ranked 13-year-old guard Elijah Fisher and lightning-quick point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson.

Crestwood's sudden rise from also-ran to title challenger caught its rivals by surprise, leaving opposing coaches shaking their heads at lopsided scores. It also pushed out a few of Crestwood's incumbent players, who struggled to keep up.

The administration says its goal is to transform the school's culture by investing in high-level athletics, starting with basketball and with view to expanding to hockey and soccer.

Ro Russell, Head Coach of their Senior Boys Basketball program and Coordinator for Basketball at Crestwood Preparatory College, reacts to court action during a game between the Crestwood Senior Lions and the St. John’s-Kilmarnock Eagles on Feb. 21, 2017.

Mr. Russell, 47, is short and square, with a round face and great enthusiasm for the game. He runs multiple teams at various age levels and conducts individual workouts with players morning and night. He grew up in Toronto and played at Runnymede Collegiate Institute before going on to Gordon College, a small school in Massachusetts.

At an early age, he decided his future was in coaching. He seemed to have a Midas touch with young talent. In the 1990s, he founded a youth program that became Grassroots Canada Elite Basketball, which produced the first Canadian team to ever be ranked No. 1 in North America. The news release from Crestwood trumpeting his hiring boasted that more than 400 of his former players, male and female, have won postsecondary athletic scholarships. He helped launch the careers of, among many others, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Nik Stauskas, all of whom graduated to multimillion-dollar contracts in the NBA.

But his reputation took a hit in 2012 when he was featured in an unflattering documentary by the CBC investigative program The Fifth Estate. His attempt to start a program at a Christian school in North Carolina was held up as an example of all that was wrong with youth basketball – teens with big dreams lured away to the United States, where they took online classes of questionable quality and focused excessively on basketball to the detriment of their academics.

The coach brushes off that criticism today, saying many people who tried to do great things have faced setbacks. Unlike in North Carolina, Mr. Russell says he's not trying to start a new program and points out that the academic side at Crestwood is overseen by experts. He describes it as "a perfect setup."

"For us, what he did in the past is in the past," said Lisa Newton, Crestwood's vice-principal. "Obviously, we did our due diligence in making sure we spoke to a lot of people and we have been nothing but happy with what he's been doing here."

Crestwood told Mr. Russell they were looking for a coach who could attract top players and convince their parents of the value of the educational opportunity at Crestwood, he said.

"The plan was to change the whole culture, to give opportunities for kids that wouldn't normally get to go to a private school to get that academic opportunity, exposure and atmosphere and just build it to the point where it's a national private school that excels in academics and excels in basketball," he said. "I have the blueprint for how to make it work."

The first step was bringing in the players. Together with the school's scholarship foundation, Crestwood made enough funds available for 16 players – eight boys and eight girls – from ages 13 to 17. (To get a sense of the scale of this initiative, the school foundation's website says that, since its launch 10 years ago, it has helped more than 20 students attend the school.) The players' families all pay a portion of their fees, Ms. Newton said, adding that this is not an athletic scholarship program. The school is committed to helping pay the students' tuition for the duration of their high-school years. How much that will cost isn't publicly known.

It certainly raised eyebrows among rival coaches.

Ro Russell, coach of Crestwood Senior Lions high fives players during a basketbal game against the St. John’s-Kilmarnock Eagles in February. Mr. Russell’s recruiting has put Crestwood on the map in terms of Ontario athletics.

"They must have a ton of money. Someone is signing big cheques," said one coach, who asked not to be identified because he didn't have permission to speak on behalf of his school. He said other teams were slightly bewildered this season when Crestwood, once a lower-division pushover, showed up with several players capable of one day playing U.S. college basketball. It ruffled a few feathers, as opposing coaches wondered how their students could compete with this influx of talent.

Meantime, a handful of Crestwood students who were part of the basketball teams in the past didn't make it through this season, often because they weren't playing much and struggled to keep up. "There were a couple of casualties that we encountered. But we've always told the kids: Come around, work the clock, come to practice, don't feel like a stranger," Mr. Russell said.

Shayeann Day-Wilson, a bright spark of a point guard, is 13 and already considered one of Canada's top young players. She has been courted by top U.S. colleges and dreams of attending the University of Connecticut, winners of a record 11 NCAA championships. From the time she was a little girl, her mother says, she spent all her time in the gym at the Falstaff Community Centre, near her home in the Jane Street and Highway 401 area, where Mr. Russell runs many of his programs.

Her mother, Rose Day, said that when she was offered the chance to move her daughter from the public to the private school system, she leapt at it.

"This was a great opportunity, especially where we are from. So I said, 'Right on,'" she said. She raves about the teachers and says her daughter is showing more enthusiasm for academics.

"I don't want her to go to a school where her basketball comes first," she added.

In fact, Ms. Newton says, there have been times this year when star players have had to miss games for not finishing their school assignments.

And she says placing equal emphasis on the girls' and boys' programs is crucial.

But the hype that surrounds youth basketball tends to focus on the boys' game. On the Amateur Athletic Union circuit – a summer league separate from the high-school season – the players are evaluated and ranked for their potential as early as the age of 12. It's at these AAU tournaments, where Mr. Russell's Grassroots teams compete, that players are seen by top coaches and earn their shot at a college scholarship.

Once, playing for a high-school team was seen as the most prestigious part of a young player's season. Now, the AAU, or club, season has assumed that role. By bringing both into the environment at Crestwood, the aim is to keep the school at the centre of the players' lives.

"When you go to the club program, there's that separation, and they kind of lose connection to their school," said Phil Santomero, assistant headmaster at Crestwood. "I think bringing the club back into the high school and having it part of the high-school program is a bigger, more important thing."

Mr. Russell has an appetite for basketball that can sustain day after day of practice and games and tournaments and individual training sessions. As he walks up and down the sideline, his face folds with theatrical anguish and his hands and feet move urgently as he wills five teenagers to heed the danger on the wing or the cutter slashing through the key. An opponent glides to the rim unchallenged, seizing a missed shot and dropping it in the basket. "You've got to get in there and rebound," the coach shouts. Turning to the players on the bench, he mutters, "He just stood there."

His senior boys team raced through the regular season in Toronto's private school league with many more wins than losses. But with his team trailing badly on this day, facing another basketball-focused school in St. John's-Kilmarnock, Mr. Russell grabs the white board and offers some sharply worded lessons. Gradually, his charges get back in the game. By the fourth quarter, a dynamic full-court press led by star guard Jacobi Neath has fired Crestwood to within range of its opponents, but they fall a few points short in the last seconds. The performance is not up to Mr. Russell's standards, but he handles the loss with equanimity. It's about building to something bigger, he says.

His plan is to follow in the footsteps of prestigious American prep schools, such as Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., where top players spend a year or two before going off to college, playing national, rather than local, competition. In Canada, there are now rival elite leagues where Canadian prep-type programs are competing, including one that features the Athlete Institute of Mono, Ont., which produced recent NBA draft picks Jamal Murray and Thon Maker. Mr. Russell said Crestwood will soon decide which of the elite leagues it will join.

The girls' high-school season ended in November with championships at the under-14 and junior levels, both firsts at Crestwood. The banners now hang in the rafters of the gym, where they keep company with the school's many curling championships. The senior boys finished in third place, but Mr. Russell expects more in the years ahead.

Part of the secret to success is having players who can become stars. Mr. Russell believes he has one in Elijah Fisher. Elijah, already 6-foot-4 in Grade 7, is rated No. 1 for his age group, the class of 2023 (yes, there are websites that do such rankings), in all of North America. He has started tournament games for the school's varsity team against 12th graders. Mr. Russell described him as a "phenom" who will "be the face of the school in years to come.

"He's going to be the guy that really puts us on the map."

Crestwood Preparatory College players have flocked to the school to play under Mr. Russell. Crestwood boasts multiple players ranked at or near the top of their age group across the country.

Elijah, just months into his teen years, seems shy in conversation. The demands of elite basketball are already significant in his life. He believes he missed about 30 days of school this year to travel for basketball. So far his grades have been in the 70s and 80s, he says.

"What made me come here is coach Ro. He started telling my parents about the education I would get," he said. "I just want to make sure I get a good education, so if I don't make it to the NBA I have my brain."

One of his friends on the team, a 14-year-old with a broad smile named Tahron Allen, moved to Toronto from Brooklyn, N.Y., for the chance to play at Crestwood. His path is the opposite of the usual pattern, which saw Canadians heading south to get top training and competition, and demonstrates Crestwood's international ambitions. About 18 per cent of the students at Crestwood are foreign, mostly from Asia and the Middle East.

While the new school has made an impact on their lives, the basketball players have also had an impact on the school. Ms. Newton said the enthusiasm and dedication the new students have brought has injected a sense of pride and of striving for excellence in the student body.

"It's been a whole revitalization of the spirit in the school," she said. "It has amazed me."

Mr. Russell said he hopes that one day, as graduates, these kids will see themselves as Crestwood kids first and foremost. That will build a strong identity for the school, raising its profile and giving it a niche in the competitive world of private schools, potentially helping to attract students and promising athletes for years to come.