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They are, by their coach's admission, a crazy, eclectic bunch, perhaps the craziest, most eclectic bunch of Canadian university basketball players ever assembled in a city that makes the middle of nowhere look like Yonge and Bloor.

One forward, the engineering major, hails from Belfast - Prince Edward Island, that is - while another, a 6-foot-6 freshman, is from Pembrooke, Bermuda. Added to the mix is a young man from Montreal, one from Toronto's troubled Jane and Finch area, three from outside Hogtown, one from the country's capital and three from the city in the middle of nowhere.

And then there are the two others. The two who make you shake your head and say: This can't be right. Kiraan Posey from Baltimore and Warren Thomas from Washington. What in the wide, wide world of sports are they doing playing basketball in Thunder Bay?

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Did they lose a bet? Take a wrong turn at Duluth, Minn.?

Being a black American and playing basketball in Canada is nothing new, not even at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. In the early 1970s, Robert Jackson, Joe Edwards and James Copeland played at the C.J. Sanders Fieldhouse and helped Lakehead reach the national championship tournament. But as the years went by, basketball at LU faded, while the hockey program took hold and thrived; a more natural fit, some said.

What makes Posey and Thomas unnatural fits is how they ended up in Thunder Bay with a struggling basketball program and how dramatically their lives have changed, the lives of others, too.

"We're a close group," fifth-year head coach Scott Morrison said of his team. "When I recruit, that's what I talk about. We've all travelled to Thunder Bay to play basketball - from Belfast to Baltimore."

Morrison paused. "Belfast, PEI, that's where guys are pulling their cars out of the ditch with their tractors."

Morrison can make those wisecracks. He was born in Morrell, PEI, a place so small he describes it as "a few farms put together."

As a player at the University of Prince Edward Island, where his father coached for 20 years, Morrison crossed dribbles with a Dalhousie University rival named Randolph (Benny) Edison. Later, when Morrison did his graduate studies at Dalhousie, the two met again and forged a lasting friendship.

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Edison had never attended school with white kids until he left Baltimore for Halifax. Going to university in Canada, he said, was "the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

Now the head basketball coach at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., Edison has become a guardian angel for a dozen or more souls in Canada and the United States.

"In a million years, I never would have thought I'd have a white guy as a good friend," Edison said of Morrison. "But I've got friends for life from playing basketball, and these kids, Kiraan and Warren, have the same opportunity. It's a good story."

It began with a telephone call from Morrison to Edison in the summer of 2003. Having inherited a Thunderwolves team that had more holes in it than a pair of ratty sweat socks, Morrison figured he needed a ringer, a scorer who could put up some points to keep games close.

Edison had the just the player for LU; actually he had two.

One was Posey, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard with a velvety touch.

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Posey had slipped through the grid. No American university was interested in him. He tried the junior college route, but couldn't get financial aid. He was 20 and losing hope. Edison asked Posey whether he was willing to go to Canada to get an education and play basketball.

"Scottie asked me, 'Can he play?' " Edison recalls. "I said, 'My reputation is on the line. I'm not sending any bad apples.' "

Posey landed in Thunder Bay in the dead of December. It was colder than anything he had imagined. Whiter, too.

"Nobody here looked like me," Posey said. "They looked at me, but that was okay. The people here are cool. I've never had a problem."

Posey was as good as promised. By the end of his second year, he was the leading scorer in Ontario University Athletics. This season, with LU fighting to make the playoffs, Posey has averaged 23.5 points a game, second in the OUA.

"I love it here," Posey said. "It's a great group of dudes [teammates] Everybody jokes with one another. Everybody's a comedian. We just blend together."

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The other scorer Edison had handpicked for LU never made it north. He went south, as in six feet under. His street name was Mike Mike. He was talented, but he drifted, fell in with dealers and gang bangers until he caught a bullet in the back of his head.

Posey, who was home in Irvington, a Baltimore suburb, got to visit his friend as he lay unconscious, dying in a hospital bed.

"He had a towel around his head," Posey said. "The only way I knew it was him was from the tattoos. I thought, 'That's what could have happened to me.' At some point, you're out there. You're with your friends and they're doing things that might not be right but they're your friends. You still love them."

He paused. "But that means you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time just being with them."

Last summer, another of Posey's friends was shot and killed.

These days, if you have to leave a message on Posey's cellphone, you get serenaded by the rapper Piles, who offers the background lyrics to Posey's Baltimore life. "My momma told me while I run these streets she can't sleep / Her phone ring late at night, she think something happened to me / Her nerves so bad right now she can't watch TV."

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"I talk to my mother every day, sometimes twice a day," Posey said. "She wants me to get an education. This is my chance."

It's much the same tale for Thomas, the 24-year-old forward, who said candidly: "I consider myself to be an old soul. I've seen it all and basically done it all. I want to see better things."

Thomas was born in the Washington suburb of Forestville, Md., where the population of 13,400 is 85-per-cent black. After high school, he played at Wabash Valley junior college in Chicago, only to return home and enroll at Howard.

One day while playing pickup ball, Thomas was approached by Edison. "Would you go far to play basketball?" Edison asked.

"How far?" Thomas replied.

He landed in Thunder Bay in the high heat of August. It would soon be colder than anything he imagined. Safer, too.

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"After my first year at Lakehead, I came home and was talking to my friend," Thomas said. "We called him Woodie. A few days later, I was riding down the street and was going to park my car at my grandma's house. She stopped me. She said, 'I need you to do this and go there, just go.'

"She had seen something suspicious and if she hadn't sent me away, I would have gone down the street and gotten killed with Woodie."

Thomas paused.

"Thunder Bay, it's a whole different world," he said. "I mean, they do things like sleep with their doors unlocked, leave the keys in the car when they go to a grocery store. You can pump your gas before paying. You leave the keys in your car in Washington and someone will drive off with it."

Life in Thunder Bay hasn't been easy.

Thomas misses his family back home. Posey came in with an attitude and was ruled academically ineligible to play last season. He could practise with the team, but only watch on game nights. The rest of the time he worked on getting his grades up.

Had that happened in his first or second year, Posey might have said, "I'm out of here." But with friends and teammates encouraging him, Posey considered all he had to lose and stuck it out. Not only that, he and Thomas have part-time jobs on campus to help pay for the U.S. student loans they received to attend school in Canada.

"The transformation K.P. has made from his first year - and I've been there for all of them - it's like he's two completely different people," said fifth-year centre Matt Verboom, one of the three "Thunder Bay dudes" on the team. "Last year really opened K.P.'s eyes and he responded well. I think it made him more appreciative of what he has to do to play."

Verboom is appreciative of the education he's received from Posey and Thomas. What Verboom once thought was phony - all that Hollywood stuff about life in the 'hood - has been made real by listening to his teammates.

"Rap [music] you think it's all lies, guys talking nonsense," Verboom said. "But most of it is true. It blows my mind. I give K.P. and Warren a lot of credit. From what I've heard, it's hard to get out of that lifestyle."

Verboom chuckled, then told his favourite story about Posey.

"I told him when he got here," Verboom said, " 'It gets real cold out.' The first time it did, it was minus-35 or minus-40 with the wind chill. We had a morning practice [6:30 a.m.]and I went to pick him up at his house and he came out wearing every piece of clothing he had. You could have poked him or punched him and he wouldn't have felt a thing he was so bundled up."

Crazy and eclectic. All of them in Thunder Bay to play basketball.

They wouldn't have it any other way.

THE RULE: HEMMINGS SPEAKS OUT

Jerry Hemmings left Mount Airy, N.C., in the late 1960s to play basketball at Lakehead University.

Within 20 years, he had so reshaped the game in Canada that his rival coaches instituted the Hemmings rule, which reduced the number of Americans who could play on a Canadian university team. That happened in 1987, while Hemmings was coaching the Brandon University Bobcats. When he left coaching in 2003, Hemmings had won 734 games and four national titles.

"The Great Plains Athletic Conference was LU, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Regina and Brandon," Hemmings said. "The coaches passed a motion that decreased the number of out-of-country-trained players from three to two. GPAC was the only conference in the country to do that."

When GPAC merged with Canada West in 2001-02, the only rule it took was the one limiting the number of imports. Hemmings doesn't have a problem with the rule. What irked him were the complaints that he was shutting out Canadian players in favour of Americans.

"In the eighties and nineties, we didn't have as many kids going to U.S. schools," Hemmings said. "Imagine if we could keep all those good Canadian kids now, the quality of basketball in this country? The Americans that come here are not as good as the Canadians we lose. But we accept it. It's okay to go to the States, but it's wrong for Americans coming here."

Hemmings pointed to the Canadian men's team that competed at the 2007 FIBA Americas qualification tournament and asked how many of its 12 players played at Canadian Interuniversity Sport schools. The answer: one, Ryan Bell from Carleton.

"I think the [import]rule is good," Hemmings said. "At the same time, you'd like to have the right [imports]on your team. You want to be successful to attract the good Canadians."

Allan Maki

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