The most exciting young basketball player in the country just might be an eighth-grade girl who can dunk.
Toby Fournier, who recently turned 14, is 6 foot 2 and still growing. She wears size 12½ custom Nikes. She has a wingspan of six feet four inches. She first picked up a basketball only two years ago.
This summer, the Toronto teenager posted a wildly received video on Instagram of herself dunking a basketball. She kept working on her dunks, and a few weeks ago posted another, even cleaner dunk on Instagram that went viral. Letters from top U.S. colleges are landing in the mailbox and sports agencies are taking notice. Her Instagram following has exploded, from a thousand followers to more than 12,000.
“It’s been really sudden and a little crazy," Toby says.
She was only a few weeks off from winning the Canadian Youth Basketball League championship with the Brampton Warriors when she and her parents relaxed in their backyard in downtown Toronto this summer to talk about her sudden fame. She’s grown an inch and a shoe size since.
Toby attends private Greenwood College in Toronto. She trains with the provincial U14 team, and plays rep basketball with Sisters Keeper, an elite girls’ travelling team out of Falstaff Community Centre, a heavy hitter on the Toronto youth basketball scene. She has found herself in the country’s targeted athlete-strategy program, the stepping stone to Canada’s national team. Impressive for a latecomer to the game.
Her older sister Zadie played at school and elite summer camps. Her father, Craig Fournier, and her mother, Anais Granofsky, thought maybe Toby and her younger brother Walker would like basketball, too. After four or five months of camps, they realized Toby had serious game, and the physique to excel.
She is a three-time city long-jump champion, winning the first in jean shorts and sandals. She tried ballet, soccer, gymnastics, and quit them all. But basketball stuck.
“I tried and quit so many sports it got to a point where I wasn’t allowed to sign up any more,” she says.
She was always tall for her age, but during an aggressive growth spurt between Grades 4 and 6, she shot up to 5-foot-11. Fournier noticed Toby was also unusually co-ordinated.
“She had these long limbs but she knew what to do with them,” he says. “That was different from most kids.” Rangy and strong with long toes and fingers – “people wanted me to play piano,” she says.
Summer-camp basketball led to rep-team tryouts with 15-year-olds when she was just 12. Ro Russell, the NBA talent-spotter from Crestwood Preparatory, spotted Toby and word spread.
That growth spurt in elementary school – so rapid that her body sometimes hurt and kids wouldn’t stop talking about her height – wasn’t so great at the time.
“People didn’t tease me exactly, but it would get mentioned all the time,” she says. “I was at a point where I was like, ‘please let me stop growing.’ ”
Basketball runs in the family. Granofsky, a former star on Degrassi Junior High (she played Lucy Fernandez) remembers when her grandfather, the industrialist Phil Granovsky, helped bring the Raptors to Toronto in 1995 as one of the original members of the ownership group.
“It’s kind of a neat thing about our family,” Toby says. “A cool add-on to everything else that is happening.”
Granofsky loves what athletics does for a girl, at an age when standing out physically can feel uncomfortable.
“We wanted to give her a place for that to shine because she didn’t really want to be separated by two feet from her friends,” she says. “At the time it didn’t feel like a positive thing. It’s harder for girls. Friends would say things to her face. So we found a place that celebrates that. On the court people love it. You can put your shoulders back and stand tall."
Nothing in basketball shouts power like the dunk.
First, Toby figured out she could touch the backboard.
“And I thought, well, it’s just a backboard,” she says. “I have really long arms. So it wasn’t the hardest thing. Then I started jumping, every time. I kept getting better. I started jumping higher. Then people started staying I could dunk, and that got me excited. It became another thing I could work on. I don’t know how it happened exactly, but it just started to happen.”
She covers half court in a few strides and plays with uncanny grace. She can slow the game down, then suddenly punch through a hole in the defence that wasn’t open a second before.
“She is a relentless rebounder. She will track that ball down and go get it,” Sisters Keeper coach Cachet Johnson says. “Constant effort. She doesn’t quit. That’s not teachable.”
At first Toby was unnerved by the attention, but now she’s leaning into it.
“I backed away from it a little bit,” she says. “But now it gives me kind of a boost. It challenges me. When you walk into the gym, you’ve got to think you’re the best one there.”
Later this month, Toby travels with Sisters Keeper to a Pennsylvania tournament, to play tougher U.S. teams in front of college coaches and scouts.
“It’s shocking how good she is given she hasn’t been playing long,” says Keith Johnson, an assistant coach with Sisters Keeper. “She’s willing to learn. She takes constructive criticism, she asks a ton of questions.”
A U.S. college scholarship is almost a given. Not bad for a kid who says she didn’t always want the ball.
“But I do now,” she says. “Even when I’m playing with boys, you have to be able to demand the ball. Because if you don’t do that, they’re not going to pass to you.
“I love beating boys. It’s one of my favourite things.”