As a teenager, Gary Durrant would help his mother clean houses in order to afford the fees for basketball camps and high school tournaments he wanted to attend. The boy and his single mom would go from job to job on Toronto city buses, carrying their vacuum and cleaning supplies.
Durrant became a star on the Toronto high school basketball scene in the 1990s, a big-bodied kid who took up the game when he arrived from Jamaica at age 13. He became one of the first Canadians to play for a U.S prep school, and later earned a scholarship to play college ball where, among other things, he won an NCAA Slam Dunk Championship. He played professionally in Europe for a time, then returned to Toronto to start a youth hoops program while working as an executive in the National Basketball League of Canada.
Today, with the pipeline full of Canadian basketball talent from the grassroots on up to the NBA, Durrant is working to build a new career in the sport. The 42-year-old has become a certified NBA agent, aiming to use his deep understanding of the city's hoops landscape to develop relationships with homegrown players who are reaching toward the pro ranks.
"I'm not trying to take clients away from other agents; I have so much respect for others trying to do this, too," said Durrant. "But I'm not starting from scratch. I've been a fixture in Toronto's basketball community, and I've worn many different shoes within the game. I think I can bring a lot to this job."
There are now at least five certified NBA agents in Toronto, and it takes time to land players. Durrant, like most of the others, doesn't yet have any clients currently playing in the NBA. At this point he's doing his homework on players who might be headed for future NBA drafts. There are approximately 446 players over the NBA's 30 teams and 315 certified agents available to represent them. Only 60 new players are drafted each year.
So when the city was abuzz for the NBA All-Star Game, it was prime time for networking. Durrant's schedule was packed with events from celebrity dinners to basketball clinics and late-night parties. He even hosted an evening at EFS, a nightclub in Toronto's fashion district that was advertising Kyle Lowry as host on Friday and held a closeout party with Ludacris.
Durrant was eager to show off the city where he first took up the sport. As a teen, he used to dribble away until midnight at Wallace Emerson Community Centre on most nights. He eventually earned invitations to camps in the U.S., but house-cleaning money only went so far to pay the fees.
"Sometimes I would arrange to work as a busboy at a U.S. camp, so I'd be on the court with the players and then be wearing an apron and bussing their dishes at lunch," said Durrant. "I got used to having food thrown at me. They made fun of me, but I was a big boy and I could handle myself. That experience really motivated me. I worked for everything."
The towering teen played at Milford Academy in Connecticut, and later at Florida Atlantic University. He won the dunk title in part by leaping over boisterous broadcaster Dick Vitale, whom he daringly positioned in a chair under the basket, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
"I can remember hearing Dick Vitale talk about me – 'This kid is from Toronto, Canada, he can really play,'" said Durrant. "It made me feel like a bit of a pioneer."
He got a shot in the NBA's Summer League, feeling right on the edge of a contract one hot day in Los Angeles when Baron Davis kept feeding him the ball, and Durrant was really cooking. He never made an NBA team, but sometimes wonders what could have been if he had what young Canadian prospects have today – great coaching, training and sport science.
Since then, he's played in Italy, served as team president for the Oshawa Power of the NBL Canada and run the youth program he started in 2000. He's a teacher by day, working with kids who have been suspended or expelled. After school, he works on building his agency – recruiting players, and connecting with the businesses his young clients will need for training and endorsements.
"My goal is to have one, maybe two players in the [NBA] next year," said Durrant. "You can't sign a kid until after he's done university, but you have to create the relationships really early."
There are 12 Canadians currently in the NBA, and most chose American agents. Canadian star Andrew Wiggins hired well-known U.S. rep Bill Duffy, whose list of stars includes Klay Thompson and Joakim Noah.
But as more Canadians make it to the NBA, the more likely they will look for local representation. Toronto agent Mike George has Canadian NBA players Tyler Ennis, Anthony Bennett and Dwight Powell among his NBA and D-League clients. George is the former teacher and coach who co-founded CIA Bounce, the powerhouse club that has sent several to the NBA in recent years, including Wiggins.
George became an agent with Excel Sports Management when Bennett was drafted first overall in 2013 and was looking for representation from someone he trusted. Excel is a big U.S multisport agency that handles megastars from Blake Griffin to Tiger Woods.
"After Anthony was drafted, it sparked a lot of interest this side of the border, and a lot of agencies wanted to come in and start recruiting our Canadian kids," said George.
"I think it's great that there are other NBA agents in Toronto now. When we started CIA Bounce, [fellow founder Tony McIntyre] and I wanted to help change the landscape of basketball in Canada. We wanted to see more Canadian players and coaches in the NBA and NCAA, and I think it's also important to get more Canadian agents representing those players."