Hanging in a hallway after practice, sweat-soaked and finishing each other's sentences on cue, Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson could be any other Canadian high school kids with big dreams, making their way through Shakespeare, but imagining a brighter stage.
The difference? The pair of 18-year-olds are already on that stage, starring for one of the best high school basketball teams in the United States, their stories splashed all over the Internet, the hype spilling over.
At the end of this month they will become the first Canadians in more than 20 years to play in the McDonald's High School All-American game, an honour they'll share with everyone from LeBron James to Michael Jordan. Next month they'll lead No. 3-ranked Findlay Prep into the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational - the unofficial high school championship of the United States - to defend the title they won last year.
The tournament will be televised across the United States, the high school equivalent of March Madness. Before that they'll be playing in Michael Jordan's own all-star game, sponsored by his Jordan Brand, at Madison Square Garden, no less.
"In Canada, hockey is the first sport, there's more exposure for it," says Joseph, a 6-foot-3 blur of a point guard in explaining how he left Pickering, Ont., to attend high school on the outskirts of Las Vegas. "In Canada, basketball is on the rise, but here, there's more exposure for it and all that. That's why I think I made the decision to come out here."
Says Thompson, a broad-shouldered 6-foot-10 forward from Brampton, Ont.: "Here it's a lifestyle."
Inspired by their example and others, more and more top Canadian high-schoolers are aspiring to that lifestyle themselves, to the consternation of the Canadian basketball establishment.
It's estimated that as many as 100 Canadian teenagers - primarily boys from the Toronto area, though there are girls and boys from every region in the country - are chasing their hoop dreams in the United States, often as early as the ninth grade.
"It's growing, it's not going to stop if we don't do something," says Guy Pariseau, technical director for Basketball Quebec, who says nearly all of the province's 10 best players have left for the U.S. "Everyone is shopping."
At the top of the list is a lucrative scholarship to a top Division I school and dreams of a professional career.
"Ever since I started playing basketball, from the first time I saw it on TV, I was like, 'I want to do that, I want to play there. I want to play for North Carolina or Kentucky or Texas,' " says Thompson, explaining why he left home at 16. "I want to play for those programs. It's not like there aren't good programs in Canada, I just wanted more. I wanted the highest competition out there and that's Division I, so I made that my goal."
He's reached it and will play at the University of Texas next season.
Joseph is undecided, but not because of a lack of attention. As the fifth-rated point guard in his graduating class, he's narrowed his list to five teams, but that didn't stop John Calipari, head coach of powerhouse University of Kentucky, from making a special visit to watch Joseph practise in person last month.
But getting to the top hasn't come without sacrifice.
"It's really tough mentally to come down here," says Joseph, who has scholarship offers from Connecticut, Villanova and Kansas along with a sterling academic record to show for two years spent far from home. "You go through a lot of ups and downs, and the downs are hard because you're alone. [But]my mom told me, if you want, in order to get to your highest level, you have to make sacrifices."
Says Thompson: "It's not for everyone."
It just seems that way as Canadian coaches and sports administrators have become accustomed to their best players leaving before finishing high school.
Among the factors: Uneven basketball development opportunities in Canada; National Collegiate Athletic Association requirements that make it difficult to qualify for Division I scholarships from Canadian high schools; and a desire on the part of some players to find safer and more stable places to play and study than they have at home.
"Most of my friends [in Canada]are basketball players," Thompson says. "And they're like, I'm out of here too, let's go make it happen."
The emigration of Canadian talent - some feel the current cohort of players from Canada is the deepest and richest ever - has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Welcome to beautiful Tampa, FL where we hope to see you enroll," is the pitch on one basketball message board by a coach looking to import talent for a start-up program where tuition is $14,000 (all currency U.S.) a year. "WE NEED PLAYERS."
Ro Russell, a fixture on the Toronto basketball scene through his successful club program, Grassroots Canada Elite, took a bold step this year when he moved to Creedmoor, N.C., to start an elite team affiliated with Christian Faith Center, an evangelical church.
"I'm the most pro-Canadian guy there is," says Russell, whose roster is nearly entirely made up of kids from the Toronto area. "But for basketball, the proving ground is America."
Many of the kids heading south are from immigrant minorities, from tough neighbourhoods and less-than-ideal home situations.
"There has been a lot of crime in some of those neighbourhoods, no doubt about it," says Mike George, founder of CIA Bounce, another top Toronto-area club that has had several kids head south for high school. "For some parents, they see it like sending their kids to boarding school, it gives them a sense of security. I've had kids get full scholarships to [elite East Coast private schools]Proctor or Brewster. That's worth $45,000 a year. For them it's a no-brainer."
Not all kids are so fortunate. It's estimated about 80 per cent of them have to pay some or all of their tuition, with only the elite getting scholarships to prep schools.
Then there are rumours of kids sleeping three or more to a room, 10 to a house, with minimal adult supervision, essentially fending for themselves at schools with dubious academic standing and scant record of developing elite basketball players.
Thompson and Joseph have had the opposite experience. They share a 3,000-square-foot house with their teammates a short walk to the campus of Henderson International, their expenses covered by Cliff Findlay, a wealthy Las Vegas auto dealer who underwrites the entire operation, including the salaries of two full-time coaches.
Both come from good families and neither of them were at risk of remaining undiscovered had they stayed home. Each starred on the summer Amateur Athletic Union circuit, where reputations are made and recruiting relationships often start. They've also represented Canada internationally. And players of Thompson's size, athleticism and academic chops - he can fill your ear about the role of female characters in Shakespeare almost as well as he can face up, spin baseline and dunk in traffic - don't go under the radar. He's had clips on YouTube since he was 15.
Joseph, who carries a 3.2 (out of 4.0) grade point average along with a silky jumper, knows staying home for high school isn't a barrier to entry for Division I basketball. His brother Devoe went from Pickering High School to the University of Minnesota.
But as an elite big man, Thompson wanted to test himself against other top bigs. Joseph needed to upgrade academically. Both have succeeded beyond their expectations.
But it's clear each of them craves something he wasn't getting at home. Like aspiring NHL players from the U.S. who come to Canada for major junior, there's something to be said about being in a place where what they care about most is cared about deeply.
"The exposure, the hype, basically the hype," Joseph says. "In Canada, not many reporters come to games, not many D1 coaches. Here the media are at the games, the college coaches, the fans. It's like [the provincial] championship every game."
Thompson nods and finishes his teammate's thought. "If you want to play basketball at the highest level and make basketball part of your lifestyle and take it as far as you can go, then you come down here."
TOUGH TO SAY GOODBYE
Connie Joseph admits she had her doubts about having her youngest son leave Canada in Grade 11 to play basketball in the United States, outside Las Vegas, no less: "The plane is flying away and you're looking at the palm trees, I was like, 'I can't believe I'm leaving my kid here,' " said Joseph, a project manager with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. "Honestly, it was going through my head, 'What am I doing?' " But as her son blossomed academically and athletically, her fears were eased. "For every kid, it's different," she said. "But this was the right decision. His academics have improved. He got the marks needed on his ACT [American College Testing] and basketball wise, the exposure that came with winning the national championship was really positive for him."
Andrea Thompson put her faith in her oldest son when it came to allowing him to leave home at 16, first for New Jersey, then to Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, where he transferred in the middle of last year. "No, it wasn't a hard decision. Tristan isn't a regular kid. Okay, he [was]16, but he's so mature," said Thompson, a schoolbus driver. "He needed a challenge, he needed to go see the tough ones. In the United States, they play tough. Here, they don't play that hard."
A BASKETBALL TEAM LIKE NO OTHER
Findlay Prep is not your average high school basketball program. First of all, it's not named after the school it's attached to - Henderson International - but after Cliff Findlay, a wealthy Las Vegas businessman who established an endowment estimated at $500,000 (all currency U.S.) to fund an elite basketball program in Las Vegas modelled after the tony prep schools in the U.S. Northeast. He funds every aspect of the program, including the 3,000-square-foot house the team lives in with a pair of assistant coaches, each player's $17,000 tuition at Henderson, the salaries of two full-time coaches, and a travel budget that would put most universities to shame. It's unabashedly elitist. "Everything we do is geared toward preparing them for the next level," says Mike Peck, Findlay's head coach. His record over three seasons is a glittering 94-3, and all his graduating students have qualified academically for Division I. "When they go to college, I'm not saying it's not going to be hard, but they're not going to be surprised by anything. Six a.m. conditioning? Individual workouts? Lifting weights? They've done that. Keeping up with classwork? They've done that. Travelling? They travel more than any college team in the country." Is there a payoff? Beyond the gratification of placing every graduating senior on a Division I basketball team, those around the program anticipate that with the growing commercialization of high school basketball, Findlay could be in line for considerable sponsorship dollars to offset the cost of running the team. The question now is where. Henderson International will be closing after this year, it was announced last week, but it's believed the Findlay basketball program will affiliate itself with another Las Vegas-area private school next season.