Skip to main content

Perhaps the only person with more at stake than Ivan Chiriaev as the June 24 National Basketball Association draft approaches is Chris Van Zyl, an often controversial figure in Toronto basketball circles. Van Zyl has been a constant at Chiriaev's side since the lanky seven-foot Russian teen arrived in Oakville 18 months ago.

Chiriaev, 19, will be the focus of attention this afternoon at the adidas All-Canadian game, an all-star contest featuring the top Canadian high school talent at the Hershey Centre. He is trying to be the first to make the unlikely leap from suburban Toronto high school basketball directly to the NBA.

Van Zyl, 30, is making a jump that is almost as difficult: from a hustling local outcast with both enemies and skeletons in his closet to a respected figure in international basketball, repairing a reputation as smudged as the Superman logo he has tattooed on his right shoulder.

"Chris has had some difficulties," said George Duffield, a long-time Toronto public relations and sports marketing consultant. Duffield is a partner with Van Zyl in Slingshot Management International, a fledgling sports agency and marketing firm. "I call that his dark period, but he's turned that around and I'm proud of him."

Those difficulties aren't easy to pin down, as Van Zyl prefers a low profile, and likes to keep his past a mystery. He drives a Mercedes and lives in a 4,300-square foot home on the outskirts of Toronto, but is intentionally vague about his primary source of income.

"No one knows my business," Van Zyl said. "I like to operate under the radar. That's how you get work done."

What he has done with Chiriaev -- help a talented but previously unknown teenager become a familiar name to NBA general managers, gain the interest of the leading shoe companies and sign with Bill Duffy, a leading NBA agent -- might be his best work yet.

"He's been a combination of a mentor, a coach, a manager and a friend," said Lawrence Norman, the head of global sports marketing, international basketball, for adidas and the person responsible for bringing the top talent outside the United States under the shoe giant's umbrella.

"That's not easy to do. But just watching them work out, there's no way in hell that Ivan would be where he is without Chris . . . the drills are some of the most professional I've seen, but also he can push Ivan in a way that Ivan can relate, and that's not easy to do with kids."

Van Zyl has done it with a combination of tough love and good luck. The luck stems from how he met Chiriaev in the first place. Van Zyl was married to Chiriaev's cousin -- they have since separated -- and kept hearing about her giant relative in Russia. "I heard everything from he was 6-foot-10 to 7-foot-3," Van Zyl said. "But when he got off the plane I almost laughed."

That's because Chiriaev weighed less than 180 pounds (he has since gained about 70 pounds) and looked more likely to blow away in a stiff breeze than make his mark as a top college player or NBA prospect.

But Van Zyl took him under his wing and began working his network of basketball contacts. Chiriaev's reputation has been growing ever since, despite -- or as some skeptics say, because of -- being sheltered from top competition.

There are those who say all Van Zyl has done is what he does best. "He's a salesmen, and he's good at it," said Wayne Dawkins, a former partner who now runs Phase 1 Basketball, a training program for elite high school players. "But that's it. . . . If you don't know any better it sounds like he's a caring person with a lot of resources . . . he's great to work with and he gets things done, but if you're not with him or supporting him, you're an enemy to him."

The chatter on the Internet message boards is even more succinct. Van Zyl is routinely accused of "pimping" Chiriaev, latching on to him for his own financial gain.

"There are people out there who don't like Chris," said Bret Bearup, the founder of Pro Trust, an Atlanta-based financial firm that has nearly 100 NBA players, including Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, among its clients. "Hey, there's people out there don't like me. . . . I like him because he's a bulldog, man. He sets his mind to get something done and he gets it done."

The accusations fly, in part, because of Van Zyl's previous incarnations on the Canadian basketball scene. He and Dawkins were among the first to introduce American-style Amateur Athletic Union summer basketball locally. They ran into a conflict with the Ontario Basketball Association and other long-time local basketball officials, who accused Van Zyl of luring top players with free apparel and trips abroad. He organized the North American Invitational in 1999 at Varsity Arena in Toronto, bringing together 16 top American and Canadian high school teams. The event featured nearly a half-dozen future NBA players but, by Van Zyl's admission, lost about $100,000 and left a number of creditors with unpaid bills.

Then there's Van Zyl's past association with another pair of local basketball entrepreneurs, Donovan Brown and Slavko Duric. Brown and Duric helped get Nigerian basketball players from Africa to American prep schools and colleges by way of Canada. Sources say Van Zyl was only a peripheral player in the operation.

"All I'll say is I learned that there's a right way and wrong way to do things," Van Zyl said. "And the right way is to do things above board."

Perhaps Van Zyl's most valuable asset is the loyalty of the players he has worked with. Former University of Hawaii star Carl English remains a close friend and SMI's main client. Critics blame Van Zyl for overselling English's NBA draft prospects, including organizing a party at a downtown Toronto nightclub last year on draft night that took on a mournful air after English's name was never called.

Chiriaev, who has been living and training with Van Zyl for months, said he can't understand what the fuss is about. "People hate [Van Zyl]for my success. I don't understand why. He's trying to do the best for me, trying to help me succeed. They should be proud of him, but it's just a bunch of losers who run him down."