Part two of The Globe and Mail's four-part series examining the state of basketball in Canada. Last week we dissected the changing face of the Canadian game at the grassroots level. This week we chronicle a Canadian player who left home at age 14 to hone his skills south of the border.
Olu Ashaolu carries his world in his backpack.
There's a worn paperback copy of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities that the 15-year-old is reading for a Grade 9 English assignment. The title neatly encapsulates the move he made last year from Brampton, Ont., to the southernmost suburbs of Atlanta to pursue his basketball destiny.
There's a thick clutch of recruiting letters from some of the leading colleges in the United States, and down near the bottom is small blue binder filled with index cards, each one with a passage from scripture he's required to write out by hand and memorize for bible class, a required subject at Community Christian School, the small private school with the big-time basketball team, of which Ashaolu is the centrepiece.
He doesn't hesitate when asked his favourite, flipping instantly to the card that reads: Humble yourself therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, I Peter 5:6.
If all goes according to plan, Ashaolu's time may come sooner than later. For decades, Canadian basketball players have found the fastest way to find themselves exalted on the court was to make their way to the United States to play Division I basketball in the competitive hot house that is the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
This year, nearly 200 Canadian men and women are testing their skills at the U.S. college level.
But the lure of basketball south of the border has come earlier and earlier.
Ashaolu is the youngest of nearly a dozen Canadians playing basketball at U.S. high schools and prep schools this season.
All of them are attracted by the same thing: increased competition and greater visibility for U.S. college scouts.
"I've seen it happen gradually for a while," said Wayne Dawkins, a teacher and coach at West Hill Collegiate in Toronto and founder of Phase 1, a skill-development program that attracts some of Southern Ontario's top players.
"Even in Toronto, there are only a handful of schools that offer basketball programs that can develop elite players. The idea is that if they think they can't get the kind of coaching and exposure they want to get here, they need to go where they can."
Another factor? Last year, nine of the first 19 players taken in the first round of the National Football League draft bypassed college, earning a three-year guaranteed contract worth millions in the process. It's created an attitude of why wait among top high-school players throughout the United States, and Canadian high school stars aren't immune.
"The kids see the glitz and the glamour," Dawkins said. "They see the bling. They want to see their name on Internet or wherever, they just want the hype. The NBA has created a lot of monsters in that sense. Guys want to imitate the NBA guys, but they don't realize that behind all that talent is a lot of hard work."
"Go straight to the NBA out of high school? I've thought about it," Ashaolu says as he watches elementary-aged kids -- only a few years younger than him -- play a game on the blue-tiled floor of the otherwise ordinary gymnasium at CCS, a kindergarten-to-Grade-12 school attached to Community Christian Church. "I've definitely thought about it."
Those closest to him have thought about it, too, in particular his coach at CCS, Linzy Davis, who has run one of Georgia's most respected American Athletic Union teams for nearly 15 years and started CCS's elite basketball program last season.
Ashaolu was recommended to him by Ro Russell, the founder of Grassroots Canada, a Toronto-based AAU team that regularly plays tournaments in the United States. If talent and hard work are the essential ingredients for a player with dreams of playing in the NBA, Davis is convinced that the Ashaolu, who is listed at 6-foot-7, 215 pounds but has an arm span that allows him to play much taller, has enough of both to at least think the thought.
"If he continues to grow and his game develops and he continues to mature on and off the court, he has a chance to be an NBA player out of high school," said Davis, who has coached the likes of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Carmelo Anthony and Dujuan Wagner, who were all first-round NBA draft picks as teenagers, albeit each after playing one season of college basketball.
Is it too much hype? One respected U.S. recruiting expert pointed out that if Ashaolu is 6 foot 7, it's while wearing two pairs of socks and sneakers. And though his long arms serve him well while rebounding and create havoc in the passing lanes, getting them organized into a consistent shooting stroke is a work in progress.
But his body is strong, and his heart pumps with a passion that is rare among players so talented, something even doubters say might be his greatest gift. His game has style -- he dunks everything he can -- but it's heavier on substance.
Certainly, Ashaolu has done his part to earn the buzz around him. After starting for the CCS varsity in Grade 8 -- although about to enter Grade 10 in Brampton last year, Ashaolu was reclassified for academic reasons, according to school officials -- he attended the ABCD camp in New Jersey last summer and ended up ranked 13th among players at his position, regardless of age. This year, Ashaolu is averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds on a team that has a 25-2 record against elite teams in eight states.
The rapid successes are the early returns on the kind of decision that can change a life. Having the youngest of her four boys leave home at such a young age was not in the plans for Christianah Ashaolu, a Nigerian-born chronic-care nurse who raised her children as a single parent. The idea of having her baby leave home for high school first got floated after he made a splash as a 13-year-old at a summer tournament in Buffalo while playing for Russell's AAU team in the summer of 2003.
Coaches from Chicago, Las Vegas and Florida were interested. Russell broached the subject, seconded by John Ashaolu, the second oldest of Olu's brothers, who had played his last season of high-school basketball and another year at prep school in New Jersey before earning a scholarship to the University of New Orleans.
"We had to work on her a little bit," John said of his mother. Part of the justification, said John, now a graduate assistant at Trinity Valley Community College outside Dallas -- where the second youngest brother, Sam, is playing -- comes from his own experience. In his first week at the University of New Orleans, he encountered the big-business, in-your-face expectation of U.S. college basketball first-hand. While he knew that college recruiters would find his brother wherever he went to high school, the plan is for Olu to enter college as a polished, made-in-America basketball product. And if that means he's good enough to consider the NBA, it's a bonus.
Eventually, Christianah came around. Her youngest son's determination to go was a factor, as was the recognition that he was consumed enough by basketball to take public transit from Brampton to Scarborough, an awkward transit ride across the top of the Greater Toronto Area, to play against other top players in the Toronto area, leaving after school and not getting home until midnight.
An opportunity to play in Chicago was nixed because of the living conditions, and a school in Las Vegas was declined.
But the opportunity in Atlanta seemed different. The sell was a little softer. A friend's mother had visited and deemed it worthy for her son. It was a Christian school, which helped, considering that the rule in Christianah's house on Sundays is "go to church or don't eat."
So off her baby went. The flight to Atlanta from Toronto was the first time he'd been on a plane since his mother brought him to Canada from Nigeria as an infant.
"Oh, yeah, I was sad," she said, her accent rich. "And not only one day. I was sad because when he's home on weekends, he would help me vacuum the floor and wash the bathrooms. I am a busy woman, you know? So I will always miss him. But John told me, 'Mommy, don't worry. Olu is in good hands there.' "
Nigerian-born and Canadian by citizenship, Ashaolu fits right in at CCS. His teammates are from Angola, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Lithuania and Poland. Only one starter is from Georgia. They've been recruited by Davis, the product of a network of contacts that extends internationally.
Going to school at CCS is not not cheap. The scholarships are valued at about $10,000 a student annually, which is one of the reasons there's hope the program can draw some sponsorship money from a shoe company -- Davis's AAU teams are sponsored by Nike -- to underwrite at least part of the venture.
But a scholarship is not a free ride, something Ashaolu found out quickly last year. Minor incidents that wouldn't have been noticed at his Brampton high school earned him three trips to the office. "It was childish stuff," he said. "But here, they don't stand for it."
A year later, Ashaolu acts as though he's been here his entire life. He's got his routines down -- up at 7 a.m. for class, and by the time he has finished practice, showered, eaten and done his homework, he's ready for bed shortly after 10 p.m. He hasn't been to the office once.
Easy going and approachable, he wanders around the gym before a Friday night game, little kids hang off him and parents dote on him -- he's regularly invited home for dinner or an overnight stay on free weekends. He's doing his part on the court and off it, too, as he has the highest grade-point average on the team.
As a bonus, he's the envy of his basketball-minded friends back home. "They say, 'I wish I was there, maybe I can go my 12th Grade year,' stuff like that," Ashaolu says. "Every kid's dream is to go to the United States, and I'm already here, so I'm really happy."
There's still some homesickness and some doubts. He misses his mom's special Sunday morning breakfasts, and near-rural Georgia can make the lights of Brampton seem glamorous.
But reclining on his bed in the generous room he shares with two teammates in a church-owned bungalow across from the school hours after a big win, there's evidence that his real regrets are few. A poster above his head is a Slam Magazine cover from last year featuring Shaun Livingston, Sebastian Telfair and Dwight Howard, all of whom made the jump straight from high school to the NBA.
And locked away in a suitcase, he keeps another magazine, which features the top high-school players in the United States and offers further proof that his time is coming. It falls open easily to a page with his picture. The heading is, Who To Watch For The Class Of 2008.
Olu Ashaolu, 15, of Brampton, Ont., works on his homework in the room he shares with two other basketball players from Community Christian School in Stockbridge, Ga.
Size: 6 foot 7, 215 pounds
Residence: Born in Nigeria, lived in Brampton, Ont., until he moved to Stockbridge, Ga., to go to private Christian high school on basketball scholarship.
Quote: "Every kid's dream is to go to the United States, and I'm already here, so I'm really happy."