Canadian prospects searching for more exposure at American schools
Texas commit Tristan Thompson recently transfered to Findlay Prep (Nev.)
Thompson was kicked out of St. Benedict's (N.J.) for "public insubordination"
He changed schools under the advice of Grassroots Canada coach Ro Russell
NEWARK, N.J. -- Throughout his freshman year at St. Marguerite d'Youville High (Brampton, Ontario) in 2007, Tristan Thompson would sit at his computer and study. Having previously played against United States competition with his Grassroots Canada AAU team, the lithe lefty researched the top American recruits and where they went to school. Particularly intrigued by St. Benedict's Prep (Newark, N.J.) forward Samardo Samuels, Thompson Googled his name and watched a CSTV feature on his coach, Dan Hurley. "I wanted to better my skills," Thompson said, "and exposure."
That spring, Thompson, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound honor student, drove 477 miles with Grassroots coach Ro Russell and Myck Kabongo, a 14-year-old guard from Toronto, to visit St. Benedict's and workout. Impressed by Hurley's resume of sending J.R. Smith to the NBA, Thompson visited once more with his parents. "It was the chance of a lifetime," said Thompson's mother, Andrea, a school bus driver. "Not bad for a Canadian, eh?"
It also showed just how far some Canadians are willing to travel for a bigger stage. Seeking a chance at basketball scholarships -- which are not available at Canadian colleges -- an increasing number of Canadians view the U.S. as a hardwood Promised Land. Thompson's move was facilitated by Russell, a 40-year-old Jamaican who played at Division II Gordon College in Wrenham, Mass. "You hope kids aren't steered by the lure of grandeur," said Joe Raso, coach of McMaster University in Ontario. "Many are naive about the process. You hope kids aren't left holding broken dreams."
Thompson immediately found what he desired. There was competition: he banged with Samuels (6-9, 230 pounds) in college-level practices. There were recruiters: he was watched by Florida's Billy Donovan and Kansas assistant Joe Dooley, among others. There was television: he played twice on ESPN networks. Then on Feb. 20, less than 24 hours before the season finale, he called Texas assistant Rodney Terry to commit.
Russell, who accompanied Thompson on three unofficial visits, said, "Some schools say they want you. Texas showed they wanted him."
The sought-after feeling continued last summer. In July he helped Canada's U-18 team take bronze at the FIBA Americas Championship in Argentina. Back Stateside, Grassroots Canada flew to the adidas Super 64 tournament in Las Vegas on the same plane as the Canadian national team, which was preparing to play Team USA. It was the younger unit that was more successful, reaching the title game. For inspiration, they watched Through the Fire -- a documentary chronicling Sebastian Telfair's rise to the NBA. After winning, the team recreated a scene from the film, chanting, "What [are] they [gonna] say now?"
Doubters could say little until two weeks ago. Following two lop-sided losses to two national powers, St. Benedict's hosted Passaic (N.J.) Tech on Feb. 10. After watching Thompson, the team's best player on both ends, take an ill-advised three-point shot and fail to hustle back on defense, Hurley sat him. When Thompson did not take to his coaching, Hurley, 36, told him to leave the court. That night, Hurley kicked Thompson off the team, citing "public insubordination" and lamented the effect of "grassroots forces." A former Seton Hall guard with old-school principles, Hurley said, "He had to understand that certain behavior is unacceptable."
Within 48 hours, Russell reached out to Michael Peck, the coach of Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) -- a three-year-old program that is currently ranked No. 3 in SI.com's Top 25. While an assistant coach at Saginaw Valley State in the late 90s, Peck met Russell. Having reconnected last year at a Rhode Island showcase, the two arranged for Ontario native Cory Joseph, a 6-3 guard, to play at Findlay, and now Russell had another prospect looking for a school. Thompson also exchanged text messages with Texas signee Avery Bradley, a Findlay transfer from Tacoma, Wash., for input. Peck, who had a nine-man roster, added Thompson. "It's a small world," said Peck, whose unbeaten team draws players from Nigeria, California, Georgia, Illinois and Puerto Rico. "We're looking ahead with Tristan."
That Saturday, Thompson moved into the players' house, where he lives with seven teammates, an assistant coach and his wife. The program's Web site reads like a tourist brochure, boasting "at least one night a week the team enjoys one of Vegas's famous resort buffets", "Great Suburban living" and promoting Vegas as "the hoops capital of the world" for its ties to AAU, Team USA practices and the NBA's All Star weekend.
Due to President's Day vacation, school was closed for the week, but the gym was open. Without setting foot in a classroom, he flew with the Pilots to Dallas Thursday and played four minutes in a 74-51 win over God's Academy (Dallas).
Russell, a Born Again Christian, says he had a "revelation" when he first saw Thompson play. Looking on from the Carrier Dome stands during a June 2005 AAU event at Syracuse University, he was preparing to coach when Thompson, then a seventh grader on an Ontario club team, caught his attention dribbling through layup lines. "I had to have him," Russell said. "He was next."