The Dynasty in Question

As the Eastern Commerce men’s basketball Saints look to capture another provincial title in 2012-13, academics may stand in their way.

by: Ryan McKenna

TORONTO- Walking down the steps to the gym of Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, an 87-year-old high school located in eastern Toronto, the normal, loud dribbling of over 14 basketballs have been replaced with the sound of only five.  Today marks the day where players on the men’s basketball team at Eastern Commerce must submit their marks to head coach of the team, Kevin Jeffers.  Before Jeffers arrives, assistant coach of the team, Sean Bookal is sitting down beside one of his players, a fifth-year guard, who returned to Eastern Commerce for a second run of Grade 12 to hopefully improve his chances of being recruited to play in the NCAA.  Bookal questions the player about his marks and says, “You got a 19?”, in which the player turns away and chuckles nervously.  Jeffers is late to show up to the practice, and when he does, he has an unimpressed look on his face.  Immediately, he says sternly to one player, “What are you doing here? You know you’re not supposed to be here!”;  another student with marks that cannot fit the passing criteria to practice with the team.  One by one, student-athletes enter the small office area of the school’s athletic director to talk with Jeffers, Bookal, and head of student success, Lesley Wallace.  The school’s long chartered legacy of producing elite talent and winning teams, the “dynasty”, may be in jeopardy.

For years, the Eastern Commerce Saints have dominated the high-school basketball scene. The school is also no stranger to producing talent that finds its way to the NCAA and sometimes, the NBA. The school’s most decorated talent is Jamaal Magloire, an NBA all-star and current free agent.  Magloire played for Eastern Commerce in the 1990‘s before being recruited by the NCAA’s Kentucky Wildcats and then drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in the first-round of the 2000 NBA draft.

In the past 10 years, the school has won five provincial championships and, in 2011, the Saints won a silver medal at the provincial championships.  Entering the 2012 season,, a Canadian basketball website which ranks high school programs every year, has Eastern Commerce ranked as the second best team in the country behind rival Father Henry Carr.

Playing at any elite sports level will always carry pressures.  At Eastern Commerce, the pressure comes from maintaining academics and keeping the rich team history alive. According to Wallace, who was asked by Jeffers to track athlete development, being both a student and athlete can be difficult for some players. “The biggest challenge is balancing basketball and their academics. So when you add the pressure of an elite athlete team, like the basketball team here, it’s a lot to manage,” said Wallace.

According to a Jeffers tweet on Oct. 15, 2012, just three days after marks submission day, he said: “@Coachtrinikev: “It baffles me how kids want to play basketball at the next level; yet are failing at the high school level. Education is key!!!”

The academic situation at Eastern Commerce may be deeper than originally thought.

On October 20, the team ended its tryout process with a season opening exhibition game against Father Henry Carr Crusaders. The Saints lost the game 61-54 in front of around 300 people at the Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens, although the biggest question mark came from a missing player on the team’s roster.

Justin Jackson, 15, was a top performer during the team’s loss in the gold medal game last season at the provincial championships and is a current member of the Team Canada cadet program. Jackson was also a member of the San Juan Americas Team Camp in Puerto Rico in late September.  The camp featured the top 60 players aged 17 and under from Canada, and South America.

Jackson was missing from the teams opening game roster against Henry Carr.

Jeffers said that Jackson has been having academic issues, thus leading to his dismissal from the team. Losing a star calibre player like Jackson can be a big loss for a basketball power-house like Eastern Commerce.

As an NCAA coach for 14 seasons, and now current NBA analyst for TSN and NBA TV, Jack Armstrong has seen many players come and go over the years.  As a coach, he found academics to be an issue for some of his players.  He says the academic issues needs to be addressed by the players’ high schools. “It’s not just Eastern Commerce.  I think high schools in general need to do a better job of holding guys accountable right from the start,” said Armstrong.

“I think too many high schools don’t do a good enough job of saying, ‘Hey, you gotta have that class,’.  When a kid is screwing up in Grade 10, (the coach should be) saying, ‘Hey, you’re not gonna play until you get your preverbal you know what together,’” said Armstrong.  “A lot of times either, they don’t know any better and the kid’s going down the wrong path, or they know better, but they’re just trying to win games and let someone else figure it out later.”

Jeffers says that isn’t the case at Eastern Commerce. “We have a 98 per cent graduation rate from our program and I love that,” said Jeffers. “I think that is such a key thing to brag about, but you don’t hear that, you only hear the Eastern win, and Eastern OFSAA (Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations).”

Jeffers says he expects Jackson to be back in the Saints lineup by the end of the season and has implemented a study hall on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday’s after school to help players get caught up on work.

Armstrong still feels it is an issue that basketball programs and Canada Basketball need to address. “As my favorite band the Eagles used to say, ‘Sometimes you can see the stars, but you can’t see the light,’ said Armstrong.  “These kids, all they’re seeing is the stars, but they can’t see the light.”