by: Ryan McKenna
As the clock hit zero, the Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute Saints men’s basketball team walked off the court at the Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens having lost their first game of the season. A 61-54 exhibition loss against rival Father Henry Carr was overshadowed by who could have made the difference. The Saints were without their all-star, 6’6” point guard, Justin Jackson, 15, a member of the Canada Basketball cadet program that contains the top 12 players in Canada under the age of 17. Jackson was removed from the Saints roster due to his academic blunders, failing multiple courses.
Eastern Commerce requires its players to pass four courses and have an average of 65 per cent or above. With Jackson out of the lineup, the Saints opportunity to avenge last year’s loss in the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) Championships, may be in jeopardy. The school’s long chartered legacy, the “dynasty”, is in question.
For years, the Eastern Commerce Saints have dominated the high-school basketball scene. The school produces talent that finds its way to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and sometimes, the National Basketball Association (NBA). The school’s most decorated talent is Jamaal Magloire, a former NBA all-star, who played for Eastern Commerce in the 1990‘s. Myck Kabongo, a current Texas Longhorn and player that some predict will be drafted in the first round of the 2013 NBA draft, and Ammanuel Diressa, who joined Tennessee Tech this fall, are all alumni of the Saints.
In the past 10 years, the school has won five provincial championships: taking silver in 2011. Entering the 2012 season, a Canadian basketball website that ranks high school programs every year has Eastern Commerce ranked as the second best team in the country behind rival Father Henry Carr.
The loss last year has motivated the Saints to return to the top, “That was just a bad game (OFSAA Championship Game),” said Jackson, “I don’t know what happened, that just wasn’t us and this year we want to come back with a vengeance and everyone knows who we really are and we want to show it.”
Stephan Barrie, an assistant coach for the Team Canada cadet program and current head coach of the Queen’s Gaels men’s basketball team of the Ontario University Athletics, describes Jackson as the ultimate player. “He’s a very versatile player, who combines skill, athleticism and a physique that has a lot of potential. Realistically the combination of those factors (skills), down the road has huge potential with the (Canada Basketball) senior national team,” said Barrie. Jackson was also at the San Juan Americas Team Camp in Puerto Rico in September. The camp featured the top 60 players aged 17 and under from Canada and South America, with Jackson being named the camp’s most valuable player. Jackson has already received a phone call from the assistant coach at the University of Kentucky, who won the NCAA championship in 2012.
As an NCAA coach for 14 seasons, and now current NBA analyst for TSN and NBA TV, Jack Armstrong has found academics to be an issue at the high school and university levels. “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. “Hopefully Canada Basketball does more about that. I think they need to identify at a young age who these kids are, and continue to improve the feeder programs.”
In a phone interview with Mat Yorke, coordinator of men’s high performance at Canada Basketball, Yorke described how Canada Basketball helps its athletes academically, “Our role, from a national team perspective, is that we’re going to help our national team athletes strive in all levels of academics or on court. So we put programs in place,” said Yorke. When asked to expand on what kind of academic programs Canada Basketball has, Yorke declined to comment. Jackson said that Canada Basketball has yet to assist him with his academic situation.
In order to get back to winning provincial championships, Eastern Commerce will need to have Jackson on the court. The school as a whole has struggled academically. They received a 0.7 out of 10 score on the Ontario standardized provincial tests in 2010-11; a score which ranks them among the worst academic schools in the province according to the Fraser Institute.
Three days after players were due to submit their first-round of marks to head coach Kevin Jeffers, he tweeted: “@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!!!”
In order to be recruited as a Division I NCAA player, athletes must graduate high school, complete 16 core courses, earn a minimum grade-point average, and have a combined SAT or ACT score that matches their GPA. Jackson’s struggles in the classroom during the early part of the year have made him realize the importance of academic success and what it means for his future.
On November 16, the Saints breathed a sigh of relief, as Jackson returned to the court at the Humber College Classic, recording 11 points and six rebounds against St. Edmund Campion in a 57-53 Saints win. For Jackson, it has been a long journey back to achieving academic success, “Just knowing that I got myself together, knowing that I worked for it and got there (playing again). It felt good.”