Basketball Thrives in a Hockey Town
Under street lamps or stadium lights, more Quebecers are playing the game now than at any point in our history.
They jostle under the lights of Parc St-Laurent, two ballplayers at opposite ends of their careers.
At 41, Martinez can’t dunk the ball anymore and a brace holds the ligaments in his right knee together. His body shows signs of wear, but he moves with purpose and composure.
Geraldo is just out of high school. A short, explosive player who can shoot from outside or charge the net against players twice his size. His smile reveals a set of metal braces, giving him an even more youthful appearance.
The kid gets the better of the first few encounters, scoring with a shot that floats off his fingers and swooshes through the basket from 25-feet out. The ball doesn’t even touch the rim.
“We got a shooter!” someone yells from the crowd.
Once Martinez is warmed up, he takes back control of the game — dribbling past Geraldo and using his long limbs to shift the ball away from a second defender’s grasp. Martinez leaps to the net and, on his way back down, stumbles into the chain link fence. The ball bounces in and he limps down the court.
“Martinez!” an elderly man cheers from the bleachers, eliciting a fist pump from the veteran baller.
Geraldo grimaces during a break in the action. Last week, he fractured his ankle but didn’t stay off it for more than a few days.
“I come here because I can’t keep away from the game,” says Geraldo Xavier, who’s preparing to try out for Collège Rosemont’s team next semester. “If I don’t play every day I won’t stay sharp. I don’t come here to learn the game, I come here because it’s competitive, I come here because it’s where the big boys play.”
This is as good as pickup basketball gets in Montreal: eight teams playing on two beat-to-shit courts, around the corner from a pawn shop and laundromat.
As the sun sets over Montréal-Nord, dozens gather from the nearby low-rises and bungalows to take in the action or put their reputation on the line against guys like Martinez. Tomorrow there will be garbage to take out and day jobs to return to. But for a few hours, under the lights at Parc Saint-Laurent, there is basketball.
“This is the Mecca of Montreal streetball,” said Will Prosper, a community organizer and former candidate for borough mayor.
“If you’re from Montréal-Nord, you haven’t proven yourself until you’ve put in your time at Parc Saint-Laurent. It’s a tough brand of basketball, fouls are rarely called because you don’t want to get teased. So you learn to finish plays while being smacked around, you learn to go hard to the net, you learn how to fall on cement without hurting yourself.”
It was the pro player Hernst Laroche who told me to check out the games at Parc Saint-Laurent.
“It’s where I came up,” said Laroche, who went on to play college ball in New Mexico. “You had to go out there and earn respect against some pretty rough dudes.”
Laroche, 33, is part of an effort to bring professional basketball back to Montreal. He’s a point guard on the Montreal Alliance, the latest club in the Canadian Elite Basketball Association. Founded in 2019, the league develops local players by putting them on the same team as professionals from across the world.
Pro basketball has a decidedly poor record in Canada’s second largest city. The Montreal Dragons went bust before finishing their first season in 1993. After the failure of the Dragons came the Matrix in 2007, the Sasquatch in 2008 and the Jazz in 2012 — all petering out with little fanfare.
This time feels different.
Between 2013 and 2021, the number of Quebecers signed up for youth basketball jumped from 38,000 to 55,000. During that time, Chris Boucher won an NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors and fellow Montréal-Nord native Luguentz Dort emerged as a clutch player on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Another kid from the city’s north end, Bennedict Mathurin, is projected to go sixth overall in the NBA draft on Thursday.
But players like Dort, Boucher and Mathurin have all had to leave Quebec as teenagers to attend prep schools in the U.S. or the NBA Academy in Mexico. Despite an abundance of talent coming out of the province, Quebec simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to develop players into professionals.
It isn’t just the lack of a sophisticated development system like the American high school circuit. In Montréal-Nord, players like Geraldo have to take a bus and metro across the island just to play on a hardwood court at the YMCA on Stanley Street. The other option, about an hour’s ride on public transit, is the Parc Extension basketball league across the mountain from downtown.
“We have parks here without lights so, after the sun goes down, we play what’s called ‘midnight ball,’” says Chris Milerd, who plays at Parc Saint- Laurent. “You know it’s a sad state of affairs when you say, ‘The court isn’t so bad, at least we have electricity.’”
As it stands, there is just one public sports complex for Montréal-Nord and the other three northeast boroughs of Anjou, St-Léonard and Rivière-des-Prairies.
That’s one gym for 300,000 people.
By contrast, there are 10 hockey arenas in those same boroughs. And whereas basketball is growing, participation in hockey has seen such a steep decline in the past decade that the Quebec government launched a 15-person panel to increase participation in Canada’s national sport.
The panel, composed entirely of white people, will come up with a series of recommendations that will almost certainly end with a massive investment of public funds into hockey. This province has a history of throwing big money at our national sport. Ten years ago, the Liberal government spent $370 million in public funds to build a hockey arena in hopes of attracting an NHL team to Quebec City.
These days you can catch Bryan Adams or the Backstreet Boys at the arena but no professional hockey. And without a team to fill seats, the building mostly just sits there, quietly costing the province a fortune for an NHL pipe dream that will never materialize.
Meanwhile, in Montréal-Nord, kids play basketball under street lamps and in the rain. It is one of Quebec’s most impoverished districts, home Haitian-Canadian families displaced by political violence and the 2010 earthquake.
When COVID-19 hit, in 2020, after-school programs closed and crime spiked in the area. The city saw a huge increase in cases amongst Haitian immigrant populations; many frontline workers at Quebec’s elder care facilities are Haitian and were infected during the first wave, inadvertently bringing the virus home to their families. During the early stages of the pandemic, there were more confirmed cases in the borough than any other on the island of Montreal.
“More kids started hanging outside, with no one to look out for them and nothing to do,” said Sacha-Wilky Merazil, a local radio columnist, during an interview with The Rover last year. “There was a sense that the neighbourhood had been abandoned by the city when it was at its lowest.”
For years, politicians campaigning in Montréal-Nord ran on a platform to get the funding for a sports complex only to change their tune after the election.
The latest broken promise came after last year’s municipal elections, when Valérie Plante said her party would make the sports complex a top priority if elected. After her re-election as Montreal mayor, Plante sidelined the project and opted instead to put more cops on the streets of Montréal-Nord.
Plante’s administration increased the annual police budget to $679 million, including an extra $45 million to cover overages from last year’s budget. Quebec also kicked in $5 million for an anti-gang task force that will almost exclusively patrol the north end.
One study found police spending in the city has gotten out of control over the last 20 years, with Montreal increasing the budget by 169 per cent since 2002. And while the city spends two-thirds of a billion dollars on a police department with a track record of harassing Black youth, they allocated just $5 million for community initiatives aimed at preventing gang violence.
“We’ve been talking about a new sports complex in Montréal-Nord for almost 20 years,” Prosper said. “Our local football team doesn’t even have a field. Our best basketball players are leaving the neighbourhood that raised them just to have a shot at something better.”
And so the basketball exodus continues.
“Just finding a gym (in Montreal) or a place to shoot around is hard for me and I’m a professional athlete,” said Nathan Cayo, a Laval native who just finished his fourth season of college ball in Richmond, Virginia. “Young people need opportunities to play here, to learn the game here.”
Like Laroche, Nathan Cayo plays for the Montreal Alliance — a team that gives local players a chance to build a pro career and make a go of it in Europe, Asia, North Africa and across the Americas.
Could the Alliance be what’s been missing from Montreal’s basketball culture?
“This is the pathway,” says Victor Raso, head coach of the Niagara Lions, a team that beat Montreal twice this season. “When it started in Niagara, everything changed. The young kids, the high school players, they started to see that you could do it all in one place — from high school to a pro team. In Canada, that pathway is something we’ve always had with hockey and now we’re building it with basketball.
“That’s what’s gonna happen here. Montreal is a hotbed for basketball. The Alliance is a way for young players to funnel up and the way the team has already gotten local players on board, I think the sky’s the limit.”
On the night of the Alliance’s third home game last week, as the last hour of sunlight kissed the Verdun Auditorium, twentysomethings stood outside the arena chugging cans of Sleeman. Families crowded in from the nearby De l’Église metro, with some kids even wearing Alliance jerseys and t-shirts.
In the parking lot outside the red-brick building, hip-hop music blared and food trucks served up barbecued pork to the masses. The new team is still pretty raw and, when facing the River Lions, there were times they looked way out of their depth.
But late in the third quarter, with the Alliance fielding five local players, they rallied back from an 11-point deficit to tie the game. During one play, Montréal-Nord’s Laroche stole the ball from a Niagara player, pushed it down the court and hit teammate Kemy Osse with a no-look pass.
Osse, a stocky guard from Parc Extension, buried a shot from 35-feet out and the crowd erupted.
“A lot of my family is out there,” said Osse, who played his college ball in Arkansas. “I’ve played pro across the country and there’s nothing compared to being in your hometown. Right now, the core of our support is the basketball community. It’s kids who play for the Parc Extension Knights, high school players, kids gunning for a spot on the (junior) national team.”
Osse is a talented and hardworking player. Easily the shortest man on the court, he fights for every inbound pass, every rebound and contests every shot, even when it seems hopeless. Fellow Quebecers Cayo and James Jean-Pierre were, at times, the two best players on the court. They’re fast, strong, and they make up for their inexperience with a burning intensity.
But in the end, they’re a new team facing one of the league’s best. Niagara plays a brand of European ball that’s bruising, team-oriented, and designed to force the other team’s players to make mistakes. And Montreal made a lot of mistakes that night.
“They’re not unprofessional, the (Montreal players) are just unaware of how to be a professional,” says Vincent Lavendier, the Alliance’s head coach. “They have to learn to expect more of themselves, to play well not just in short bursts but for an entire game and they’re not quite there yet.
“If I’m tough with them, if I get on their case too much, it’s because I want them to be prepared to become professionals. The Montrealers handled themselves really well out there at times and that’s something they can take into the next game.”
Quebec is undergoing a sort of basketball miracle right now.
Without the support of an NBA team, without the massive public funds that push hockey forward in Quebec, and under the shadow of the ubiquitous Montreal Canadiens, the province has churned out some of the best young ball players in North America.
When Benedict Maturin is selected in the NBA draft on Thursday, it will be a historic moment for basketball in this province. No other Quebecer has ever come close to being drafted sixth overall. Chris Boucher wasn’t even drafted out of college.
Darkness settles over the skyline at Parc Saint- Laurent.
Until now, most of the ballplayers rocked beat-up sneakers and off brand gym shorts. One young man, who calls himself Zouf, sports a pair of homemade goggles cobbled together from reading glasses rubber bands.
But a new crowd is working its way towards the bleachers, decked out in the finest gear Nike has to offer. They’re back from a season of prep school basketball in the logging town of Shawinigan. The school, Shawinigan Prep, is one of the only Quebec institutions to offer Grade 12 so players can make the leap from high school to the American college system.
As they lace up, some of the older players start to pack their things. Martinez takes a rare moment on the sidelines.
“I’m not young anymore but I’ve been out here just about every night since the snow melted,” he said. “Gotta pace myself.”
The games get younger, faster and the kids break out all their fanciest moves. When one of the prep school players sinks a jump shot on the run, the man guarding him theatrically slaps his face with both hands, as though he just witnessed something supernatural.
Outside, buses run up and down Henri Bourassa Blvd. and police cars roll past the young men slowly, reminding them they’re being watched.
But for a few more hours, under the lights at Parc Saint-Laurent, there is basketball.
Edited by Eve Cable.
About the photographer…
Peter McCabe is a National Newspaper Award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in the Montreal Gazette, The Canadian Press and in publications across the world. You can see his work and book him for a photoshoot on his website.
Appreciate you shining a light on the growing basketball scene in the city. I've always been a fan of your writing and I'm happy to have signed up. I'm looking forward to reading great stories!
I read you for what you have to say, and the way you say it: "Tomorrow there will be garbage to take out and day jobs to return to. But for a few hours, under the lights at Parc Saint-Laurent, there is basketball."