Photo: Farnia Fekri

In the heart of the city

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By Charles Vanegas

In the summer of 2009, newly appointed athletic director Ivan Joseph dismissed men’s basketball head coach Glenn Taylor, preferring to bring in a new face to lead Ryerson’s team into the next era of athletics — to be housed in Maple Leaf Gardens. With just a lone trip to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national championships in 1999, the program had developed a reputation of futility, going just 29-103 over the previous six seasons (which included an abysmal 0-22 record in 2003-04).

“Typically we’ve already got training camp started in August. I remember sitting around in July, early August, thinking to myself ‘what are we going to do next year?’ Because we had no coach,” says Luke Staniscia, a Ram from 2006 to 2012.

Joseph selected Roy Rana, head coach at Scarborough’s Eastern Commerce C.I., who had led the Saints to four provincial titles and a 384-78 record in his tenure. In addition to the high school level, Rana had spent years working with Ontario Basketball’s development and high performance program and was also serving as head coach for the Canadian Cadet (U17) National Team.

Arriving on campus in September, Rana implemented daily video analysis, team meals and even yoga sessions. While the previous regime’s practices would sometimes only last half of the allotted two-hour time slot in the gym, Rana’s were described as “long and grueling” and became the place where players earned their keep.

“None of us were his recruits so he didn’t really feel like he owed us anything,” says Staniscia. “Everyone on the team was in a situation where we had to prove ourselves to the new coach. We knew the next season he was bringing in his new recruits and we could all be replaced.”

Only six players would return the next year, with Rana’s first class of high school commits lauded as one of the nation’s best. Bjorn Michaelsen, a 6-foot-8 forward from Quebec, Jordon Gauthier, an elite scorer from Windsor, and Jahmal Jones, a point guard from Mississauga, would form the base of Rana’s team. Rana also brought in Ola Adegboruwa, a transfer student who had grown up in North York’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood – where Rana once ran an alternative to expulsion program for students with violence-related issues.

“He represented a lot of what I liked about guys in the game, that toughness, that edge,” says Rana.

While knee injuries forced Adegboruwa to retire before his eligibility expired, he and Jones were the start of Ryerson’s new approach to team recruiting: building around Toronto kids. Since Rana’s second season, the team’s number of victories has increased adjacent to its number of GTA players (up from 11-11 with four players in 2010 11, to 16-6 with 10 in 2013-14).

“It’s not accidental. Certainly we want to have a GTA feel to us, we’re a Toronto school – we want to have Toronto kids. We want to be able to be successful that way,” says Rana, who’s coached the Rams to a 73-45 record in his five plus years at the helm. “It doesn’t necessarily make sense for me to recruit an out of province kid unless he’s going to be a solid rotation player, if not a starter. And if it’s equal, then I might as well take the kid in our backyard.”

Rana maintains a close eye on the local scene, as many of his close friends are still high school coaches. A decade after Vince Carter dazzled Raptors fans with jaw-dropping jams, the city has become one of the most concentrated sources of basketball talent in the world, with nine players selected in the NBA draft since 2011 – including back-to-back #1 overall picks Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. According to North Pole Hoops (NPH), a Canadian basketball scouting service, eight of the top 10 ranked high school teams in the country are located in the GTA.

Universities in the United States have taken notice, with many of the area’s top talents heading south of the border (53 GTA players are in the NCAA this season). While Rana doesn’t bother recruiting NBA-ready players like Wiggins or Bennett – both of whom he has mentored in his coaching capacities at the national level – he isn’t afraid to go after ones being courted state-side, estimating that at least half of his current roster could play in the NCAA.

“I think for a lot of the kids who decide [not] to stay in Canada, there’s two things: one, just the stigma of staying in Canada. This whole kind of ‘oh he didn’t succeed because he didn’t get a scholarship,’ and two, there are some financial challenges for some kids to stay, whereas if they go south they can get a full ride. So we have to try to overcome that,” says Rana. “But once they kind of mature and lose the stigma side of it, they usually understand that it’s a pretty good level [of basketball] up here.”

While players can get some financial assistance for academic success, Ryerson athletes don’t receive athletic scholarships.

On top of daily practice and video sessions and two games per week, players work part-time jobs to pay their tuition – ranging from moving for 1-800-Got-Junk to cleaning up after classes at the Cineplex movie theatre.

Fourth-year shooting guard Aaron Best was the eleventh-ranked (NPH) Canadian high school prospect in 2011, and was heavily recruited by the University of Pennsylvania.

While the Ivy League school was a tough option to pass up, Best says his familiarity with Rana (Best played for former-Rana assistant Kevin Jeffers at Eastern Commerce) and Jones, whom he had played with for various provincial teams and camps, and the ability to play in front of his family weighed heavily in his decision to stay in Toronto.

“My mom always told me, ‘if you’re good enough and you do what you’re supposed to do, they’ll find you,'” says Best on whether skipping out on the NCAA would have an impact on a potential pro career. “I made the decision to stay, and I stand by it.”

While Best and other players forfeit TV exposure by staying in Canada (with Sportsnet broadcasting just this year’s CIS championships on national TV), there are benefits to playing for Ryerson.

The team regularly plays exhibitions against top U.S. teams like Syracuse and Wake Forest, and started last season with a 10-day tour of China. Through Rana’s national team and NBA connections – he estimates he’s coached at least 40 current NBA players in some capacity – the Rams often work side by side with pros.

“Because we’re in Toronto, we get to be around a lot of people who have actually made it,” says  Gauthier. “[Anthony] Bennett and Tristan [Thompson] were working in the gym at Kerr Hall last year and we were on the other side of the gym. You just get to see what they go through and what they put into their craft.”

Recently the team has welcomed Raptors rookie Bruno Caboclo, who was left home by the team during a five-game road trip. Since the average age of his Raptors teammates is 26.4, the pairing allows the 19-year-old Brazilian to hang out with players his own age, and gives the Rams a first-hand view of a future star.

“He lives in downtown Toronto and sometimes he gets bored, so he comes here,” says second-year guard Jean-Victor Mukama. “I’m a couple months older than him, so even though he doesn’t [fully] understand English, it’s easy to communicate because we both love basketball.”

This season, Ryerson will host the CIS National Championships – the first time that the tournament will ever be held in Toronto – automatically earning a spot in the fi eld of eight. With 20-point victories over #4 McMaster and #5 Windsor, Ryerson appears worthy of its #3 national ranking. But lopsided losses against the top-ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees and #2 Carleton Ravens – winners of 10 of the last 12 national titles – tell them there’s still work to do if they want to raise the trophy in front of home fans.

“We’re the third best team in the country for a reason. They’re number one and number two, and it’s not even close right now,” says Jones. “[But] we’re not going to rely on someone else to beat them, we’re not relying on upsets. We know we have to go through both of them.”

The Rams have carried on an intense rivalry with the Gee-Gees for the past three seasons, eliminating Ottawa in the 2012 OUA playoffs (74-71), before losing to them in 2013 (70-74) and 2014 (78-79). Each game was decided in the final seconds, with the victor going on to qualify for nationals. And while Carleton has traditionally dominated Ryerson, winning every single game since 1999, the Rams seemed to have turned a corner last season, losing a close 68-71 game at home – the narrowest margin during that span.

Rana is quick to admit the Rams “got [their] asses kicked” on the November road trip to Ottawa, but is confi dent that his team – loaded with the CIS’s third-ranked defense and fifthranked offense – will be its more competitive self come playoff time.

“My belief hasn’t changed that we’re good enough to win a national championship,” says Rana. “I think we’re in that conversation with those two (Carleton and Ottawa) and there’s three or four other teams around the country that are going to be big challenges.” Now playing in his fifth and final year of eligibility, Jones says it’s only fitting to finish his career at the national championships in front of a Toronto crowd, where home-court advantage may be key – the Rams are 24-3 at home since moving to the Mattamy Athletic Centre in 2012.

“This is what [we] have been talking about since we got to Ryerson,” says Jones. “If we win in our fifth year, no one can take it from us. There’s no coming back. No, we won. We go out on top.”

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