For the first time, 13 and 14-year-old basketball players in Canada will have the opportunity to represent their country in the inaugural Jr. NBA World Championship taking place this summer in Florida.
The final step in that journey for 10 youth teams throughout Canada will take place this weekend, June 15-17, with the Jr. NBA World Championship Canada Regional Finals in St. Catharines, Ontario at Brock University and the Meridian Center.
The regional tournament hosted by the NBA and Canada Basketball, will feature five boys and five girls teams that have qualified for the Canada Regional Finals by winning a series of local and provincial tournaments.
At stake, is an opportunity for one boys and one girls team to advance to the Jr. NBA World Championship, August 7-12 at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla. The global youth basketball tournament in August will feature both boys and girls divisions, each comprised of eight U.S. and eight international teams, separated into U.S. and international brackets that include round-robin and single-elimination competition. Winners of the U.S. and international brackets will play in the championship games on Aug. 12.
"What the NBA and Canada Basketball have provided for Team Breakdown 416 is epic," said Kevin Cox, coach of the Brampton, Ontario-based Team Breakdown 416 boys team which will represent Ontario. "It's given a group of young men a profound level of fire that is burning hot. The boys are very proud to represent their province and the hope is they will be fortunate enough to represent our great country."
"This tournament throughout Canada has been incredible, and with the finals this weekend we will crown our first-ever boys and girls Canadian champions who will go on to compete against other top teams from around the world," said Dan MacKenzie, Vice President and Managing Director, NBA Canada. "More importantly, the Jr. NBA World Championship continues our efforts of teaching basketball's core values and ensuring the game is being played the right way at the grassroots level."
Along with teaching valuable life skills for the players, the Jr. NBA program also focuses on the development of coaches. In fact, every coach participating in the Canada Regional tournament has received special training through Canada Basketball's National Coaching Certification Program.
"By presenting this opportunity, you give incentive to girls, boys and coaches to work on their game, to better themselves and try to advance to each stage," said Welland Warriors coach David Picton, whose girls team is carrying the Ontario banner this weekend."
Added David Paris, coach of the Halifax Community YMCA boys team: "It's an amazing opportunity for these kids from Canada. Having won the right to represent Atlantic Canada, the team is taking their success at a regional level to the national stage in a completely new environment."
For Teena Frost, coach of the VK Basketball girls team from Vancouver, representing Western Canada in a national championship has sparked her players at the end of a hard-fought season.
"There is an electricity in our practices now as we prepare for the tournament," Frost said. "We have always worked hard, played fast and played with passion, but when you have the opportunity to represent your country at such a young age, suddenly your confidence grows, your energy is boundless and you believe anything is possible."
As much as the tournament aims to find two teams to represent Canada on a global stage, its main purpose is to help set a new standard in youth basketball development and provide these young players with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"That's the experience I want these girls to have, to make sure you're leaving there building your love for the game through competition," says Fred Cumby, coach of the Valley Axewomen girls team representing Atlantic Canada. "The opportunity that these kids are getting as the first group, it's not something that's going to be forgotten any time soon.
The success of the Toronto Raptors and Canadian players in the NBA, along with youth basketball development programs such as the Jr. NBA World Championship, continue to have an impact on the growth of basketball in Canada. Out of the 108 international players on opening-night rosters for the 2017-18 season, Canada was the most represented country with 11 players, including homegrown rising stars Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Murray.
"Basketball is growing at a fast pace and the NBA has a lot to do with it," says David Lavasseur, coach of the Blizzard de Seminaire-François Eastern Canada girls team. "The excitement towards the Jr. NBA World Championship is further proof of the progression of basketball all over the country."
Regardless of the results, all the teams are in for the basketball experience of their early lifetimes in St. Catharines.
"It seems like we are either in a dream, or in a movie due to everything that has happened to us this year," said Ralph Calixte, coach of the Tornades de Longueuil boys team from just outside of Montreal. "I told (the players) to live it to the fullest, especially [the tournament] weekend. Those are the things that you are going to remember for the rest of your lives."
The Jr. NBA Canada Regional Finals begins Friday with the championship game taking place Sunday (June 17).
Boys: Community YMCA (Halifax, NS)
Girls: Valley Axewomen (Kentville, NS)
Boys: Tornades de Longueuil (Longueuil, QC)
Girls: Blizzard de Seminare Saint-François (Quebec City, QC)
Boys: Brampton Breakdown 416 (Brampton, ON)
Girls: Welland Warriors (Welland, ON)
Boys: Regina Sonics (Regina, SK)
Girls: Saskatoon Shock (Saskatoon, SK)
Boys: AthElite Basketball (Surrey, BC)
Girls: VK Basketball (Vancouver, BC)