At her introduction last week as Canada Basketball’s director of basketball operations, Michele O’Keefe acknowledged her biggest challenge will be to come up with a sustainable program that will attract talented players and deter them from considering options in the United States.
The former Ontario Basketball executive director said research has shown that kids don’t see that Canada has a basketball culture as yet.
“I think that’s one of the things we need to build here in Canada,” said O’Keefe who also served as Canada’s Basketball program director and communications manager. “A basketball school, we believe, is a great place to start…It’s getting kids into a program where they are playing fewer games and they are training more.”
As an educator who understands the importance of creating the best possible outcomes for students, Toronto District School Board director of education Dr. Chris Spence supports programs that provide flexibility and options for students to nurture their talent and interest.
“One of the things we are taking a look at is different ways of serving our kids, so programs of choice give us an opportunity to create specialized programs and specialized schools to help kids pursue their passion in a very excellent and strong educational environment,” he added.
The establishment of a specialized sports school where students can divide their day between regular academic classes and an exceptional athletes program, however, is not an entirely new concept.
Nearly three decades ago, the Toronto Basketball Association (TBA) explored the idea of a program combining academics and sports.
“In 1980 when the TBA became operational, we brought forward a hub model that had its origins from some community work I did in Montreal earlier where we looked at communities, like Outremont, Notre-Dame-De-Grace-Lachine and La Salle where there were high concentrations of Blacks at the time and we developed a local initiative, that the Quebec government funded, to run after-school programs that involved academics and athletics and provided assistance to those with social needs,” said TBA founding director Kirk Mark who is also president of the Canadian Alliance of Black Educators.
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the TBA also proposed the idea to the Ontario Basketball Association (now Basketball Ontario) which couldn’t figure out a way to fund such an initiative and that is the main reason why so many of our top athletes went to the U.S. because there was nothing to harness them in the city.
“‘Why can’t we have sports schools’ is not the question that should be asked. The bigger question is whether there is a political will to have such schools. It involves the political will of those involved in leadership roles in education to look at different strands of the learner. If that individual has an aptitude for sport, use it as an entry point to look at the academic point of the learner’s life and show that person through sport how he or she can learn math and develop leadership skills that will make them functioning members of society.”
Grooming local talent is one of the main objectives of Canada Basketball which unveiled a new organizational structure last week to help develop the game domestically.
The national sports organization also extended the contracts of senior team coaches, Leo Rautins and Allison McNeill, until 2012.
McNeill’s record with the senior women’s team in eight years is 58 wins and 83 losses while Rautins’ teams have won 31 of 79 games with him at the helm since 2005.
“Winning comes when everything is done right,” said Rautins, the first Canadian to be drafted in the National Basketball Association’s first round (17th by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983). “In the last couple of years, I have enjoyed my time because of the progress I am seeing at all the other levels that allows you to hopefully become a winning program.
“There are a lot of things that have to happen and those things are happening, so I am extremely optimistic. We are getting better all the time…In 2005, it was like pulling teeth to get players to compete at this level whereas now you are making tougher decisions.”
Renato Pasquali, who has been an assistant coach with the senior men’s team for the past year, has been appointed technical director. He led the Italian juniors and cadets to the European championships in 2000 and 2001.
“Renato’s excellent resume, his involvement on the technical side of our men’s senior program and the enthusiastic reception to his work last year during two cross-country tours left us trying to find the best way to involve him on a more consistent basis,” said Canada Basketball’s executive director and chief executive officer, Wayne Parrish.