Historically, our friendly neighbors to the North have been characterized by several stereotypes: hockey, maple syrup, Tim Hortons, and excessive politeness.
A new cultural phenomenon, however, has begun to define Canada in the past few years: a craze for basketball.
Centered largely in the eastern province of Ontario and the metropolis of Toronto, Canadian basketball has hit record levels of popularity, both culturally and professionally. From the “We the North” movement spurring sold out crowds at Air Canada Centre—home of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors—to the hotbed of talent in the area propagating stars such as Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson, Canadian basketball is no longer an afterthought for college and professional scouts.
Under head coach Tommy Amaker, Harvard men’s basketball has certainly taken notice.
This year, three Crimson players hail from the province of Ontario: senior captain Chris Egi, junior guard Corey Johnson, and freshman forward Danilo Djuricic. Additionally, Amaker secured a verbal commitment this fall from Noah Kirkwood, a 6’6” guard from Kanata, Ontario.
“We are really fortunate to have a number of kids from Canada and are hoping that it won’t stop,” Amaker said. “They have all been terrific players and even better people. Now having Danilo in that line, we think he will be exactly like those guys.”
Harvard basketball fans from previous years are certainly aware of the significant contributions that Egi and Johnson have made to the team. An important player for the Crimson early in the 2016-2017 season, Egi started seven games and averaged 8.8 minutes per game as a tough, interior-minded player. Johnson has been one of Harvard’s main weapons from the three-point range, knocking down 62 triples last season off 18 starts.
“We expect Corey to be a good player for us,” Amaker said. “We need him to think of himself as a key guy for this team because he is. We are hopeful that he will get off to a good start and gain that confidence and momentum that he had a good portion of last year.”
Interestingly for Egi and Johnson, both players followed similar pre-college paths. Egi played varsity basketball at St. Andrew’s, a boarding school in Aurora, Ontario, for four years before accepting an offer to play a post-graduate season at Montverde Academy in Central Florida. There, Egi played alongside several notable players, including current NBA point guards Ben Simmons and D’Angelo Russell.
Johnson also secured a transfer to an American academy his final year of high school, playing at Vermont Academy after four years at West Carleton Secondary School in Dunrobin, Ontario.
Another common thread for these Crimson players is their common experiences donning the red-and-white for their native country. Djuricic not only was a two-year captain for St. Michael’s College School but led the Canadian men’s national U16 and U17 teams.
Few Ivy League players get the chance to play at the international level, so the experience has primed the young players for tough competition. For example, Djuricic led Team Canada to the silver medal in the U16 FIBA Americas tournament in 2015, where he faced up against top-level talent including Duke freshman Wendell Carter and Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt.
In this year’s FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Egypt, Djuricic and Kirkwood helped Team Canada pull off a remarkable upset, claiming its first-ever first-place finish in the history of the tournament. Djuricic was a key piece to the team’s success, averaging 10.4 points and 4.7 rebounds in the tournament.
“We are really high on Danilo,” Amaker said. “He can play in and out and is a very good shooter for his size, which really opens the floor a bit more. I think our guys are really confident in him taking those shots and making those shots.”
Djuricic was also a familiar face for Egi in past years, having previously played alongside him in the Ontario basketball circuit.
“I knew Danilo when he was in 6th grade—I took him on a tour of my high school,” Egi said. “Obviously this is a smaller [freshman] class than last year’s class, so I feel like because they’re a smaller part of our team, it is a little bit of a different dynamic. It’s just getting them up to speed on the college game as fast as possible because obviously we want them to help us.”
Harvard veterans Egi and Johnson are also no strangers to the national team, having been teammates in the U19 World Championships in 2015. The two guided Team Canada to a fifth-place finish.
Without question, the opportunity for these players to compete in a non-Crimson uniform has also solidified their relationships. In fact, there’s a push among the Canadian players for greater recognition of their national identity at Lavietes Pavilion.
“It’s been one of the running jokes on our team,” Amaker said. “They are putting it on my shoulders that we need to have the Canadian flag with the American flag.”
Regardless of this infusion of “True North” pride, the team must put aside national loyalties this year as it searches for a new team identity. After losing former captains Siyani Chambers ’17 and Zena Edosomwan ’16, there appears to be no definitive team leader.
In searching for a new torchbearer for this team, Amaker will certainly look towards Egi and other upperclassmen to continue to strengthen the on- and off-court chemistry for the Crimson.
“It’s just a matter of spending the whole summer just focused on getting the guys together, getting everybody motivated, and making sure everybody’s going to work.” Egi said. “Again—having that sense of urgency, having that hunger.”
In fostering this type of camaraderie and determination, Harvard may benefit from looking to the last line of the Canadian national anthem: “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”
The Crimson look to elevate its brand of basketball this season. In this discovery of a new identity, the team’s Canadians will play a crucial role as important guardians of this program.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at email@example.com.