This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.
The cramped court at Falstaff Community Centre in the shadow of Toronto’s Jane-Finch corridor is where all of Brady Heslip’s apparent advantages slipped away.
His comfortable home in Burlington didn’t matter. His father’s flourishing finance career didn’t matter. His status as the scion of one of Canada’s first families of basketball—national team legend Jay Triano is his uncle; his father, Tom, was a CIS All-Canadian—was irrelevant.
He was 13 and the only pudgy, short, white kid trying out for Grassroots Elite Canada, the AAU team that has launched some of the best players in Canada’s emerging wave of basketball talent. Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph ran with Grassroots. Andrew Wiggins got his start there. They’re all in the NBA now. Even then the gym was stacked with kids faster, stronger and bigger than Heslip. “He stuck out like a sore thumb,” says Grassroots founder Ro Russell. “Guys were looking at him going, ‘What is he doing here?’”
And then they started playing and Heslip’s shots started falling and the ultimate truth emerged: The basket doesn’t care how high you can jump; the ball doesn’t know how fast you are. Heslip’s touch was as precise as a watchmaker’s—he dropped triples like clockwork.
He made the team. For Heslip it was an introduction to the art of what is possible. “A little white guy going to Jane and Finch [to play] with Grassroots is where I realized I have to be tough to play this game,” he says.
Heslip has made a career of expectation-defying debuts. The short, pudgy kid grew to be six-foot-two. Cutting down on the sweets took care of the weight, but as he’s worked to get a Div. I scholarship, make the national team or, now, shoot his way into the NBA, the story remains the same: too small, too slow.
The ball hasn’t seemed to notice. He graduated from Baylor as the best three-point shooter in school history. In his first game with the Canadian senior men’s national team, he came off the bench to score 18 points—12 in the fourth quarter—and was named player of the game in front of his uncle, now the national team head coach. No matter how many tests he passes, though, doubts linger.
Heslip has wanted to play in the NBA since he was five, but when it was his turn this past summer, he went undrafted. He was offered a spot on the Minnesota Timberwolves’ summer league team, but just barely. In their first three games he played a total of 14 minutes and took one shot. The fourth game? They made him the starting point guard. His NBA dream was on the line. He hadn’t played a meaningful game in months, but it didn’t matter. He was back at Falstaff again. He shot four-of-five from three. He started the next game and shot three-of-five. “I just tried to stay ready and basically seize the opportunity,” he says.
Heslip was invited to Minnesota’s training camp, but they had 15 guaranteed contracts already, so there was no job to be had. Undeterred, he landed in the NBA Development League, playing for the Reno Bighorns, earning $18,000 for the season. He drilled 11 triples while scoring 40 points in his first game. In his fifth he set a league record for made threes. Playing in an uptempo system, Heslip led the D-League in scoring through his first seven games.
His coach argues Heslip is the greatest three-point shooter in the world. Hall of Famer Reggie Miller gave him love on Twitter. He got written up in the New York Times. The only one unimpressed by what he’s done is Heslip himself. “The ultimate goal is to make the NBA. The way I shoot the ball, I can help a team,” he says.
Heslip understands overcoming long odds. In early December he was one of the first inductees into the Grassroots Hall of Fame, something that no one predicted when he first stepped on the floor as a nervous 13-year-old. Now, as then, all he needs is a shot. History has shown he’ll make it.