Jones: Jamaica’s large impact on basketball

Anthony Bennett was selected first overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, and sports Jamaican heritage. (AP/Craig Ruttle)

There has always been a strong Jamaican connection to the Greater Toronto Area. In fact there is a high population of Jamaicans that reside in the GTA and stake a distinctive claim to certain areas of Ontario’s capital region. Just walk a strip of Eglinton Avenue in Toronto between Marlee and Oakwood Avenues and you will see exactly what I am talking about.

As a Jamaican-born Canadian, I have always heard about the feats of athletic prowess from the small Caribbean island. But please don’t insult Jamaicans and call the island “small”.

Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Greater Antilles and Jamaicans regularly refer to inhabitants of any other island, with the exception of the two that are bigger than they are, as “small island people”.  If you are fortunate enough to understand patois, Jamaica’s own dialect with its distinct accent and cadence, you may even make out the phrase “dem likkle small island mon” in reference to people on the other islands.

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Most of the athletic feats from my country of birth centre on track and field. In fact, while working at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, an elderly gentleman looked me in the eye and brazenly remarked, and I have translated the patois for you here as he said, “I know your dad”.

He proved it by calling my father a nickname that only his closest friends knew about and rarely used. After chatting briefly I realized one of my father’s many stories had come to life in front of me at Olympic Stadium. I found myself standing face to face with a classmate of his, Herb McKenley, who had won a total of four medals in the 1948 Olympiad in London and the subsequent 1952 Games in Helsinki.

Yes we know all about Jamaica’s proficiency on the track with names like McKenley, Arthur Wint, George Rhoden, Donald Quarrie, Ray Stewart, Merlene Ottey, and recently Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake, Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Veronica Campbell-Brown and notably Usain Bolt. But the island has also given rise to the Jamaican bobsleigh team and the soccer squad known on the world stage as the “Reggae Boys”. Other prominent athletes of Jamaican descent include boxers Trevor Berbick, Frank Bruno and a young man that went to high school in Waterloo, Ont., before becoming heavyweight champion of the world, Lennox Lewis.

Some of the Jamaican national basketball team will feel right at home as they venture into Toronto for a couple of exhibition games against Canada and they too, like many other countries, can utter the bemusing question starting with the words “what if?”

Basketball is growing globally and Jamaica is no exception. What if they could get the majority of the Jamaican talent together? The country has had its share of track athletes that could have competed for Jamaica but instead as events would have it, they ran for other countries. Ben Johnson and Donovan Bailey are known to Canadians and Linford Christie won an Olympic gold for Great Britain in the 100m in Barcelona.

Basketball fans will recognize familiar names on the Jamaican roster.

Durand Scott was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year while playing for the University of Miami Hurricanes in 2013. Samardo Samuels from the University of Louisville had some time in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Jerome Jordan is another NBA-calibre player who will sport the Black, Green & Gold. Anyone that considers themselves a basketball fan will know the name Patrick Ewing. Yep, Jamaican but it’s not the once dominant ex-Knick that will be suiting up but instead his son, Patrick Ewing Jr.

“Patrick Sr. was terrific in facilitating his son being able to play with us,” commented Ajani Williams, the general manager of the Jamaican basketball team.

But there are other names of Jamaican heritage that could make the club stronger but circumstances have dictated otherwise, with regards to participation.

Indiana Pacer Roy Hibbert actually played for Jamaica but was seeking his release so he could play for the United States. Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond has Jamaican roots but was recently part of the USA Basketball’s Development Program in Las Vegas as the Americans try to nurture a new wave of young players to maintain Uncle Sam’s dominance on the world stage. What if Ben Gordon was in the line-up? And who knows what the future holds but it looks like another NBA player, Ryan Hollins may, in the future, wear a Jamaican uniform in competition.

But there are Jamaican connections to the Canadian team as well. Tyler Ennis, a cornerstone of the Canadian National Junior team, who will be attending Syracuse University this fall, has a brother, Dylan, who will suit up for Jamaica. The NBA’s first overall pick Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson as well as Jermaine Anderson, Jevohn Shepherd, Andrew Nicholson and Junior Cadougan will wear the Maple Leaf but all have Jamaican lineage. As Anderson, who is affectionately known as “Rock” laughed, when identifying the Jamaican-Canadians playing for Canada “we’ve adopted (Brady) Heslip too.”

Let’s not forget one of the decision-makers near the top for Canada, Rowan Barrett, executive vice-president and assistant general manager is yep, of Jamaican ancestry.

So as fans that take in the two contests over the next few days need to remember that the Caribbean Island that occupies a small part of the world map has a far reach when it comes to athletics in a number of sports.

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