Had the kid taken any other streetcar, things would’ve turned out differently.
Every Wednesday he’d board the 510 car southbound from Spadina station en route to the old University of Toronto Fieldhouse to practice high jump. At 6’7”, he was a natural in the high jump—his chosen sport— but Vladimir Matevski, a former member of the Macedonian Junior National Basketball team and President of Real Basketball Training in North Toronto, had something else in mind for the kid.
Matevski rode the same 510 streetcar to his men’s league basketball game at the U of T gym and by the third Wednesday he finally approached a then 14-year old Dwight Powell to inquire where he trained for hoops, he didn’t exactly get the response he wanted.
Powell explained that he played volleyball and high jump competitively, and that his only basketball experience was a brief stint with his Grade 9 team at Earl Haig Secondary School in North York, ON.
When Matevski tried to convince Powell’s mother that he should seriously pursue basketball, he was informed that a lot of post-secondary volleyball coaches were already pursuing her son. “I said, ‘There’s no way he’s going to play volleyball,’” recalls Matevski. “He’s going to end up in the NBA.”
And so Matevski took Powell under his wing. The kid was, to put it mildly, a project in the truest sense. “There was not a lot of skill, I’ll tell you that,” Matevski says.
Yet throughout that grade nine year, Powell showed interest—and determination—in getting better. The pair would work out as many as three times a day, Matevski putting Powell through a physically grinding process that would eventually become part of his pupil’s trademark.
Nothing has ever come easy for Dwight Powell. When he talks about “relentless work” he’s not spitting out a recycled cliché—it’s the phrase that has defined his ascent to the NBA, one that Powell himself never saw coming.
In the years since he dedicated himself to basketball, Powell’s skills—and frame—grew rapidly. Within four years he had earned a scholarship to Stanford and parlayed a full four-season collegiate career into an NBA Draft selection, chosen 45th overall in 2014 by the Charlotte Hornets.
In less than six months, Powell was traded three times: from Charlotte to Cleveland to Boston, all before the start of his rookie season in 2014-15.
“It’s still a strange feeling,” says Powell, 24, days before Tuesday’s game in Toronto between his fourth NBA team, the Dallas Mavericks, and his hometown Raptors, “to have someone say they’re going to let you go and they’re going to go their own way.”
“In this league you get paid a lot of money to compensate for the fact that there are a lot of things in your life that, as a result of being an NBA player, are out of your control,” he says. “Travel schedule, where you live, how much time you get to spend with your family. So when you sign up, that’s part of the deal.”
This past summer, Powell’s profile among Canadian fans skyrocketed thanks to a meaningful role coming off the bench for the senior men’s national team at the FIBA Americas tournament in Mexico City. Having seen next to no court time as a rookie in the NBA last season, the summer afforded him another opportunity to get better.
“That’s the only way you can develop: to play against players who are more experienced and more skilled than you,” he says. “To not only play in that environment but to have my country on my chest, playing for our collective dream to make it to the Olympics, gave me even more fuel to work even harder. It helped me tremendously transitioning from last year to this year.”
Though he hasn’t started yet this season for the Mavericks, he’s averaging just under 19 minutes a game and making an impact on the floor. He notched his first career double-double against the Raptors in November, and his versatility in different scenarios on the court is something he’s proud of.
Willing to do whatever his coaches ask of him, Powell now waits, patiently, for his moment to shine. “When opportunities are there I can take advantage of them,” he says. After a tumultuous start to his career, Powell taking nothing for granted.
He’s the same gym rat that spent countless hours in the lab developing and refining his abilities, to prove Matevski and every coach that ever took a chance on him right. These days, he’s had to fight tooth and nail to earn playing time and the trust of the Mavericks coaching staff. It’s too early to determine how the story of Dwight Powell will play out.
While we’re waiting, he will be working.