When Ro Russell first started taking his Grassroots Canada squad to the U.S. for AAU tournaments back in 1992, it wasn't exactly first class.
Operating on a shoestring budget, Russell would have to save most his money for tourney entry fees. So he packed the kids and their generic reversible jerseys into a couple of minivans and put at least four to a room at a discount motel.
When people found out the team came from Canada, there would be plenty of puzzled looks and strange questions. Russell would tell the skeptics that his players' hometown has more in common with NYC than some far off hinterland.
"Toronto is very urban with a real big downtown area," he says. "If someone landed in Toronto, they wouldn't notice they were in a different country."
These days, there's still the odd query about living in igloos, but nobody doubts the talent of Russell's squad. His team became the first non-American group to win the adidas Super 64 in Las Vegas in 2008 and has become one of the best AAU teams anywhere.
As a result, the 2009 squad travels in style, sleeping two to a room and wearing fresh adidas gear. They play in the best tournaments and attract the biggest names in college coaching.
"I always tell people basketball was founded by a Canadian so we're going to try to bring it back a little bit," Russell says.
This Friday night, three of Russell's stars will do their part when they play in the fourth annual Boost Mobile Elite 24 at New York's legendary Rucker Park. The Elite 24 is the only basketball event that features the 24 best ballers from U.S. high schools regardless of class year, shoe affiliation or, in these three rare cases, nationality.
Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) senior Tristan Thompson will be participating in his second Elite 24, while fellow Findlay Prep senior Cory Joseph and St. Benedict's Prep (Newark, N.J.) junior Myck Kabongo will make their Rucker debuts.
This trio has played together under Russell for three years and reached the peak of the prep game. They're in line to become the latest Grassroots Canada ballers to go to Division I programs in the U.S.
At 6-foot-3, Joseph is a prototypical point guard who's rated the No. 30 player in the ESPNU 100. The 6-foot-2 Kabongo is an explosive combo guard who checks in at No. 18 in the ESPNU Super 60. Last but not least, the 6-foot-9 Thompson is a dynamic big man who's No. 11 in the ESPNU 100.
"We always say that without Cory and Tristan, there's no Myck," Kabongo says. "Without Cory and Myck, there's no Tristan. And without Tristan and Myck, there's no Cory."
That may be the case during the AAU season, but for high school ball they haven't been able to suit up together since coming stateside for school. Thompson and Joseph led Findlay Prep to the championship at the inaugural ESPN RISE National High School Invitational this past spring and subsequently earned the No. 1 ranking in the ESPN RISE FAB 50.
Thompson and Kabongo both committed to Texas and could reunite in two years, while Joseph has offers from schools like Georgetown, Arizona, Louisville and Ohio State.
Texas isn't a frontrunner for Joseph's services, but who knows with these three. When they take the court together on the summer circuit, they're determined to rep Canada strongly.
"We always play with a chip on our shoulder," Kabongo says. "We always feel we have something to prove."
They'll take that same mentality to the Rucker on Friday, trying to rep Canada on the biggest streetball court in the U.S.
"There are a lot of stereotypes about basketball in Canada," Russell says. "People tell us they didn't know they played basketball in Canada. It's great to see because when we step on the court they get educated really fast."
What better classroom than America's streetball mecca?
Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.