As soon as Vince Carter brought Vinsanity to Toronto, basketball began its meteoric rise in popularity amongst the city’s youth. This used to be a hockey city, a hockey country, but that is changing fast. And now that the Toronto Raptors are NBA champions? It is over. Basketball won. Now, parents are taking every opportunity to get their kids involved in the most popular game in town.
Like many young teenagers across the Greater Toronto Area, Elijah Fisher was at home watching the game on TV with friends and family when the Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship. But Fisher isn’t exactly like other teenagers. He’s mild-mannered, determined to take his academic studies seriously, doesn’t play video games and, well, for his age he is one of, if not the, top basketball player on the planet.
Fisher is a Crestwood Preparatory College student entering Grade 9 (although he already plays with the senior team).
“I’m a rising freshman,” he says, when we meet at the track behind the school during one of his coach Ro Russell’s summer workout sessions.
The team won the league championship last season and has since moved up to a more competitive league for the upcoming season.
Crestwood, like Orangeville Prep, allows for young basketball prodigies to stay close to home.
A decade ago, anyone who wanted a legit shot at landing a scholarship to a top American college and potentially a shot at the NBA needed to leave the country to play ball south of the border, at least for their senior year if not years before. But that’s changing.
“Now, it’s the same thing up here. There are prep schools; students live there, sometimes commute there; and they can still be serious about the game and get that benefit and work up here,” says Russell, a local legend who has coached the likes of NBA players Tristan Thompson and Corey Joseph. He runs the Crestwood basketball program and is also the founder of Grassroots Canada Basketball.
“Sometimes kids still need to go to America for camps, tournaments, international competition so they still get that exposure,” he adds.
Fisher, an Oshawa native, is one of elite basketball prospects at Crestwood, a number of whom receive financial aid to attend the private school. To continue, he needs to maintain a high level of academic success along with sporting success.
And Fisher seems to relish the opportunity he is getting at Crestwood beyond the basketball program.
“At my last school, they didn’t really care about me. They just put me in the system and said I can’t do this and that,” says Fisher. “Now, to get the opportunity to come here, teachers look at me differently and show me that I can actually do the work. They’ve helped me take my education even higher, to really strive for it.”
Fisher met Russell early in his development and soon started shuttling from Durham Region to the city’s west end where Russell held court at the Falstaff Community Centre near Jane and Finch.
Russell threw the 12-year-old Fisher on the court to compete against those just finishing high school or already in college.
“At first, I felt nervous,” says Fisher. “Coach pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey man, if you can’t play with these guys, I don’t know what to say.’ Then I just picked it up and started playing.”
With Crestwood as well as with the Grassroots Canada program, Fisher has travelled North America playing in top tournaments and showcase games in front of scouts from American colleges.
He’s already being pegged as the next great basketball phenom to come out of Canada even though he won’t be eligible to be drafted into the NBA until the draft class of 2023. It’s a lot for any youngster. But Fisher does not seemed fazed.
“My family and my friends around me always keep me level-headed, tell me to make sure my books are up,” he says.
Amongst his mentors, Fisher counts another young basketball player, Jahcobi Neath, who graduated from Crestwood and is entering his freshman year on a basketball scholarship to Wake Forest University.
Fisher isn’t the only kid on the block with physical gifts, and there is no telling for sure when he’ll stop growing, so Russell has him playing as a guard, even though he already towers over most everyone he plays against — a shift that was met with great appreciation by the youngster.
If he plays his cards right, Fisher could be the best basketball player to ever come out of Canada. But, for budding young ballers, he offers some simple advice: have fun.
“If you’re not having fun you’re not going to excel at it,” says Fisher. “If you go to a job you hate, you’re always going to bring this sucky attitude. Do something you love. There’s nothing like getting up and ready to go and be completely happy about it.”