How Canada’s Topflight Basketball Academy is teaching youth all the right moves

A basketball player wearing red runs with the ball.
Hassan Akram will attend Heritage College next season. Photo by Mike Carroccetto. 

By Devon Tredinnick

For Adriel Nyorha, March break was a bit of a mixed bag. Too sick to keep up with his passion for basketball, a Tuesday afternoon phone call was a much-needed pick-me-up.

“I got a scholarship offer,” said the six-foot-five high schooler, who was to be picked up from Arizona State University. “I’m overjoyed. Hopefully, this is just the beginning for me.”

Nyorha retold the story while sitting in basketball coach Tony House’s office at Notre Dame High School. He and the rest of his team from the Canada Topflight Academy (CTA) spent some after-school hours working on their game, all in preparation for an upcoming tournament in Toronto.

Despite Nyorha’s high emotions about a potential move to the States and some big upcoming games, illness has kept him down. He cradled a basketball in his arms, stressing how it was his first time holding one in a week. Safe to say, it wasn’t an easy break.

“Being away from basketball, it hurts me. That’s one thing I can’t live without.”

Nyorha was hopeful he should be ready for the tournament. And no matter what his future holds, he said his only concern is a team win.

“Obviously, at times, I’ve gone into selfish mode, but my teammates helped me realize I was being selfish and took me out of that hole. Every player goes through that phase,” he said. 

A basketball player wearing red dunks a ball into the net.
Dylan Kayijuka from Orleans will return to the program next year as a top player. Photo by Mike Carroccetto. 

It’s a mentality that seems consistent throughout the team, especially in Ayob Daniel, who explained why it’s so key, especially at this age.

“Individual success comes with team success,” Daniel explained, echoing words from Coach House. “How am I going to be successful if my team’s not successful?” 

Not to be fooled by any of their impressive height and athleticism, the players here are as young as they are mature. Although many of them are still finishing up high school, basketball is more than a game for these student-athletes.

That’s certainly the case for Daniel, who is from the Caldwell community, one of the rougher parts of town. “Pretty gang-related, but stayed focused, made sure I stayed on top of my basketball,” he said. 

Daniel said it’s hard to explain, but he feels like he’s got to do something to make his family and neighborhood proud. He said he sees basketball as a way to do it.

It’s a strong sense of responsibility, to be sure. Daniel explained that it comes from one person in particular.

“My mom. She raised six kids by herself and came to Canada by herself,” said Daniel, who’s the oldest sibling. “That’s why I can’t be getting distracted.” 

Daniel added that he’s had friends who’ve been shot or have gone to jail. He said it’s tough to see and gives him another reason to focus on his career in basketball, as he doesn’t want to end up like them. 

Coach House made similar remarks.

“I’ve had players that quit and ended up getting shot and almost killed,” he said, explaining how several players who join the CTA can be youth at risk or part of a marginalized community. 

It’s why he wants players to develop all around as people, not just as players. “My goal is that they graduate,” said House. “They’re student-athletes, in that order.”

Four men wearing red pose for a photo. Three of them are spinning basketballs. They are standing in a gym.
From left to right: Caylan MacLean, head coach Tony House, Ayob Daniel and Hassan Akram. Photo by Mike Carroccetto. 

 House also said he’s got kids from Richie Street and Hetherington. Many of these communities have their fair share of gangs, drugs, and murders, he said.

“I know some of my guys have seen it first-hand,” said House. “CTA is not just a life-changing opportunity. For some, it’s lifesaving.”

Youth is ripe within the CTA and not just between the players. The academy itself has been eight years old since last September. Before then, House spent 12 years being a father. The skills he learned then have translated well here, he said.

“Parenting has its challenges, like coaching,” he said. “I got three kids; here I’ve got 17,” House laughed. 

House added that every kid is different and needs their own approach to coaching. “You have to motivate people differently,” he said. “Who needs the kick in the butt, and who needs the hug?”

But what House will always preach to his team, he said, is what he wants for their communities.

“I want them to go back and be the heroes and role models. We need more young role models going back into those communities as athletes and student-athletes.” 

If those young men happen to land themselves a spot on a professional team, that’s great, said House. But what he’s looking for would last much longer.

“Be an example; set the example that if you go to school, focus on a sport, music, or something, be passionate about it, and stay away from the other stuff. I think that’s the biggest part.”

As for Daniel, his hopes for a future in basketball are as high as the ones for his family.

“My goal, my first thing, if I ever get blessed enough to get ahold of that type of money, is to buy my mom a house. Take care of her.”

When asked where he’d put her, Daniel’s answer was simple. “Wherever she wants.”

In the end, Canada Topflight Academy lost in the quarterfinals to J Addison, who then went on to win the tournament. The team had to play without Nyorha, who was still injured. 

“The basketball gods had other plans,” said House. “The future still looks bright.” 

A Black basketball player dunks a basketball into the net.
Sam Akot from London, Ont. Recently signed a full scholarship with NCAA D1 University of Buffalo. Photo by Mike Carroccetto. 

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