Anthony Bennett busts barriers on path to NBA
Published Saturday, December 7, 2013 7:00PM EST
Late fall, in the dressing room of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, the players get ready to take to the court for the start of the exhibition season.
The first thing you notice is just how big they are. A couple of the players stand just under seven feet.
Most others, not much shorter. A young man crosses the room swinging to music being pumped through a large set of earphones clamped to his head. Compared to the other giants, he seems almost average, 6-foot-8, 256 lbs.
Yet there is one thing that sets him apart. He is this year’s number one NBA draft pick. In effect, the top basketball prospect in the world.
And for the first time ever, that number one is a Canadian.
His name is Anthony Bennett. His draft status made him an instant sporting celebrity. But with it comes a heavy weight of expectations, both from fans and a raucous sports media.
If a player selected 50th in the draft does not do well, it’s met with an, oh well.
If a number one draft pick does not do well, it is seen as a mistake.
But when W5 asked Bennett if he felt the pressure, he shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m just going to go out there and play hard,” he said. “If I score no points, if I score 10, don’t matter. I’m just going out there and give it my all.”
The Bennett story isn’t quite a rags to riches cliché. His family never experienced profound poverty. But he has come a very, very long way from his beginnings.
He grew up in a Toronto neighbourhood named after the nearest main intersection, Jane and Finch. Visitors there often comment on the highly developed sense of community, the spontaneous friendliness of residents. But it is difficult to argue with statistics.
Just this year alone, five youths from the area have been shot, four of them killed. The oldest was just 16 years old.
Jane and Finch is a tough and often violent neighbourhood. Street gangs have been part of the fabric of the area since before Anthony Bennett was born in 1993.
“It wasn’t a good area to grow up in,” Bennett said. “It was a lot of things going on that I saw with my own eyes. I know what’s good and what’s bad so I kind of tried to stay away from it all.”
If someone were to attempt to write a simple headline for the Bennett family story, it probably would go something like: “Immigrants build new life.”
It has a headline’s required brevity and accuracy. But it comes nowhere close to describing the kind of sacrifice the new life demanded. And all of it borne by Edith Bennett, the Jamaican immigrant and single mother of Sheldon, Danielle and the baby Anthony.
She raised her children in a modest apartment, always aware of the toll violence and drugs had taken, and continues to take on the area’s families and their mostly young men. She had qualified as a nurse and took two full-time jobs to try to save enough money to buy a house in a better neighbourhood.
She described to W5 a typical working day: “Seven o’clock I started working, finish one job at three, I go to the other job and start at three thirty, I finish at eleven thirty, get home at say a quarter to twelve. By the time I get ready for bed, it’s probably around one o’clock. Then I have to do the same thing next morning again, constantly, over and over again.”
She smiled while describing the brutal schedule, as if it were no great sacrifice. When asked how she managed, she dismissed the question saying, “I’m their mother. I’m supposed to do that.”
The hard work did pay off. Eventually, the family moved from Jane and Finch to a new home in Brampton on the edge of the city.
It was, and remains, a standard, middle-class suburban house, but such a stark contrast from what they had left, that the then-ten-year-old and very excited Anthony ran through the rooms shouting, “Mom, it’s a mansion.”
Anthony was already an avid basketballer, having spent long hours after school and on weekends playing on an outdoor court near his old home. When he entered high school in Brampton, he began to receive solid coaching. He was also growing quickly and was soon bigger and much better than anyone else.
With his mother’s reluctant permission, he accepted a scholarship to high school in the United States where he could improve his basketball. That led to another scholarship to the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. He became a star, and the focus of national attention from the talent scouts who scour American campuses for basketball talent.
And then last June, history was made when the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him number one in the draft, the first time a Canadian ever had achieved the top rank.
“That night was the strangest for me,” Bennett said. “It was just a mixture of emotions, I was happy, excited, a little part of me was shocked. You know, it’s a big thing, what it represents for the country and the city. That whole night was real special for me, especially my mom.”
In fact when his name was announced, his mother was sitting next to him, along with other family members, all dwarfed by the size of a now famous young man. “All I did was laugh and clap my hands,” she said, “Knowing that Anthony number one making it easier for Canada, coming from a little humble family like us, you know it’s a good feeling, an awesome feeling.”
The family may have been surprised, and many basketball commentators were too. But there are a few who believed it was about time.
Canada, rightfully, is proud of its hockey history and supremacy. But the label of Canada as a one sport country is not accurate. Among the many signs of what has been happening can be found in the NBA’s history. In the nearly 70 years since it began, 23 Canadians have made it to the league. But nearly half of them are playing right now.
One of them is veteran Steve Nash, an NBA all-star, the general manager of the men’s national basketball team and long considered the greatest basketballer Canada has ever produced.
He told W5, “We’re going through a terrific cycle right now as far as our talent reaching the NBA. Canadians are highly touted and highly sought after by Division 1 coaches in the States now. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen that become more and more clear. There’s no hiding. Coaches know Canadian kids have talent.”
In fact, history may be about to be repeated. Andrew Wiggins is an 18-year-old from Toronto who plays right now for the University of Kansas. He is widely considered to be the best player for his age in the world and is also widely predicted to be next year’s number one draft pick.
Who could have predicted that two years in a row, Canadians would be basketball’s top prospects.
Jack Armstrong coached top tier American college basketball for 14 years. Today, he is a basketball commentator, and often asked about the rise of the sport in Canada.
“It is a sensational development,” he told W5. “And I just think it shows how you look at a kid like Anthony Bennett, you look at a young man like Andrew Wiggins, the game has grown dramatically here. So to see where it’s come from in the past 26 years from my experience as a coach and now as a broadcaster here, it is just remarkable.”
Yet internationally, Canada is not a basketball force. The last time it won an Olympic medal was Berlin 1936. That is nearly 80 years ago.
Right now, the national team is ranked 26th in the world. But with interest growing and the rise of a talented generation of young players, Armstrong believes the country may be on the verge of greatness.
“Why not,” he said. “Because who’s to say that we have 11, 12, 13 year olds right now that are just starting to get the bug for basketball. This sport has amazing potential. And I think the signature moment of Anthony Bennett being the number one pick is just a starting point. And it’s just going to get better.”
So too for Bennett’s family. Over the next three years, he will earn more than $16 million. If he is a success, subsequent salary rises can be dramatic.
During a recent visit to Toronto, Bennett acknowledged a debt to his mother. “She has played a big part it this success,” he said. “I got this opportunity to play basketball for you know, a certain amount of money. I can take care of myself. I can take care of her. I can take care of other family members too.”
It would be nice to say now that the rest is history. But it isn’t. The NBA is the richest, most competitive and toughest basketball league in the world. Getting there is difficult enough. Staying there is even tougher.
Anthony has begun the season as a bench warmer, and when he does get into games, his play has been inconsistent at best.
Before he stepped on to the court that night in Cleveland for his first exhibition game, coach Mike Brown told W5 that the team’s youngest player, “still has a ways to go. We’re going to ease him into his role here very gingerly.”
But he added that Anthony does show “flashes of why he was the number one pick.”