Team’s legacy remains unmatched nearly decade later
By Jose Colorado for On Point Basketball
G.O.A.T – the greatest of all time.
It is an inescapable acronym and discussion in sports. Wins-losses, player personnel, team dynamics, talent of the era – all of these categories are commonly used by analysts and sports historians to determine the absolute best in their field.
Yet regardless of the criteria, and years after putting together back-to-back Ontario high school championship titles, the 2008 Pickering Trojans men’s basketball team is adamant they can undoubtedly claim the audacious title.
“If we weren’t missing players, we would have never lost a game,” said former head coach Jim Barclay, whose team went 70-2 in 2008. “There was just no way we were losing games with everyone playing.
“Absolutely, that has to be the greatest Canadian high school team of all time.”
Unable to find a consistent challenger in Canada, the Pickering Trojans often found themselves employing imaginative measures to test their team’s mettle, including one weekend where the club loaded up a pair of minivans and drove down to the Kitchener-Waterloo region, splitting the bench players from the starters to compete in two separate tournaments.
They went home with both trophies.
“Coaches would actually come to our practices more often than the games to watch the guys play,” Barclay said, who noted Bill Self (University of Kansas) and Tubby Smith (Texas Tech) as two memorable visitors.
“It was usually blowouts so the starters would only play half the game – sometimes less – this was a better way to get a look for them.”
Before Barclay’s powerhouse took form in 2008, it was coaching legend Ron Parfitt who patrolled the sidelines for 32 years at Pickering. Prior to Barclay taking over, the now retired educator developed the groundwork for a strict culture of discipline, excellence and perfection that ultimately translated into one of the most winning and storied teams the Durham region had ever seen culminating in the first of the Provincial championships in 2006-2007.
In an era when American coaches and media outlets paid little attention to ballers north of the border, five players from the 2008 championship year accepted NCAA Division 1 scholarships following their careers at Pickering: Devoe Joseph, Cory Joseph, Jonathan Tull, Dwayne Smith, and Juevol Myles.
It was a historically significant moment for Canadian basketball, but one that ultimately could have been much more given the talent said some former members in hindsight.
“One of my greatest regrets with that team is we didn’t play any American teams – we could have given them a run for their money,” said Smith, the six-foot-six robust power forward who originally transferred from West Hill High School alongside Myles.
“We should have done a lot more with that team (for Canadian basketball). I don’t think the coaches grasped the opportunity they had at hand.”
“It just made you think – at that time not many American coaches were coming to Ontario, let alone week after week, but we had that,” added Tull, the starting small forward who accepted a scholarship to Central Connecticut State.
Regardless of whether the team’s influence was underutilized or not, the opportunities and surging popularity of the sport is clear when hanging around the same gyms, media events, and stomping grounds as the former Trojans for an entire summer.
The grandiose unveiling of the inaugural Nike Crown League at Jarvis Collegiate on July 3 where Myles, Smith and the Joseph brothers found themselves regularly throughout the summer provided the first stark example.
Massive Nike posters hung from the walls, players in head-to-toe sponsored apparel, renowned media members lending their time – Canadian basketball simply commands more attention worldwide now; the humbling result of the groundwork laid down by the Pickering team’s contributions in the mid-2000s to break deeply-held stereotypes against Canadian players according to its former members.
“Scouts thought we were soft coming from Canada,” said Tull. “That identity quickly changed and it’s still progressing today – we really just opened everyone’s eyes.”
“Now it’s more credible to talk about our record (to Americans) especially considering the uprising of Canadians in the NBA,” added Smith.
When digging into the history books, the Trojans’ legacy reflects even more favourably considering they had to defeat the most successful basketball program in Ontario history – Eastern Commerce – on consecutive occasions to accomplish their feat.
While other opponents quavered at the sight of the Trojans, schools like Eastern Commerce, Father Henry Carr and Mother Teresa always proved to be more than formidable foes with their own potent array of D1-ready players.
“That team was talented and was definitely a powerhouse but that was it,” said former Eastern Commerce Head Coach Kevin Jeffers.
“Two years does not warrant those claims (of the greatest team of all time).”
The history books will always mark Parfitt and Barclay’s teams as back-to-back champions, but it should also be noted that the defining moments of those historic runs – the championship games – saw the Trojans barely squeak by – first by five points, then one against the Saints.
The Trojans did have teams who could match them – but only on some nights, and not consistently enough.
Devoe Joseph, the man behind the iconic step back jumper that lifted Pickering to a 47- 46 victory in the championship rematch, was the driving force in Pickering’s regular separation from its opponents said the coaches.
Big talent typically brings about big egos with the Trojans being no exception. And for Barclay, whose back-to-back championship teams only had five players not play post-secondary basketball, it was the now brash guard’s ruthless competitiveness that ultimately set the tone, forcing others to match him.
“Devoe was our guy – everyone knew that. He was going to get his – he was just so competitive,” said Barclay. “But – honestly – my main job was to facilitate egos and getting guys to buy into their roles. There wasn’t that much coaching happening, they were just so talented.”
On multiple occasions players exchanged haymakers in practice, typically with Joseph in the thick of things said Barclay. Teammates would purposely switch practice squads until matched up against one of their most heated adversaries with the combo guard being the main bulls-eye at times. He even got into a memorable mid-game scrap with starting power forward, Justin Wiltshire, at one point
But it was exactly that ‘never-back-down attitude’ despite the odds that allowed Joseph to conquer the biggest moment of the team’s existence in the dying seconds against Eastern Commerce.
Now, as Joseph trained at the Ashton Bee Centennial College courts in mid-June nearly a decade later, it was evident that not much had changed in the ways of his competitive fire.
Following a revolving-game of one-on-one in the sweltering gym, the six-foot-three baller was berating one of the younger players on the sideline for pulling out of a drill after losing three straight games.
“Soft” he repeatedly said in his expletive-filled rant.
He couldn’t fathom the idea of willingly bowing out of a competition without a win.
It was a telling exchange that provided a brief glimpse into just how fierce Joseph and the Trojans’ practice environment may have been for curious American onlookers.
As grown adults though, all the former members appeared to consider any past differences as water under the bridge, chalking it up to ‘intensity’ and a ‘desire to win.’
Myles, Smith, and the Joseph brothers all play professionally, with Tull now in his final year of eligibility at the University of Regina where he transferred a couple of years ago.
So while many players ultimately catapulted the cutthroat environment at Pickering into successful basketball careers and an assortment of future opportunities and successes, some on the team(s) simply were not in the same position based on unfortunate timing.
‘Bench warmers’ encompass any sports team journey but when you’re riding the pine for one of the most historically dominant experiences in Canadian basketball history – the title begins to blur into an oxymoron.
“The bench guys just got a ton of minutes and exposure from all the blowouts but at the same time they must have seen the team dynamics,” said Barclay, who noted his first four players off the bench in 2008 as having successful Canadian college careers.
“I think the really good guys knew they were going on in basketball and I think some of those bench players knew this was as far as basketball was taking them.
“But I mean, my god, I know they are mature enough to understand after the fact that winning a high school basketball championship isn’t the highlight of their lives. I’m not worried about them.”
Devoe Joseph’s game winning shot in 2008 for back-to-back OFSAA titles courtesy Scorpunox MCEE:
While Barclay ‘occasionally’ runs into his former players, he can’t help but keep tabs on Joseph’s younger brother, Cory, who was recently thrust into the national spotlight.
Often overshadowed by his older sibling, Cory signed a historic $30 million deal with his hometown Toronto Raptors in early July following a four-year stint with the San Antonio Spurs.
Now the reserved point guard finds himself leading one of the world’s budding basketball nations as the country’s new young wave of talent attempts to qualify for the 2016 Olympics – a feat not accomplished in 15 years. Unfortunately Canada will have to play in 1 of 3 Olympic qualifying tournaments in July next year after failing to qualify at the recently completed FIBA Americas Championship in Mexico City, Mexico.
“Cory was great for our team. The thing with him was he was young – he started in grade 10 at point guard for two years – but he was great at distributing the ball to people,” said Barclay. “He really knows how to pick his spots – obviously he’s in the NBA now.”
Now as the coaches spread across the overhanging weight room floor at Ashton Bee, Joseph’s winning pedigree – that includes two Ontario titles, two American prep school championships and an NBA ring – teeters between a loving fondness to a slight annoyance.
“Here was a guy who was a part of the best team in Canada coming off back-to-back championships and he decided his best opportunity to make it would still be through the states,” said Barclay, who noted Joseph transferring to Findlay Prep (Nev.).
“He was such a high-profile player in Ontario so once he made it, everyone started following him and it completely eroded the quality of the game in Ontario.”
Joseph’s decision ultimately reveals a key factor – other than simply talent – of why the accomplished coach is convinced a similar team may never be replicated again.
“If you’re a big guy now or even remotely talented there’s just no thought anymore. You’re gone, going (the American prep school route).”
2007-2008 (Record: 70-2, starters in bold)
00 Dwayne Smith
3 Delroy Thomas
5 Cory Joseph
11 Jhedon MacPherson
12 Jameel Williamson
13 Ricardo Chung
15 Ken Nkrumah
22 Natiel McKenzie
23 Juevol Myles
24 Jonathan Tull
25 Jamal Bucknor
30 Justin Wiltshire
33 Liban Hassan
34 Devoe Joseph
Photos 1 & 3 Courtesy of Jim Barclay Photo 2 Courtesy of Crown Magazine
Photos 4,5 & 6 Courtesy of On Point Basketball
Edited by Drew Ebanks