Free summer basketball league rebounds after 2-year pandemic hiatus

Faqrudin Ali says he got “stuck on” summer league basketball when he was a kid, following in his older brother’s footsteps. Now Coach Turtle, as the kids call him, has seen generations of players move on and grow thanks to the free league over the decade he’s been giving pointers.

That is until COVID put the games on hold.

“It’s been really tough, just seeing the kids not play for two years,” he said. “Not only on their physical aspect, but mentally, emotionally.”

So, when the league’s co-ordinator announced summer league was back this year, the reaction was swift.

“Once he said, ‘Hey, boys the summer league is back,’ all the kids got happy — everybody was happy,” said Ali, who coaches for the Bellevue team in the Caldwell neighbourhood.

Players in the free youth league have their costs, including transportation to games, covered by the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, which runs some teams out of their clubhouses.

Others, including powerhouse teams like Ritchie, Ramsey and Bellevue are connected to community housing neighbourhoods.

Faqrudin Ali, known to players past and present as Coach Turtle, says his older brother got him involved in summer league basketball, first as a player, and for the last 10 years as a coach. ‘Seeing my older brother work in the community and him making a difference for the youth in the community … motivated me to give back.’ (Anchal Sharma/CBC)

The talk of the town

For Kian Nejad, who also played when he was a kid and now oversees the league, it was a relief to be able to finally tell the kids games were back this year.

“It is the talk of the town. The one thing that kids talk about is summer league,” he joked, adding it was difficult to explain to the 17- and 18-year-olds that the pandemic made them lose out on those last years of play.

“I can see in their eyes genuinely when they’re asking me, ‘Can I play?’ I’m like, ‘No, you’re too old’…. You could feel true hurt in their eyes.”

Bellevue and Ritchie faced off in a recent game in Ottawa’s west end. The two are considered rivals and often meet at the end-of-summer championships. According to Coach Turtle, Bellevue’s senior boys are undefeated so far this season. (Jean-Jacques Ngandu)

Nejad notes the league is especially important for those who might not have the means to play organized sports.

“I think it’s a life-changing thing for some kids here,” he said, explaining that a number of basketball players, as well as participants in the program’s soccer, hockey and other year-round leagues have gone on to play at the university level or professionally overseas.

For Terence Brown, number 13 in the red jersey, summer league means he gets to be on the court with people from his community. (Jean-Jacques Ngandu)

From summer league to next level

That includes former summer league player Duranay Atikullahi, 27, who went on to play professionally in Dubai and for Afghanistan’s national team. He said he comes to the games to cheer for kids who might be struggling after COVID.

“Being in their shoes, no sports for two years is hard. That’s why I’m coming here and supporting the community.”

Former player Jordan Mukenga took a break from Laurentian University’s training camp to drop by a recent game. 

‘I came back for a week and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to check out Bellevue and see how they’re doing this year. And then catch up with Turtle,'” said Mukenga, who, like many in the crowd, credited the coach for getting him into basketball in the first place.

“Just being in here brings a lot of memories … sitting down on the bench, seeing the young players. I know what they’re going through and how they feel.”

Former Bellevue player Jordan Mukenga says summer league and Coach Turtle helped him become the player he is today. He took a break from Laurentian University’s training camp to drop by a recent senior boys’ game. (Anchal Sharma/CBC)

Former player turned hip-hop artist Shymar Brewster — who raps under the name Lindasson — said he makes time every week to cheer because he remembers what a difference playing made for him.

“It gave me something to do. Knowing the area I grew up in, there wasn’t much to do. There’s a lot of trouble to get into,” he said.

“But the summer league gave me an opportunity to go and relieve anger, leave whatever I was going through on a basketball court and be with my friends that I grew up with.” 

A number of those in the crowd credit Coach Turtle (in the black hoodie with the white logo, second from right), with getting them into basketball and shaping them into the players they’ve become. (Jean-Jacques Ngandu)

‘I’m just happy for summer league to be back…. Feels great and more people out in the community now,’ says Bellevue player Terence Brown. (Anchal Sharma/CBC)

For 14-year-old Geoffrey Okol, just watching is fun.

“It’s entertaining. It gets intense afterwards … and the effort is like, out of this world. I’m just overall proud to watch this type of basketball and hoping to be one of them when I grow up.”

For Kian Nejad, who played summer league when he was a kid and now oversees the league as the Boys and Girls Club’s youth development program specialist, ‘it’s beautiful to be back’ after two years, adding ‘this is the best league in Ottawa in the summer. Everyone in the city knows that.’ (Anchal Sharma/CBC)

‘Beautiful sight’

For Nejad, there’s nothing better than the “beautiful sight” of a packed Thursday night at the gym, with players and supporters from neighbourhoods across the city coming together for the love of the game.

“Because you often hear about all the negative things that are spotlighted in the city on the news. This neighbourhood, this neighbourhood, this neighbourhood. But you know what, I see all those neighbourhoods in my building right now and I see no issues. Everyone’s having fun laughing, playing basketball,” he said.

“I would love anybody that ever feels any sort of way about any neighbourhood to come in this building, see what I see and realize our city is a lot safer than they think it is.”

Regulars say the gym is often packed for free summer league games because it’s fun to watch. (Jean-Jacques Ngandu)

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