By Stuart-Miller Davis
When Tony House founded Canada Topflight Academy (CTA) his goal was to give Ottawa kids a local option to play basketball at an elite level.
He found that top young players were frequently fleeing the city to find better options in the United States or Toronto.
“There wasn’t a local option for kids in Ottawa,” House said.
His vision, he added, was to create a high-level option in the community, “to give them an opportunity.”
The result since has been that most of Topflight’s graduating players have gone on to play at the post-secondary level, whether it be at college or university in Canada or in the NCAA or junior college in the U.S.
Topflight was Ottawa’s first basketball prep program and one of a collection that launched as part of the National Preparatory Association in 2016. The league’s teams mimic similar high school-age programs in the States that routinely produce high-level basketball prospects. In less than a half-decade, CTA has grown to include two senior men’s teams, a junior men’s team and a senior women’s team.
Topflight’s top-level men’s team won the NPA’s first two national championships.
The elite program that features a highly structured study, practice and play format comes with a $10,000 price tag per player, but it’s one that House said has never gotten in the way of barriers for underprivileged elite players. The academy offers scholarships and grants to offset certain costs, including one honouring House’s late father, George, who starred in basketball for Glebe Collegiate and Carleton University before coaching the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees for three seasons.
“I never wanted the financial part to come to stop a very special young man or woman,” House said. “A lot of families struggle financially, so CTA is committed and dedicated to assisting with a lot of aid and scholarship funding to these very deserving student athletes.”
House explained that financial aid is part of the academy’s recruiting as a high-level prep school. He said once they’ve identified and recruited a player, they find out what kind of person they are and then identify the financial need. While coaches and the academy’s board weigh in on the decision, it’s House who makes the final calls.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to really help a lot of athletes,” House said.
House said that 80 to 90 per cent of players coming through the program come from an African-Canadian background and is well aware of discrimination his players face off the court.
“We have to deal with systematic racism. We can’t just put our heads in the sand and say, ‘It’s not here and it’s not rampant in Canada, in Ottawa.’ It does exist,” House said. “We always have that chat about what it is to be a young black person in Ottawa.”
House said when he’s gone to restaurants with his basketball teams that he’s felt an ‘uncomfortable vibe.”
“Unfortunately, my guys have to be almost perfect because not only are they Black, but they are 6-8 and 6-9 intimidating guys who are loud and they just want to have some fun,” he said.
“There’s always that communication around them being Black and the potential for racism.”
House said the important thing in conversations he has with players about race is all based on relationships and team culture.
“I think it’s about making our players aware of it, but we’re kind of like a family,” he said. “We have open lines of communication and if anybody has an issue, we are family and we deal with it when we have to.”