Daisy Lucassie is practically doing backflips, she’s so excited about her new basketball shoes.
The 17-year-old from Aupaluk, Que., is one of 15 Nunavik youth invited to fly 1,500 kilometres south to a 10-day basketball camp in the Montreal area.
“It’s exciting to see some youth getting better at playing basketball,” said Lucassie, who says her favourite NBA player is Ja Morant.
For Elix Verrault of Kangirsuk, Que., it’s a tossup between Kyrie Irving and Luca Dončić. Verrault, 13, says playing in the NBA is his dream and he’s ready to work hard for it.
“When [the ball] goes in, you get a lot of confidence in you,” said Verrault. “You feel like a beast.”
For Willis May, who’s a Giannis Antetokounmpo fan, the dream is simpler. The 18-year-old wants to coach kids in his community of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Que. He says basketball hasn’t caught on there yet but joining this camp has inspired him.
“I’ve been the only one playing basketball in my own community and seeing other guys from other communities, it makes my day,” said May.
That positive influence is what it’s all about, said Russ Johnson, the co-ordinator of the Grind Now Shine Later (GNSL) Nunavik Basketball Camp. The Montrealer works as a coach and gym teacher in Aupaluk, where he says poverty, isolation, and mental health struggles make it hard for Inuit youth to dream big.
But Johnson says the resilience and character of those who came down for the camp has blown him away.
“All of this is an amazing story, these kids impress me every single day,” said Johnson. “I think that what we’re trying to build is hope, that’s really what it comes down to. I grew up in a place where student-athletes, that’s just a normal term here. In the north it is not a normal term, and it needs to be a normal term.”
Johnson says interest in basketball grew quickly after he began a community basketball night in Aupaluk a couple of years ago. He says after requests from local youth, he found a community-based wellness organization in Kuujjuaq, Que., willing to fund a trip south for a camp, which included about $60,000 for flights alone.
“We’re pretty indebted to the fact that Inuit take care of their own up there,” said Johnson. For now, the camp is a pilot project, but he hopes it will become a regular event.
Joseph provides star power
In addition to lots of basketball and sightseeing, the GNSL camp includes two training sessions at the Kahnawake Youth Center with former NBA player Kris Joseph.
Joseph, who originally hails from Côte-des-Neiges and counts Johnson among his childhood basketball coaches, says he’s getting as much out of it as the kids.
“One of the main things I always wanted, even before playing professionally and making money playing this sport, was always to give hope to the next generation, give hope to my community, and give hope to the kids in and around the city of Montreal,” said Joseph.
As for his advice to those in the camp, Joseph says it’s all about fundamentals, and sharing some of his experiences.
“I’ve been in the fire, I’ve gotten burned by the grease, that’s what the kids want,” said Joseph.