December 6, 2023


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How UPlay Canada helped Gilgeous-Alexander and other NBA stars

5 min read
How UPlay Canada helped Gilgeous-Alexander and other NBA stars

Tucked into a Brampton industrial strip, where the rows of warehouses and auto repair companies blend together, sits a basketball gym that has quietly shaped a generation of Canadian NBA talent.

While the unassuming facility on Rutherford Road feels almost impossible to find — save for the young kids walking in with their parents, ready to train — it’s the current home for UPlay Canada, a grassroots basketball program where several NBA stars got their start.

Posters of NBA all-star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and New York Knicks forward RJ Barrett, two of the dozen success stories UPlay Canada has had over the years, hang inside the left and right side of its front doors. Other notable talents include Portland guard Shaedon Sharpe, Indiana guard Andrew Nembhard, Orlando guard Caleb Houstan and Milwaukee guard Lindell Wigginton.

Twenty-three players in the NBA last season were born or raised in Canada, with more than a quarter of those players UPlay Canada alumni. Over the last seven years, the program has had four of its players selected in the lottery of the NBA draft.

Leonard Miller from Scarborough is projected to be a first-round pick at the upcoming NBA Draft.

UPlay Canada is set to see another alumnus reach the NBA with Scarborough’s Leonard Miller expected to be selected late in the first round in the draft Thursday night. Miller will be the seventh player drafted since 2018 from UPlay Canada.

“I would describe it as a brotherhood. Most of the players that have come through UPlay Canada help and support the younger generation coming up,” Sharpe told the Star. “They support the younger guys and help each other try to get to the next level. We just wanted to get to the same place they’re at, which is the league.”

UPlay, which stands for United Public Leadership Academy for Youth, started in 2007 with the goal of creating future leaders and as a way to get students scholarships through sports.

It began when Dwayne Washington arrived in Canada in 2004 to pursue a doctorate of education, then settled in Hamilton to become a high school teacher. Washington grew up in The Bronx, New York, and learned basketball from Rod Strickland, who played 17 seasons in the NBA and was from the same project building. The 46-year-old Washington saw a lack of resources and access for kids to play basketball at a high level in Hamilton.

Dwayne Washington started UPlay after he saw a lack of resources and access for kids to play basketball at a high level in Hamilton.

“I knew that you can teach and coach, it goes hand and hand, and I thought it was something I would like,” Washington said. “I sacrificed a lot of money initially because I figured I could impact the lives of kids.”

One of those kids was Gilgeous-Alexander. Before the Oklahoma City guard became a first all-NBA team player with the Thunder, he was an eighth grader walking into the UPlay Canada gym with his mother. Gilgeous-Alexander played with UPlay Canada for more than four years. But it was when he transferred schools in Grade 10 to Sir Allan MacNab, where Washington was teaching, that he separated himself from the majority of his competition.

The Hamilton kid picked up a daily routine he learned from UPlay Canada alumnus Francis Kiapway, who grew up in Parkdale before moving to Hamilton.

“If there was no UPlay, I wouldn’t have played basketball,” Kiapway said. “I definitely would’ve been in the streets, I tell you that much.”

Kiapway went on to play NCAA basketball at Ball State University in Indiana and finished third in school history in threes made in a season. Before he went off to the NCAA, he attended Sir Allan MacNab and took a young Gilgeous-Alexander under his wing.

Kiapway left Gilgeous-Alexander with a routine that consisted of waking up at 6 a.m. and going to the local YMCA to work out. After that, he’d meet with Washington to get a training session in before his morning classes.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives to the basket while Nickeil Alexander-Walker of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends in the third quarter of the NBA play-in game in April.

“It’s kind of where that started (for me),” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They really teach you how to play the game of basketball the right way. I think that’s something that’s a little bit lost in the art of basketball growing up now. They were really big in my development.”

Washington’s lunch hours consisted of Gilgeous-Alexander sitting in his classroom, watching basketball tape on the pick and roll, and studying future teammate Chris Paul. His day didn’t end there, with practice after school and late night hours at the YMCA before finally heading home.

“What you see now is thousands of hours of hard work, but he was not (only) talented — unless you call extremely hardworking, and being resilient ‘talent,’ ” said Washington, who encouraged Gilgeous-Alexander to play his final two years of high school basketball in the U.S. “I call that a trait that he has. That’s who he is.”

UPlay looked to the U.S., too, becoming the only Canadian organization in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League in 2016, starting with a 16-and-under group. Established in 2010, the league features some of the top high-school-age players in the U.S.

“My first year playing was 16U and that’s when I started getting my (college scholarship) offers,” Nembhard said. “The best part about UPlay is it’s a big opportunity. You get to play in these circuits in front of all these big-time coaches and this is where you get the exposure to make the next step in basketball.”

The player who probably benefited the most is Sharpe. The London, Ont., native dominated the Nike circuit In the summer of 2021, leading in scoring with 22.6 points in just over 28 minutes per game.

Indiana Pacers' Andrew Nembhard drives to the basket in an April game against the New York Knicks.

He went from an unknown to becoming the No. 1 high school prospect before Portland selected him with the seventh pick in the 2022 draft.

Alongside Sharpe during his entire pre-draft process was Kiapway, who became a skills development trainer for UPlay after his collegiate career. The 28-year-old was invited by Washington to help train Sharpe through the NBA draft combine. It eventually led to Kiapway joining Sharpe in Portland full-time as his trainer.

When the Blazers shut down a majority of their starters to end the regular season, Sharpe’s work with Kiapway started to show. Sharpe averaged 23.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists over his last 10 games.

“I wasn’t surprised, I don’t think Shaedon was surprised,” Kiapway said. “There’s just so much behind the scenes he does that not a lot of people see. During that whole stretch, he was watching film, in the gym doing weight room and treatment. Every road game he was working out.”

For Washington, what he started as an opportunity for kids in Hamilton to play basketball at a high level has led to about 100 Canadians earning basketball scholarships, with a majority of those from Division I schools.

Shaedon Sharpe of the Portland Trail Blazers rises for a dunk during a game against the Houston Rockets in October.

While the results have been more than he could have imagined, the formula to UPlay’s success hasn’t changed.

“We’re just trying to use sport to help build the leaders of tomorrow,” Washington said. “Utilizing basketball and the sport that we love.”


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