By Madalyn Howitt
Having already experienced some of the exhilarating highs and disappointing lows of pursuing a career in basketball, Graddy Kanku has learned how to roll with the punches.
In the wake of an unpredictable year with limited opportunities for varsity-level athletes to play and develop, the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks guard was excited to take a significant step this summer toward his goal of becoming a professional basketball player.
An impressive run with the Ridgebacks in their inaugural season saw the Ottawa-raised guard named to the OUA’s 2019-20 all-rookie team. His early success made Kanku an obvious choice to join the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s U Sports program, which provides pro experience to 21 Canadian university basketball players.
In April, Kanku was drafted to play with his hometown BlackJacks for the summer and was looking forward to playing alongside pros including NBA and NBA G-League veterans, Canadian national team members and stars from other international leagues.
Yet when the BlackJacks tipped off on June 24 against the Niagara River Lions in their first game of the season, Kanku was not on the court with his fellow recruits.
“I had some problems at home [that made it difficult] for me to be there for the whole summer, so I had to withdraw from the program,” said Kanku, who had hoped to channel his increasing momentum in the sport and learn everything he could from the BlackJacks’ more experienced players. “I had a heart-to-heart conversation with them about my situation, and they’ll give me some time off to get right. I really appreciate the kind of care and love that they showed me,” he said of the team.
It’s an unfortunate bump in the road to a professional career in sports that would have shaken some other players — when unexpected personal circumstances sideline your dreams on the court, bouncing back from disappointment can deter even the most talented players. But the 22-year-old Kanku is used to overcoming adversity and still has his sights set on basketball stardom.
“I want to be specific about what I want, and that’s playing in the NBA,” Kanku said.
Kanku’s path to a career in sports wasn’t always clear. His parents emigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1990s, settling first in Montreal where Kanku was born and later moving to Ottawa. After dabbling in basketball throughout his childhood, Kanku finally started playing on organized teams when he was about 11 years old, playing with the Britannia Woods basketball program run by local coach and educator Emil O’Neill. The program was designed for disadvantaged youth to gain experience playing organized sports in the summers. O’Neill said Kanku showed early promise as not just a talented athlete but also as a role model for other young players.
“He’s had to overcome a lot of personal as well as systemic barriers to be where he is,” O’Neill said. “We started to see a player emerge that not many people were anticipating saw, and I was happy to help him develop.”
Even so, Kanku admitted it was tough at first to get his family on board with his ambitions.
“I don’t think my family quite took it seriously until I joined CTA (Canada Topflight Academy),” he said.
CTA is Ottawa’s team in the National Preparatory Association, which was founded in 2016 to be a Canadian alternative to U.S. private schools and academies, which have become an increasingly popular stepping stone to postsecondary and pro play for elite players.
Kanku said after seeing him play at an elite level, his mother Esther became very supportive of his dreams. “She started investing in me and was financing my time with CTA. That was tremendous, having that support from my mom.”
Kanku then briefly transferred to a school in Washington, D.C. for his final year of high school and to develop his skills as a player, but admits he doesn’t necessarily see himself pursuing basketball stardom stateside.
“To me [the U.S.] was the best place to train, but when I came back to Canada, I kind of had a revelation that there’s also a lot of talent here that’s not broadcast as much,” he said.
Highlighting the country’s homegrown talents is in fact a priority of the CEBL — with 75 per cent of its current rosters being Canadians, it has the highest percentage of Canadian players of any professional league in the country. That’s why even though he won’t be joining them on the court this summer, Kanku is grateful to have made a connection with the BlackJacks and CEBL, given the upwards trajectory of basketball’s popularity in Canada.
O’Neill has no doubt that his mentee will get other opportunities to play at a high level. Having already coached him as a teenager, O’Neill also worked with Kanku as an assistant coach for the Ridgebacks and witnessed Kanku’s development as a player with initial raw talent, and then with refined skills and sportsmanship.
“He put it all together very quickly once he started to dedicate himself a little bit more [at Ontario Tech]. He became like a professional,” O’Neill said. “He understands how to put a schedule together, how to have an offseason. We’re looking at a guy now who will be able to make some money playing basketball.”
He said he won’t be surprised to see Kanku back on the court soon, continuing to work towards both his career goals and a potential future as a mentor. “I’m really looking forward to continuing to see him grow in basketball, but I’d like to see him move into some of the youth work that I was doing [too], like coaching or training camps and community work,” he added. “He has younger siblings at home that he takes care of, so he knows how to do that; he’ll be great.”
Kanku’s appreciation for his sport is what keeps him motivated to push on despite this summer’s setback.
“There isn’t anything that makes me much happier than basketball,” he said. “Basketball is my way of getting stress out. It’s almost like therapy for me, a way to get all my frustrations out. Especially as a Black male, I can express myself with basketball, something that I can do for hours and not get tired of, and be appreciated for it. That’s an amazing feeling.”
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