Editor’s note: Since originally publishing this story, Brayden O’Connor has announced his commitment to play NCAA basketball at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
By Ethan Diamandas
Merrick Palmer remembers the day a small 11-year-old boy with light skin and a big blonde afro entered his Orléans gym for drop-in basketball training.
Palmer, who runs Capital Courts Training Centre, was immediately drawn to the kid.
“He kind of stood out amongst his peers and I think that’s what first took me to him,” said Palmer, who would soon find out just how unique the boy was.
“He had attitude and he had swagger at that age,” Palmer remembers. “Just a wild, rambunctious kid.
“And I knew he just needed some guidance because it looked like he was pretty much raising himself, as far as doing what he wanted and saying what he wanted.”
That was the first time Palmer met Brayden O’Connor, who some years down the road would be posterizing opponents with vicious slams and drilling threes with a deadeye catch-and-shoot jumper.
For Palmer, that day in the gym represented the beginning of a special relationship that continues today.
For O’Connor, now 18 years old, it was the first step towards controlling that fire inside him – a critical, and ongoing challenge in his journey to top of his game.
Where it all began
It was originally Brayden’s older sister, Kyara, who played basketball at the high school level. She eventually had to stop playing when she gave birth to her son, Jahziah, who’s now almost five. But when Kyara did play, she was dominant.
“It was Grade 7 or 8 when she tried out for the basketball team and she was kicking everybody’s butts,” O’Connor said. “It was good because I was proud to call her my older sister, and I had a really big interest in basketball from there.”
Before long, O’Connor started watching videos of NBA players; he idolized the dime-dishing of Chris Paul, Allen Iverson’s slick crossover, and “The Mamba” Kobe Bryant, whose vicious determination O’Connor would one day try and mirror.
By five years old, O’Connor was obsessed with hoops. When he slept, he cuddled a basketball. Soon, he’d learn to dribble; eventually his grandparents bought him an indoor miniature basket to shoot on.
Basketball became a huge source of pleasure for O’Connor, and the sport would later become a mechanism for success and achievement in his life. But initially, it was an activity to channel his frustration.
O’Connor confronted significant hardship earlier than most children. His mother Nadia battled substance abuse issues – she eventually passed away in 2019 – meaning he and his two siblings couldn’t live with her. Without his father in the picture, O’Connor moved from Vanier to Orléans at age 10, where his grandparents raised him.
He called his grandmother, Claire, and his grandfather, Rick, the most important people in his life.
“My grandmother is always my Number 1 supporter,” O’Connor said. “She’s always at all of my games; she’s always making sure that we’re fed … that we have everything that we need.”
As a kid, O’Connor’s grandmother enrolled him in sports like soccer, volleyball, and hockey, but only basketball stuck. When he still lived in Vanier, O’Connor would linger after the end-of-day school bell at York Street Public School; he’d grab a ball and take shots on the hoops behind the building.
“It would help me take my mind off what was going on, from my home life or the outside world,” O’Connor said.
Eventually his grandmother decided O’Connor needed some proper coaching, so she enrolled him in gym sessions at Capital Courts Training Centre. That’s where O’Connor met Palmer, his very first coach.
Their early relationship was based on respect and understanding, Palmer said, but soon grew into something more.
“I knew he was passionate about basketball,” said Palmer, “so I knew if I used basketball as the backdrop, I can teach him about life as well … because at the end of the day, I saw myself in him.”
Palmer also had a challenging upbringing, but his brother-in-law introduced him to basketball when he was a teenager. Being around talented athletes and feeling their influence kept him on the right track.
“You look for father figures in the community,” Palmer said. “Sometimes those father figures are drug dealers or gangbangers or people that will lead them down a destructive path.
“I’ve been through it, and I know the other path … But I was just trying to keep (O’Connor) from that.”
As O’Connor got older and more competitive in basketball, he credited Palmer with helping him learn to convert his inner emotions into productive energy on the court.
“A big problem for me is getting in my own head and getting frustrated,” O’Connor said. “[Palmer] said my biggest enemy was myself.”
Reaching new heights
O’Connor’s basketball ascent continued in 2020, when he joined Canada Topflight Academy (CTA), Ottawa’s most prestigious basketball prep school. He started on the Red-level team, but worked his way to the Gold squad within a year.
“I think that’s what kind of separates him from everyone else – his competitiveness, and then his overall attitude and being coachable,” said Tony House, O’Connor’s current head coach at CTA. “Being one of the best players, he still wants to be better. I think that’s going to keep him at the top.”
At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, O’Connor is a rangy guard with dynamic scoring ability. But CTA was hit hard with injuries this season, forcing him to assume a different role on the floor.
“He’s taken on what we all call a ‘combo guard’ role,” House said, “where if you want him to score, absolutely, he can go score, but he also can facilitate and make players around him better.”
Now, in his post-graduate year at Notre-Dame Catholic High School, O’Connor is fielding scholarship offers from multiple American schools, partially because he upgraded a few courses to jump his grade point average to a 3.50.
“I would say Division 1 would be a perfect place for me,” O’Connor said, “like mid-major or high-major, where I can do well educationally and then set myself up for a job outside of basketball while playing at a high level. And then go pro after the four years.”
‘Why I know he’s gonna make it’
Palmer sees plenty of success in O’Connor’s future.
“[O’Connor] is working on a different level, and that’s why he plays with such anger and such ferocity,” he said.
Palmer and O’Connor still see one another every now and then: the 18-year-old volunteers at Capital Courts and sometimes drops by for an occasional shootaround. O’Connor calls Palmer his “trainer,” always available for life advice or basketball tips.
But every time Palmer sees O’Connor, he’s reminded of why he was drawn to him in the first place. O’Connor doesn’t look like that little boy who entered Palmer’s gym years ago – his hair is now darker and his frame is much taller – but his emotion, swagger, and determination are all still there.
And O’Connor carries his life experiences with him. He’s playing for his family and for his grandmother – he’s playing for more than your average kid. That’s what sets him apart.
“The kids that grew up with everything going right for them and never had to struggle – those are the kids that struggle at the next level,” said Palmer. “Because they don’t have that fire burning in their belly. … And I saw that from the first day I met (O’Connor).”
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