By Martin Cleary
The family tradition of playing varsity basketball while attending university continues to thrive for the Kirkwood family of Ottawa.
Jaden Kirkwood is becoming familiar with his new surroundings at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, as he’s taking part in the six-week Crusaders’ summer training camp.
Four years ago, brother Noah enrolled at Harvard University, where he studied sociology for four years and played three standout years with the Crimson. (The 2020-21 season was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Noah signed earlier this month as an undrafted free-agent with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.
Their father Art got the ball rolling in 1985 as a student-athlete at the University of Ottawa. The 6-4 forward was a three-time OUA all-star under head coach John Restivo and then Jack Eisenmann and had a career average of 15.6 points and 4.4 rebounds a game.
Throughout his first 19 years, Jaden Kirkwood played tennis, soccer, volleyball and football, but it was basketball that was always his fast-break sport.
Sorry aunt Debbie (Kirkwood), who naturally introduced her nephew to forehands and backhands. Debbie worked for a quarter of a century with Tennis Canada and is now the head of performance and events in the International Tennis Federation’s development department.
“The fact is basketball was always on TV in our house,” Jaden said in a phone interview as he enjoyed a weekend away from the courts. “My dad played at university. My brother played as well. I wanted to blend in and be part of it. I saw how much fun they were having.”
Jaden started playing house-league basketball on the court at, fittingly enough, Jack Donohue Public School, which was named after the former Canadian men’s basketball coach from Kanata. A year later, Jaden stepped up to the Ottawa Next Level competitive program and played for eight years. He also spent two years with Ottawa Elite and three high-school seasons with Ashbury College.
The pandemic played havoc with his goal of earning a basketball scholarship to an NCAA Division 1 school. There was no high school basketball during his Grade 12 academic year in 2020-21. He also had stopped playing competitive basketball in the community the year before because it involved too much travel and was too time consuming.
“After Grade 11, I had no offers to play in the U.S. I was hoping Grade 12 would be my chance to land a team,” Jaden, a combo shooting/point guard, explained. “I could get some good film and experience. But that plan failed with COVID.”
After graduating from Ashbury as an honour roll student/athlete with an average greater than 90 per cent, Jaden knew he needed to find an American prep school for a post-grad year of education and basketball.
He considered following Noah’s footsteps and attend Northfield Mount Hermon in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts. But he discovered the basketball team had a good number of players and he might not get the necessary exposure.
The Vermont Academy in Rockingham, Vermont, reached out to him, but before a deal could be finalized, the coach left for the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. But he passed Jaden’s name to IMG Academy basketball coach Jim Carr, who brought Jaden into the academic post-grad basketball program. IMG has three post-grad boys’ basketball teams – national, academic and elite.
By the time the IMG Academy boys’ basketball season started, the majority of the Ivy League and Patriot League universities had completed their recruiting for the 2022-23 season. But Jaden worked hard throughout his season and helped his team to a 21-4 overall record, 7-3 in its district, a berth in its national championship tournament and a final Florida ranking of No. 2.
“I needed to play another year,” he added. “I needed to go to the U.S. for exposure. I was really lucky from all those connections that it worked out.”
By January, Jaden was contacted by Holy Cross of the Patriot League and that recruiting process had a successful ending. Jaden liked the academics at Holy Cross and felt the Crusaders’ men’s basketball program was a place where he could gain more experience and improve.
“When you’re recruited, it’s usually an assistant coach who does that. But at Holy Cross, the whole staff was involved. I felt wanted.”
Jaden is more than halfway through the Crusaders’ summer training camp, which has been a great way for him to get familiar with the school, the team and Worcester, which has a population of more than 206,000 and is about 76 kilometres west of Boston.
“We haven’t talked much about my (first) year,” said Jaden, who will return home July 15 for a month before heading back to Holy Cross to start his freshman year. “My coach wants me to be a playmaker, shoot, hit from the three-point range and play with confidence.
“My first few weeks I was passive. But he wants me to be an impact player.”
While the coaching staff spoke to him in one ear, he heard additional solid advice from Noah in his other ear.
“His main advice was don’t expect it to click right away,” Jaden said. “You’ll struggle, have up-and-down performances. It’s all part of the process.”
When Noah, who was the Ivy League rookie of the year in 2018-19 and a first-team all-star in 2021-22, played at Harvard, the Crimson didn’t have a men’s basketball team summer camp.
“He told me to maximize this opportunity. Make as many mistakes as possible to learn. No one gets it right away.”
Jaden is beginning to feel right at home on campus. On Fridays, the basketball players head into Worcester for some team bonding with a meal or to go bowling.
On June 11, the basketball team was part of the Worcester parade to celebrate the city’s 300th anniversary.
Everyone loves a parade, and it takes on even more importance when you’re a Canadian experiencing the American lifestyle for the first time and you get asked to help carry the Holy Cross banner in front of hundreds of street-lined spectators.
Read More in our 2022 High School Best Series, presented by Louis-Riel Sports-Études, as we tip our caps to top local student-athletes at:
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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