Hyper-individualism in Toronto’s grassroots basketball community
Hyper-individualism in Toronto’s grassroots basketball community
Junior Cadougan had to leave Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood after his brother was shot five times. Cadougan left ‘The Lanes’ at 15 years old to pursue his hoop dreams in the United States, where he prospered in an era before Canada was known for basketball. He earned a Division 1 scholarship to Marquette University and had a nine-year pro basketball career.
Recently, he returned home and co-founded Cadougan Elite, a rep basketball program in the Jane and Finch area. His name is revered in Toronto’s basketball community, and he has used his elevated status to build a program uniting kids from the Jane Strip.
Before last year’s municipal election, he reached out to his friend, TDSB Trustee for Ward 6 (York South-Weston) Liban Hassan, to organize a visit by Toronto mayor John Tory to Jane and Finch.
“We decided to support and give the kids a different experience with John Tory being in the lower-income communities,” said Cadougan. “We decided it would be cool for the kids to meet him and talk to him. The kids that I work with, to be real, it’s hard for them to even get that opportunity.”
Growing up, city hall seemed like a world away for Cadougan. “No way, bro! No way!” he responded, laughing loudly when asked if he had ever met politicians as a child. Cadougan was not bothered by the impact of the incumbent’s policies on his community – he just wanted to expose his players to a world that often seemed inaccessible to him.
“I’m bringing these kids around certain things and making them meet certain people they think are so far [beyond them]. But if you don’t know how to conduct yourself, you won’t be comfortable in different environments. It’s big time for us to use the tool of basketball to excel this next generation – put them in certain rooms where I experienced [as a pro athlete].”
Caption: Junior Cadougan working with the Cadougan Elite. Photo by Ahmed Sulimon.
This is, in many respects, a common story. Many professional basketball players, like Cadougan, come from marginalized communities, and they give back to their communities. However, in the drive to ‘make it out’ of these communities in the first place, many star athletes are rewarded for adopting a win-at-all-costs, hyper-individualistic mentality.
Culturally, basketball is rife with this narrative. There is a focus on superstars, their stats, and individual achievements, and references to domination and murder are embedded in the very language of the game. Players are praised for being “killers” or “catching a body,” an analogy to murder when dunking on (and humiliating) one’s opponent on the court. Players who fail to survive and thrive in this cut-throat world are slapped with the ultimate pejorative label of being “soft.”
“You could say you’re going to strap up your boots and kill, kill, kill, and dah-dah-dah, but who’s giving you that extra tool?” asked Junior rhetorically. “So when basketball is not there, are you still going to be able to? Are you still going to be able to compete, compete, compete?”
Cadougan credits former Toronto Metropolitan University head coach Roy Rana and his teammates for helping him get through his trauma, and wants to offer the same kind of support he once received.
But the dominant narrative of the Black athlete, like Cadougan, pulling himself out of poverty through sheer will and self-determination remains powerful. York University professor Gamal Abdel-Shehid noted in his book Who Da Man (Canadian Scholars Press, 2005) that this hyper-individualistic ethos is “a fairly long-standing way of representing black masculinity within capitalist sporting cultures, especially those south of the border.” While basketball has grown domestically, Canadians still validate their success through an American sports framework that promotes hyper-individualism; players and their parents look south to attain U.S. college scholarships, and for a select few, to gain NBA admission.
While the pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative can, in some instances, empower individuals with a sense of agency, it neglects the systemic issues that placed them in a seemingly inescapable environment to begin with.
First, this narrative neglects the survivorship bias baked into it, focusing narrowly on the successes of a small and unrepresentative sample, compared to the general population. Secondly, it normalizes systemic issues by creating what Toronto writer and activist Desmond Cole refers to as “mythologies of exceptionalism” around pro athletes who have made it out. “If they made it out, then you should also be able to” becomes the moral of these stories.
This perverse narrative places a disproportionate amount of responsibility on the individual to climb out of a systemic problem he did not create. For Cadougan, trauma, poverty, and gun violence could have just as easily destroyed him rather than pushing him to rise above it. Excessive focus on the individual’s success fails to question all of the interrelated issues that disproportionately affect young Black men in Toronto like Cadougan – gun violence, poverty, police violence, and more.
Louis March, founder and director of the Zero Gun Violence Movement, has a clear vision. “We’re a bold and ambitious objective when most people think it’s impossible,” he says.
“We already have zero gun violence in our city. But it’s only in certain communities and certain people. So there’s a difference between living in Rosedale, and living in Rexdale. In Rosedale, you don’t have to worry about violence because everything is lined up properly. But if you’re living in Rexdale, it’s a totally different story. …. We already have the template, and we already have the model.”
But our “mythologies of exceptionalism” condition us to accept and justify existing inequalities. “Capitalism is designed to privilege a few people over, literally, everyone else,” Cole stated, and he points to the corporatization of professional sports contributing to our passive acquiescence to the status quo. “We look around and we’re like, ‘Oh God, I don't have a billion dollars. I don't have a private jet. Why don't I have those things? I work hard.’ Well, [you’re told] you don't have those things because you're not as good as these people are.” Such narratives justify why certain neighbourhoods deserve community safety while others live in fear.
Last year, March sat at a roundtable discussion with Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and credits the Raptors for pledging to help end gun violence by petitioning the federal government to recognize June 3rd as National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Ujiri also wants to bring corporations on board as key stakeholders in this issue.
Caption: Louis March with Masai Ujiri. Photo by Louis March.
As basketball’s popularity continues to grow in the city and the country, March thinks more can learn from Raptors players Scottie Barnes or Dalano Banton speaking publicly on social causes.
When March organized a protest in September, Masai Ujiri showed up to participate in it with other representatives from the Raptors. “They’ve got to recognize the privilege that they have,” March said. “[They] can use their status to influence. [They] can be more visible in these communities.”
While Cole supports celebrities or athletes lending their voices, he cautions against our societal obsession in looking towards transformative leaders.
“I think people really think that the change comes from really rich and powerful people coming over to the right side of things.” He continued, “But the real change happens when average Black people … band together. That's when change happens, not when a celebrity does it.”
Cole says that tackling a systemic issue, like the roots of the gun violence that nearly robbed Cadougan’s brother of his life, requires collective action.
“We're really raised in a culture to overvalue celebrity contributions to political discourse,” he said. “Is it Dr. King who brought about the Civil Rights Movement? Or was it all the Black people who were willing to put themselves in front of dogs, and fire hoses, and police vehicles?”
Reducing or eradicating the roots of gun violence – or making a significant dent in poverty, in police violence, or in any of the other interconnected issues – will require a single-minded devotion, similar to the years Cadougan spent honing his basketball skills. Political change, much like athletic improvement, only happens when people come together and embrace the day-to-day struggle over a long period of time.
While their approaches may differ, people like Cadougan, Cole, and March are all committed to the hard work of making change. “I get energized by the fight itself. I really do,” Cole said. “I don’t want to have to fight, but it’s actually the fight that strengthens me.”
All three men also understand they are up against a generational struggle. “The problems we’re seeing today are a direct result and product of what we didn’t do right yesterday,” said March.
“We’re not going to get rid of it in five or 10 years, we’re not going to get rid of it through some corporate donations and charity, because we got here in hundreds of years,” Cole said about the kinds of systemic issues that afflict him and Cadougan.
“We can’t undo hundreds of years of history, but we can make life more livable. In the meantime, we can lift each other up, we can score victories, we can make power back off, we can learn how to heal and recover from some of the awful things that are being done to us. We can support one another.”