Montreal basketball camp for Inuit youth aims to inspire hope

Daisy Lucassie is practically doing backflips, she’s so excited about her new basketball shoes.

The 17-year-old from Aupaluk, Que., is one of 15 Nunavik kids invited to fly 1,500 kilometers south to attend a 10-day basketball camp in the Montreal area.

« It’s exciting to see kids getting better at basketball, » said Lucassie, who says his favorite NBA player is Ja Morant.

For Elix Verrault of Kangirsuk, Quebec, it’s a draw between Kyrie Irving and Luca Dončić. Verrault, 13, says playing in the NBA is his dream and he’s willing to work hard to achieve it.

« When [the ball] in between, you get a lot of self-confidence,” Verrault said. “You feel like an animal.

Daisy Lucassie, a 17-year-old from Aupaluk, Quebec, prepares for a practice session with a former NBA player. (Khaled Yeddes/CBC)

For Willis May, fan of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the dream is simpler. The 18-year-old wants to coach kids in his community of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Quebec. He says basketball hasn’t caught on yet, but joining this camp has inspired him.

« I’ve been the only one playing basketball in my own community and seeing other guys from other communities, it makes my day, » May said.

That positive influence is what it’s all about, said Russ Johnson, coordinator of the Nunavik Grind Now Shine Later (GNSL) basketball camp. The Montrealer works as a coach and gym teacher in Aupaluk, where he says poverty, isolation and mental health issues prevent young Inuit from dreaming big.

WATCH | How a basketball camp gives hope to children in northern Quebec:
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Nunavik youth shoot basket with former NBA star

Fifteen young people from Nunavik came to Montreal for the very first Grind Now Shine Later basketball camp. Former NBA player Kris Joseph stopped by the Kahnawake Sports Center to give youngsters some advice on the ball.

But Johnson says the resilience and character of those who came for camp blew him away.

« It’s all an amazing story, these kids impress me every day, » Johnson said. « I think what we’re trying to build is hope, that’s really what it’s all about. I grew up in a place where student-athletes, it’s just a normal term here. In the north, it’s not a normal term, and it must be a normal term. »

Johnson says interest in basketball grew rapidly after starting a community basketball night in Aupaluk a few years ago. He says that following requests from local youth, he found a community welfare organization in Kuujjuaq, Quebec, willing to fund a trip south for camp, which included about $60,000 for flights alone.

« We’re pretty indebted to the Inuit taking care of their people up there, » Johnson said. For now, the camp is a pilot project, but he hopes it will become a regular event.

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Russ Johnson, left, started the basketball camp after helping spark interest in the sport in Nunavik, where he works as a coach and gym instructor. (Khaled Yeddes/CBC)

Joseph Provides Star Power

In addition to lots of basketball and sightseeing, the GNSL camp includes two practice sessions at the Kahnawake Youth Center with former NBA player Kris Joseph.

Joseph, who is from Cote-des-Neiges and counts Johnson among his childhood basketball coaches, says he enjoys it as much as the kids.

« One of the main things I’ve always wanted, even before playing professionally and making money playing the sport, has always been to give hope to the next generation, to give hope to my community and to give hope to children in and around Montreal, » said Joseph.

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Montreal native Kris Joseph, 33, who spent a season in the NBA with the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets early in his career, is part of the GNSL camp.

As for his advice to people in the camp, Joseph says it’s about basic principles and sharing some of his experiences.

« I’ve been in the fire, I’ve been burnt with grease, that’s what kids want, » Joseph said.

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