Toronto's Melvin Ejim will likely hear his name called in Thursday's NBA Draft and launch his dream career as a professional athlete. But the memories of where he began are as vivid as ever – moments when the empty-pocketed teen would quietly ask his coaches to spare a few bucks so he could eat.
Ejim, coming off a stellar career at Iowa State and expected to be a second-round pick, shares a distinct bond with several others in the draft. As many as eight Canadians could be drafted this week, five of them with links to the same Toronto-area basketball program, CIA Bounce, including projected first-rounders Andrew Wiggins and Tyler Ennis. It's a program that formed when two rival clubs set aside their differences and united – then reaped the rewards of a windfall from a TV game show. Now, one of the CIA Bounce founders has become an agent representing Ejim, Ennis and many others he once coached.
Mike George started a basketball program for teens called Christians in Action (CIA) in the late 1990s, run out the back of a church in Malton, Ont. George was studying at York University to become a teacher, and he had many players in his program from low-income homes. He could relate.
"When I played soccer as a boy, midway through the year, they realized my mom's cheque bounced and said I couldn't play any more," George said. "That sucked. No one reached out to me."
Eventually, George's hoops team went to U.S. tournaments, where they kept running into a local rival – the Brampton Bounce. George and Bounce coach Tony McIntyre disliked one another, but the teams would often beat their U.S competition and meet in the finals.
They also shared a common goal: getting exposure to help players earn scholarships to U.S. colleges. At a tournament in Syracuse, with the CIA team watching, Bounce played a Buffalo squad and hit a last-second shot it believed had won the game. But the referee said the shot didn't beat the buzzer and waved it off.
"The CIA guys came and stood by our bench, yelling at the ref in our defence, saying 'No, you're cheating them,'" recalls McIntyre. "In that moment, we were all from Toronto, all from Canada. I think that experience broke a tension between us, and we decided to talk when we got home to Toronto. Shortly after, we said, 'Let's do this thing.'"
The teams combined in 2006, calling themselves CIA Bounce, the CIA signifying Characteristics Inspiring Achievement. The union brought together local stars, including Ejim and Tristan Thompson, who would go on to be the NBA's fourth-overall pick in 2011. McIntyre's son, Dylan Ennis, played on the team, before moving on to Villanova University. His younger son, Tyler, often tagged along – and would later star for CIA Bounce and then Syracuse University.
George, a teacher at Cardinal Newman elementary school, and McIntyre, an operations manager for a pharmaceuticals company, figure they each pitched in about $20,000 in the early years. But they needed more. On a lark, George applied to be a contestant on the game show Deal or No Deal, when it filmed some episodes in Toronto, vowing he would give half of any winnings to CIA Bounce.
The gregarious coach got onto the Howie Mandel-hosted show in 2007 and picked the cash-filled suitcases according to numbers of his favourite NBA players. He won $144,000, and lived up to his promise.
"It was a surreal moment, winning on the show," George said. "We put the money toward equipment, travel, tournaments and gym costs for several years, we even took them to play in France. They got a chance to play against European players at such a high level. We once saw Jonas Valanciunas [now of the Toronto Raptors] playing way back then – Tyler Ennis got his photo taken with him."
The program kept growing, attracting new athletes. McIntyre, George and their other volunteer coaches developed relationships with U.S prep schools, learning to differentiate the legitimate schools recruiting their guys from the shady ones. The coaches helped players who needed financial aid or academic tutoring.
"I consider both Tony and Mike father figures in my life," Ejim said. "They invested in me becoming a better person and athlete – they gave me rides, they helped me out with meals on the road sometimes. … It had a real community vibe."
CIA Bounce has sent more than 40 players to the NCAA. Their alumni also include 2013 first-overall draft pick Anthony Bennett. In addition to Wiggins and Ennis, three other CIA Bounce players will likely be drafted this week: Naz Long (Iowa State), Khem Birch (UNLV) and New Mexico State's 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar.
Many within the CIA Bounce family speak reverently about another player: Kofi Mensa, a highly recruited 6-foot-4 shooting guard who died of cancer in 2010, at age 19.
"His athleticism, his length, he was like an early Wiggins, and he mesmerized people, long before Canadian players were getting the kind of exposure we're getting now," Ejim said. "He would have made it to the collegiate level and would be looking at the NBA. He was a huge driving force behind the spirit and sense of community that grew in CIA Bounce."
The basketball program isn't the only one in the Toronto area to spin out elite talent. Programs such as Grassroots Canada, run by Ro Russell, also had a hand in developing some of the same players. But CIA Bounce is the only Canadian entry in the 40-team Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL), a prestigious U.S.-based circuit sponsored by Nike.
That's where Wiggins and Ennis faced luminaries they would later meet in college, such as Kentucky star Julius Randle. When CIA Bounce made the under-17 EYBL championship game in 2012, the gym in North Augusta, S.C., was packed with fans and U.S college scouts. An amateur broadcaster streaming the game proclaimed, "You'll never see Wiggins for $5 again."
A youth sporting experience so focused on scholarships, scouts, prep schools and elite development poses obvious concerns about the pressure being put on these young athletes, and whether they are being exploited for their talents.
George left CIA Bounce last year when Bennett asked him to consider becoming an NBA agent and take him on as a client. He was quickly hired by New York-based Excel Sports, an agency with clients such as Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter and Blake Griffin.
"I didn't grow up wanting to be an agent," George said. "I loved basketball; I was good with people and relationships, and dealing with young people. Anthony was the main reason I did this – his mom didn't trust anyone and he was like, 'Who else would we trust but you?'… My wife and I are both teachers and make good salaries, so I didn't do this for the money. You hear horror stories of agents riding with a guy when he's hot and dropping him when he's not. I don't want our guys going through that."
George represents most of the Canadian players in this draft, except Wiggins and Nik Stauskas. "Tyler [Ennis] had 15-20 agents calling him and he chose Mike because he knew he could call him at 3 a.m. if he was lying awake thinking about something, and Mike would pick up the phone," McIntyre said. "This was never the plan; Mike and I planned to run CIA Bounce together for years. But Mike has filled a niche – with an influx of Canadians going into the NBA, why wouldn't you want an agent from the same place you're from?"
CIA Bounce now has about 150 players of all levels in its programs, from ages four to 17. It's likely to keep spinning out more prospects, such as rising star Jamal Murray, a 17-year-old guard.
"We've gotten many coaching offers to run prep school programs or coach at a college or university, but we've never accepted anything like that because the foundation of this program was built on us doing it because we enjoy it – it is a hobby, not a business," McIntyre said. "…We do it because we love to follow a kid from the day he learns to dribble a basketball, to doing well in school, to getting prep school and scholarship offers, to graduating and going off to Europe or the NBA. We get a lot of joy out of this."