(Photo by Albert J. LeBlanc)
The new kids on the N.B.L.C. block have returned to the easternmost edge of our nation. Saint John’s Edge, Newfoundland’s first professional basketball team, will defend The Rock in its home opener against the Niagara River Lions.
Starting guard, Alex “Superman” Johnson, will face off against River Lions forward, Dwayne Smith, who hails from the same Toronto neighbourhood as him. Both have walked near-identical professional paths, living out of suitcases to keep their hoop dreams alive.
Though they are friends off the court, Dwayne wearing a River Lions uniform will make Alex hungrier for St. John’s first ever home win. To understand Alex’s hunger and determination, however, one must understand where he comes from.
Alex was raised in Jungle, formally known as Lawrence Heights in Toronto. Long considered Toronto’s underbelly, it’s an isolated community, tucked underneath Yorkdale Mall where Drake recently opened his flagship OVO store. As shoppers come in droves to Yorkdale, housing (more aptly, condo) demand in the area has skyrocketed. To service the lifestyles of the Yorkdale shopper, Alex’s neighbourhood is being bulldozed as you read this. Like many of Toronto’s social housing communities, Jungle is subjected to the same fate — the g-word, the phenomena occurring in every urban city across the world: gentrification — and its revitalization will be the biggest project to date, even bigger than Regent Park’s.
Staring into Phase 1 of the revitalization project for the first time since returning home this past summer, Alex was lost for words. He grimly reflected, “I don’t know how I feel about it,” looking into the intruding eye of the newly constructed condos, still in its nascent, skeletal form.
The very community that raised him will disappear in due time and its remnants will only survive in memory.
Though the City of Toronto’s development plan attempts to breathe life into Jungle, Alex found his refuge — his life’s purpose — on these concrete courts long before the condos came. Basketball immunized him from the tripartite forces of poverty, violence, and drugs that have and continue to plague this community. He recounted a time when basketball, quite literally, saved his life; he was on an A.A.U. trip to Florida when few of his friends were shot. Had he been home that day, he could have been seriously injured or even worse, dead.
Alex came up in a bygone era when Toronto basketball was overlooked south of the border. A trail to basketball superstardom was never blazed in Jungle, so Alex grew up idolizing those cornrows, that signature, almost-a-carry crossover, and was mesmerized by the lightning quickness of an undersized guard much like him. Allen Iverson made Alex believe that he too could get to The League one day. So Alex practiced — yes, I’m talking about practice! — everyday till darkness befell on Amaranath Court, obsessively repeating every drill until his mom would flicker the lights, signalling him to come back home.
His talents later took him to Cal State Bakersfield and North Carolina State (Coach Dunlap was Alex’s assistant coach at NC State). He even played against NBA All-Star, Paul George, the best player Alex has ever played against. He was drafted #1 overall in the 2013 N.B.L.C. draft and played 11 games in the G League (then D-League) for the Grand Rapids Drive.
Though Alex is a professional hooper, his life has been far from a Cinderella story. When he returns to the Lawrence Heights Community Centre on 5 Replin Road, kids swarm him with questions of why he’s not in the N.B.A.
“I’m dealing with it better,” said Alex as he concedes the N.B.A. is “not the end all be all.”
Regardless of the impending gentrification hanging overhead or the poverty in its streets, the sky remains limitless for Jungle’s residents. Alex is living proof.
Though the weight of expectations have crushed the shoulders of many N.B.A. giants and the gash of an unfulfilled hoop dream can cripple careers, Alex has adapted exceptionally well to his reality. He never fully anticipated the price of being a professional athlete — that he would live out of a suitcase for little pay, bouncing from one team to another, only to return to a rapidly disappearing ground zero. He never expected that he would be miles, a whole Atlantic Ocean away from his wife, Brey Dorsett-Johnson, who is chasing her own hoop dreams in Romania.
At 29, Alex remains focused on what he can control. His pursuit of perfection keeps his inner fire kindled. “I know perfection is impossible,” he relents, “but it’s just striving for that.” “I’m a perfectionist. If something’s not done right, I like to do it over and over and over,” says Alex as he is constantly fine tuning his jump shot. The explosion of Toronto’s basketball talent also inspires him; it fuels his competitive fire to keep pushing so he can get to the same level as his friends.
Like the precarity of being a N.B.L.C. basketball player, the seemingly indomitable market forces of gentrification are beyond his immediate control. Rather than succumbing to defeat, he remains determined to make the best of his time in Newfoundland, possessing the hallmark mentality of a consummate pro. The difficulty of growing up in Jungle had a desirable, though intended, impact on Alex, having learned early on that his determination would allow him to adapt to any circumstance.
To date, no basketball player from Jungle has touched N.B.A. waters. But many have had their lives radically transformed by it. Alex and Dwayne had the drive to rise above the poverty on Varna, a street running up Jungle. Dwayne’s enterprising twin brother and pro basketball player, Dane Smith, has commodified Varna into a cool and niche clothing brand.
The cranes in the Jungle sky remind its residents underneath of their inevitable relocation. Though the names of neighbourhood heroes — Alex Johnson, Dwayne and Dane Smith — are unbeknownst to those outside Toronto’s hoops subculture, these men inspire Jungle residents to rise above its stigma. They have all blazed a trail, one never paved for Alex, for the next breed of Jungle’s dreamchasers: Ahmed Ali recently committed to Kent State and Kamar McKnight, Tenessee State University guard, got next.
Alex intends on playing for another 10 years. Look forward to many of his signature pump fakes and playmaking abilities for The Edge!