Published May 09, 2018"When I actually got to Toronto, I was only there for a couple of hours, signed my contract, then we got on the bus to go to training camp in Hamilton," Damon Stoudamire tells Exclaim!, over the phone from his home in Stockton, CA.
The Portland, OR native was the Toronto Raptors' first-ever draft pick in 1995, and went on to become a franchise player and notable star. Signing to an expansion team in its inaugural season is one thing, but this one was in a whole other country.
"When I got to Hamilton and got off the bus, quite frankly I was like, 'Damn, is this what Toronto's gonna look like?!'" Stoudamire says, chuckling.
Stoudamire appears in filmmaker Ryan Sidhoo's poignantly beautiful and deeply fascinating new NFB/Red Bull TV documentary series, True North, which chronicles the rise of Toronto as a world-class basketball production hub. A star-studded project that also features appearances by ball stars like DeMar DeRozan, Steve Nash, Cory Joseph, Jamal Murray and Jamaal Magloire, True North's real focus is on young players, the communities, coaches, mentors and families that support them, and how journeys from metro Toronto to the NBA might be possible.
"I came up on a lot of Spike Lee films," Ryan Sidhoo, a Vancouver native, explains. "He Got Game is one of my favourites, and it's loosely inspired by a book called The Last Shot, which is about Stephon Marbury's high school team. So, as a kid, through my dad who loved basketball, I was consuming a lot of basketball content and playing pick-up and meeting people through the game, and it so it was a natural segue to want to do something about basketball through film."
With True North, Sidhoo aimed to chronicle the explosion of interest in basketball in Toronto and the infrastructure that has fostered home-grown talent. He profiles different young players and speaks to older coaches who run basketball camps, as well as parents, including Cory Joseph's father, David Joseph, who offer their perspectives on basketball's ascending role in a city that had previously only been obsessed with the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays.
"Toronto to me is one of the best cities in the world, quite frankly," Stoudamire says. "In terms of basketball in Canada, it's become the mecca. To me, when you think of Toronto, it's like thinking of New York City, because they're producing guys at a high rate. Whether it's NBA players or not, just the amount of college players coming out of the metropolitan area in a short period of time [is amazing]."
Beyond the players appearing in True North, there are also key scenes with Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall and talk of the 1970s Caribbean diaspora that continues to have a huge influence on the way Toronto carries itself as a cultural hotspot. There's an inference that it should come as no surprise that, as the city became known as the home of one of the world's biggest hip-hop stars, its hometown basketball team also began to come up and take over.
"The whole Drake x-factor is part of this," Sidhoo reasons. "He's sitting courtside at Raptors games and is really part of the organization. People eat that up, and I think hockey lacks that star power. The NBA does a phenomenal job of reaching their audience and marketing their stars the right way. OVO does these jersey collaborations with the Raptors — basketball is really just a part of pop culture, more so than hockey."
"He's definitely helped take it to another level," he says of Drake. "Him being from Toronto, that's going to make it major. And the way he's embraced it, that's always going to be something that helps that city. Right now, you can argue that he's more identifiable than the players on the team but that's ok though. At the end of the day, it's really about the Toronto Raptors and not any individual player."
In one True North scene, Stoudamire expounds on what it's like to retire at 35 years old. It's not something a young player might contemplate — life after basketball — but it's a key and interesting perspective that captures at least one major aspect of the documentary series.
"I hope it paints a vey holistic picture of youth basketball, which has its ups-and-downs," Sidhoo explains. "Fortunately, the families who I connected with on this project, they're the ones who had the courage to share their stories and open up on-screen. It's not necessarily easy to share those stories and setbacks.
"Basketball is really shaping the Canadian experience, both domestically and globally," Sidhoo adds. "As someone with immigrant roots, seeing basketball organically nurtured and built by immigrant communities and seeing it become a cultural export, to me that's an awesome story and something I get excited about."
Basketball player Jalen Celestine, pictured above, was initially misidentified in press materials; Exclaim! sincerely regrets the error.
True North is a nine-part documentary series streaming on Red Bull TV and the NFB YouTube page now.
Listen to this interview with Damon Stoudamire and Ryan Sidhoo on Kreative Kontrol via Apple Podcasts or below: