THE LONG REACH OF AN UNSUNG SCHOOL
FROM APRIL 2018 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Before the Raptors, there was the Oakwood Barons, a high school powerhouse on St. Clair Avenue. As the team headed to OFSAA this spring for its 13th consecutive year, we asked Oakwood alumni to reflect on what the school meant to them, what makes it great and why it still doesn’t get the respect it deserves
Basketball games at old yellow bricked Oakwood Collegiate are different than almost any in Toronto high school sports: packed stands, groups of relatives in attendance, CityTV reporters covering the games, and chanting – lots of chanting – of the school’s bleacher-rattling hymn, “Rep-Rep-Represent Oakwood!” On game days, there’s a crackling energy about the hallways; the junior team plays opening band to the senior team’s headliner.
Former player and Globe and Mail managing director of corporate development Gabe Gonda recalls: “When I was in Grade 9, some friends and I went to watch the city championships at Jarvis, where the Oakwood Barons played the Central Commerce Raiders. It was like watching an NBA team, and I was dazzled. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, I want to be part of this magic.’ That’s my favourite Oakwood memory: being on the outside looking in, pressed against the window pane, and saying: I want to reach for that.”
The fervour at Oakwood games is partly owing to the school’s size – only 500 or so students are enrolled there – and its tiny gym. “You had to step outside just to change your mind,” says alumnus and Raptors play-by-play announcer Paul Jones. It’s also a reflection of the self-determined identity of the school, and its civically and culturally charged student body. As Gonda describes it, “Oakwood is a window on an urban ideal that we’ve already given up for dead but is, in fact, still thriving: the polyglot-Kotter -style-urban-melting-pot high school.”
Jones transferred from Central Tech to Oakwood because of the diversity of the student population, and remembers, “We [all] came from such varied cultures. Oakwood was one of the first schools to have its own Black student organization that pertained to Black student studies and Black student interests.” That pride in community was essential to – and reflected in – the basketball team, where relationships were formed that transcended the school season. And yet, in the words of senior team assistant coach and former player, Oniel Kamaka: “We have all this rich history and nobody’s covering it.” Despite its proven record – under current coach Anthony Miller, the Barons have made OFSAA the last 13 consecutive years – the question that nags is why Oakwood isn’t celebrated the way St. Mike’s is for its hockey program or ESA for its arts graduates. The arrow points to a perception of Oakwood as a Black school weighed down by “urban issues.”
Gonda cites a fraught history when it comes to Oakwood establishing itself in the traditional basketball ranks. “I think it’s safe to say the Oakwood team was perceived through a racialized and class lens. The worst experience I recall is in our OFSAA final against St. John’s of Brantford, where as it became clear we were going to win, the opposing players starting talking trash about how they would get the last laugh because at least they would be going to university and we wouldn’t. I knew what they were getting at – that players on a predominantly Black team from downtown Toronto were academic losers. Well guess what? Every starter and pretty much every player on that team, Black or white, went to a four-year school and got at least one degree.”
Before the Raptors and WE THE NORTH and Fred Van Vleet cricketing up and down the floor, Oakwood was one of the city’s first true basketball hubs, a program that came to life after the ’70s and ’80s waves of immigration from Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana. Their alumni have produced among the most dynamic and respected student athletes in Toronto sports history, from the Raptors’ assistant coach Jama Mahlalela to Nathaniel Mitchell, who is a Raptors 905 coach; Paul’s brother, Mark Jones, who works for ESPN; and Mike DeGiorgio and James DePoe, who coach men’s hoops at the University of Toronto and Humber College, respectively. (Musician Jully Black sang “O Canada” before Oakwood Barons’ games when she was a student.) Jones says that “Oakwood became very good at attracting athletes who wanted something more than sports, who had ambitions off the court, who wanted to move on to higher education and rise to the top of their fields.”
Assistant Coach Norman Clarke had two sons – Julian and Brody – play for the Barons, and he told them both that, no matter what the team achieved, “academics should be first and foremost, the number one thing in your life. If you can’t get the As we know you’re capable of, you can’t play sports.” Julian is currently doing his residency at a medical school – he’s going to be a neurosurgeon – and Brody, who’s in Alberta, is studying mechanical engineering.
Oakwood’s coach, Anthony Miller, whose soft-mannered intensity also reflects the school’s emotional lineage, says that, “Oakwood is a no-frills program. You come here and you look at our gym. It’s not a regular-size court. It’s a tiny gym. Sometimes the banners are up, sometimes they’re down. There’s nothing special outside of the guys who play the game. The big thing is expectation. We’re expected to win. We’re expected to do well year after year, and we have.”
On the day WEP visited the gym, former player Russell Baker came by to consult with Miller – whom he still considers a mentor – about what D1 school he’ll attend next year. Baker says that former teammates check in with each other once a week: asking how the others are doing and sharing newspaper articles on the guys’ basketball careers beyond high school. The connection sustains from team to team, regime to regime. James DePoe says: “I still have friends and colleagues who to this day identify as being ‘Oakwood Family.’ When we see each other, we can always pick up where we left off. It’s just a ‘Rep-Rep-Represent Oakwood’ thing, always.”