Been there, Done that: The basketball journey of Kyle Desmarais
The playing career of a CIS student-athlete lasts up to five years but sometimes, five years lasts longer than five years.
At 27 years old by the end of this past season, Kyle Desmarais was among the elder statesmen of the league. He also was the Bishop’s Gaiters’ point guard who came up big on the biggest stage to lead his team to an RSEQ championship and a spot in the 2015 Arcelormittal Dofasco CIS Men’s Basketball Final 8; that’s the reason why the team’s head coach had recruited him in the first place. “I expect him to play his best basketball when it counts,” Gaiters’ Rod Gilpin had told NPH in March in a prescient manner. “I know he will not disappear during a big game.”
“It’s been long,” Desmarais says when he reflects on his career, and maybe it isn’t unrelated that he adds that, “At this point I’m at peace with being done with university basketball.”
He’s also at peace because he’s accomplished most of what can be done. He’s won league titles both in the regular season and in the playoffs. He’s traveled around the world and represented his country. He’s played in the CIS and the NCAA, and battled against current NBA players James Harden (against Arizona State on Dec. 29, 2008) and J.J. Barea. You name it, and the odds are that Desmarais has done it.
But hold that thought.
The clock to your five years doesn’t start until you step on the court for your first game of university basketball.
Desmarais graduated from high school nine years ago, left Dawson College seven years ago, and played on the Concordia Stingers team that twice reached the nationals four and three years ago. He has seemingly seen it all as a student-athlete. An underrated factor of the rise of Canadian basketball is the reminder that there are many paths to reach a point where you could make a professional basketball career; Desmarais has tried just about every one of them.
And before it all, he was on a path that had little to do with the sport. “I played soccer first, for my dad,” he tells NPH, “and then I played football. I love football.”
In fact, he started playing basketball only as a way to stay active after the football season during the long winter days. “I wasn’t a good player until my second year of cegep,” he says. “All the graduating players left…and I kind of just took off after that.” Perhaps it’s not a coincidence: the Dawson Blues won both the provincial and the national Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) championships in his first year of cegep in 2007. Winning is certainly convincing.
Desmarais found his footing that next season, leading the Blues with 19.1 points per game. The team couldn’t repeat as CCAA champions, but the point guard had impressed enough to receive a scholarship to the Division I-A’s Central Connecticut State Blue Devils.
That’s right. Desmarais’s clock first started in the United States.
Head coach Howie Dickerman had originally recruited Desmarais and his Dawson teammate Kevin Loiselle, but only the point guard made the trip to New Britain, CT. (Loiselle would go on to play with the University of Maine at Fort Kent Bengals and, now, with the Windsor Express of the National Basketball League.) “It was extremely tough,” Desmarais says of his time in the NCAA. “Let’s just say that Connecticut is not the most exciting place in the world.” But the point guard does go so far as to say that had Loiselle been with him in New Britain, then that it might have been different. But what made matters worse is that injury added to his misery and boredom, as he hurt his ankle during the 2008 preseason. His career hadn’t even started and he was falling behind.
His NCAA experience lasted all of one season in 2008-2009; that’s where those who find it a little silly that we ask young teenagers to decide their future nod and say yes. Desmarais didn’t see eye to eye with Dickerman and, in his own words, both decided that ending the partnership would be best. “I didn’t see myself developing into the basketball player that I thought I could be there,” Desmarais says before adding that the one thing his time in Connecticut taught him is “how tough you need to be and how much work you need to put in.”
Desmarais didn’t have fun playing basketball and the joy for the game is what he sought most as he pondered where to go next.
He knew next to nothing about the CIS and CIS basketball but when the Concordia Stingers called, he listened because he’s from Montreal. At Concordia, Desmarais switched his major to economics (from management), and found joy, and winning as well—though not at first. Under current rules, a student-athlete must sit out one year, and that 2009-2010 season was the hardest for the point guard. He explains that, “You’re defined as a point guard by how well your team wins.” And neither could he play nor did his team win, finishing the season at 4-12 for last place in Quebec.
But misery only makes triumph that much sweeter, right? When the clock started again on Desmarais’s second year of eligibility (in his second year at Concordia) in 2010-2011, the Stingers won the RSEQ playoffs and made the CIS Final 8, giving the eventual champions Carleton Ravens their toughest test in a 73-66 loss.
Following that season, Desmarais was selected for the Canadian team that finished with a silver medal at China’s 2011 FISU Games. That team’s lineup is a who’s who of CIS all-stars from the past five years; and if Desmarais made the team along with Jahmal Jones, Jordan Baker, Tyson Hinz, Lien Phillip and others, it’s because he belonged. “He’s bigger, athletic,” his new head coach Gilpin says, “and a physically strong guard.”
Desmarais had grown to love the Canadian league in his short time there. He had realized that many CIS players could have been good players on good NCAA teams, and that he didn’t think the reverse was necessarily true of his ex-teammates in New Britain regarding the CIS. “The level of coaching and the level of skill, throughout the top teams in the country,” he says, “are extremely high.”
As Canadian basketball is entering an era of unprecedented excellence, behind the drafting of No. 1 draft picks Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins in the NBA, the odds remain stacked against CIS players—a player like Philip Scrubb may have a shot to join them, but it’s a long one despite all that he has accomplished in Canada.
And the majority of the Canadian basketball players who play basketball beyond high school will do so in the CIS. Which is to say that they still earn their degree and get an education, before eventually graduating to, if they’re lucky, a playing career that will not be in the NBA. There’s no shame in that.
Desmarais, for now, has finished an undergraduate degree in economics. But before that, he says he came this close of turning professional; that’s also where his stay at Concordia fizzled out. But more on that shortly.
The Stingers were great again during the 2011-2012 season, finishing with a 14-2 record, but it had all appeared to be for naught in the first game of the playoffs as Laval led 55-47 entering the fourth quarter, before pushing its lead to 12. As Concordia quickly clawed its way back, Desmarais led the way with two assists and by scoring the final five points of the game to eke out a 66-65 win. The Stingers lost its two games at the Final 8 that season, but the year was a success nonetheless.
The same can’t be said of the next, as Concordia lost in the first round of the playoffs after a 9-7 regular season. Desmarais then prepared for what would be his final season in the CIS, and that’s where the story takes a turn.
Please understand that the following is only Desmarais’s account; numerous attempts to have a member of the Stingers coaching staff comment on the matter were unsuccessful.
The most we managed is an email from Catherine Grace, media officer with the school, and part of the email states that, “Kyle leaving the Stingers program was a little awkward.”
What led to awkwardness appears to have been a breakdown in communications between the point guard and the head coach. Desmarais says that in the months before the 2013-2014 season, he had pleaded with his coaches to become a more vital part of the program, only for him to realize as the off-season wound down that maybe it had fallen on deaf ears. And before what would be what Desmarais calls “a mutual parting ways”, he had headed to the 2013 NBL Combine and draft to hopefully join the league where his ex-Dawson teammate Kevin Loiselle was playing—in a twist of irony considering their recruitment together at Central Connecticut, this time Desmarais returned empty-handed.
The draft, it turned out, was on the same day as the first Stingers practice in late August. Without an NBL home, Desmarais had also lost his place in the Stingers program.
His CIS clock had stopped at four, but would it be stuck there forever?
Desmarais says he received invitations for NBL training camps then, but decided against it. If he couldn’t play CIS games, his priority would be on finishing his degree and on training to become a better player and prospective professional. He explains that, “The (economics) degree is very important to me and I had nothing guaranteed in terms of contracts.”
But while training is where you become better for the games you play, it takes a different meaning when you don’t play any games. Roughly a year ago, the then-26-year-old looked for an opportunity to join a team and finish his career, and said that the UBC Thunderbirds and Ottawa Gee-Gees showed some interest in adding him to their roster. But he chose another team. “[Desmarais’s] father and Matt McLean’s father are best friends,” Gilpin says. “The fathers started talking a little bit, and that’s what opened the door.” Desmarais chose the Gaiters program, a team readymade with only a hole at point guard. “[Coach Gilpin] was exactly what I was looking for in terms of a coach,” he says.
Gilpin bet on Desmarais’s experience in what would be the young man’s final season after leaving Dawson… seven years prior. “It’s been a good opportunity for him to get out of the city and have fewer distractions here,” Gilpin says. “We all [had] very high expectations for our team this year.”
The RSEQ Final Four was held at the Lennoxville campus, but the team first had to qualify. Desmarais bounced back after a difficult first half of the season, with a good scoring output (i.e. a season-high of 29 points, notably, against the Stingers at Concordia). Urgency sets in when a career only has but a few games remaining. And when Gilpin expected big things at the Final Four, Desmarais delivered with 19 points against Laval in the semifinal, and another 10 against McGill to win the gold medal. “He’s always in the gym, working,” he said of his point guard. “He’s very committed.”
The entire team was committed, and this explains why the players celebrated the championship so much after beating the Redmen in the RSEQ final. To wit, here’s teammate Kurt Caro’s behind-the-scenes account.
Desmarais, meanwhile, credits the Gaiters’ faithful for helping their own pull it off. “This is the closest you’re going to get,” Desmarais says, “to a U.S. college experience.”
For the third time in four seasons in the CIS, Desmarais’s team had made the Final 8. The young man only needed a few more wins for the Cinderella ending that he had hoped for but, as the clocked neared midnight on his CIS career, the well had run dry. Nursing a six-point lead with 3:56 left against the powerful Gee-Gees, and twice a three-point lead subsequently, Bishop’s faltered and lost 91-85 in overtime to the eventual CIS finalists, before losing against the Windsor Lancers 91-80.
And just like that, after all these years, the dream was over. Desmarais’s clock had struck zero. After graduating from Dawson College, he had played basketball, first at Central Connecticut State, then at Concordia and, finally, at Bishop’s.
He has seen it all or it’s taken him this long to find a place to fully fit in. One way or another, it’s been a hell of a five-year journey spread out over eight years.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG & NPH @Northpolehoops