John Akende has always found a way to stand out. As a basketball star in his hometown of Rexdale, a borough of Toronto, the area itself can seem like its own little world, nestled neatly in the northwest corner of the city.
And in this world, basketball is king.
The local college, Humber College, has been a basketball powerhouse for over 50 years, with multiple provincial and national titles in every decade of its existence. Just a five-minute drive east on Finch will take you to another storied house of basketball, one that’s had a hand in turning out NCAA and NBA players alike for over 30 years.
That place is Father Henry Carr, and that is where we can really begin telling the story of John Akende’s basketball life.
“Coming out of that area makes you strong, and just makes you want to kill everything on the court…nobody wants to give you anything when you play out there, you have to take it.” Says Akende, when reminiscing on what it was like playing on the street courts of one of the more notorious boroughs in Toronto.
As he was speaking those words, you could see the reflection on his face. The moments of battles on the blacktop with friends and rivals, on hardwood in the AAU circuits with CIA Bounce, even the countless reps in FHC’s gym.
John’s basketball life has been a battle, and he has the scars to prove it.
Someone who witnessed those battles more than most, would be Father Henry Carr’s head coach Paul Melnik. A math teacher at the school by day, he has been the driving force behind creating the basketball factory that the Crusaders have become for the past 30 years.
“I first saw John when he was in grade 8, his cousins were at FHC at the time, and I told him to come to a workout, and so he showed up to some of our junior (grade 9-10) workouts, and that’s where Mike George from CIA Bounce saw him and said ‘let’s get this kid in our program’. The next year he was the starting point guard for the best junior team in Canada.” Says coach Melnik.
Melnik has been the coach at Carr for a long time, and in that time he’s had the likes of Dillon Brooks, Antwi Atuahene, and Jalen Poyser all go on to successful college and pro careers just to name a few.
Melnik will be the first to say he saw Akende with that same fire as all of those players mentioned above.
“We were the number one junior team in Canada in his first year. By grade 11, he led us to our first OFSSAA gold medal, so when you think about leaders, he had proven that here at Carr for every year he played for the prgogram. He fought for everything he got,”
You’d have to witness an FHC game to understand that environment, and the idea of “fighting for what you have”.
The bleachers are inches from the sideline, where everything can be heard by players, and to be blunt, it can be a downright intimidating experience if you’re on the other side of that line, even as a mere journalist.
The expectations, the passion, and downright ferocity of FHC fans can create the image of going to war, a scene that John Akende grew up in, was molded by, and has now made every part of his style.
It’s a style that all great players out of rough neighbourhoods around Toronto have made their own, Jevonie Scott is another that comes to my mind when I say it.
It’s a way of basketball and fight that most Canadians would only recognize on a hockey rink, but it adapts well to the hardwood, even if it can make the elite of basketball uncomfortable at times.
It’s this combative style that at times has garnered himself criticism from analysts, scouts, and coaches alike.
But then you watch him play, the passes, the ability to change directions on a dime, the way he attacks the rim as a 6’0 guard, the joy with which he plays the game.
Yes, he plays with a chip on his shoulder, but if you ask his coaches from the past five years, they wouldn’t change him for anything.
“The first thing I came to realize about John, was how strong his personality is.” Says Jeremie Kayeye, the current head coach of RISE Prep, the program out of Brantford in which John spent his fifth-year and finished his high school career this past season. “I will always take a guy that I have to calm down a little, as oppose to a player I have to get riled up to play, you can’t teach that desire to compete. It’s a blessing to have in a point guard.”
So when coach Kayeye saw this out of his new point guard, he devised a way in practice just to see just how competitive John really was.
“There is this old story about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, in which the coaches would put Michael on the weaker of the two teams as a way to kind of challenge him and get that team to go up a level. That’s exactly what I did to John, and every, single, time, his team would come out on top. He had that energy, that sheer will, and you could see the positive effect it had on others around him.”
Coach Kayeye wasn’t aware of it just yet, but John and his other major pick up, Philadelphia native and class of 2019 guard Rahmir Moore, would be the “Batman and Robin” backcourt duo that would lead this newly formed prep team to a fourth-place finish in the OSBA regular season. This was a feat nobody close to the league (including myself) saw coming before the year began.
Except for John Akende of course.
“I had never seen Rahmir play before,” admits John “then I saw what he could do in practice, combine that with some of the other guys that I already knew were on this roster, and I was like ‘yo, we could really make a statement here this year, create something special.’”
Then came the preseason with his new team, where John and the rest of RISE would take on another Canadian powerhouse AI Prep, headlined by class of 2020 guard and NBA prospect Addison Patterson.
The two would be matched up for the most of the game, and it was here that Kayeye finally got to see just what his new point guard could do when the lights were brightest, and against the best competition.
“His leadership in those moments during that game was invaluable. The way he kept his teammates focused and full of energy, you will always see him talking them up, reminding them that rankings don’t matter, to just go out and play.” Said Kayeye.
RISE would get the 95-92 win, coach Kayeye saw all he needed to see, while John and the rest of his teammates had a new mentality for the rest of the year.
“It never mattered who we were up against this past year, we knew we had a chance to win, and we all bought into that after that game.” says John.
And what of those critics? The coaches that know him best believe that even though John could’ve been a challenge at times, he’s been worth having every step of the way.
“Get to know him, I had a chance to get to know him, I can understand if you don’t, you may think ‘that’s a personality that’s too big for me.’ But it’s not that, he just wants to win. He comes from an area where it’s win or lose. If you win, cool, but if you lose, it’s almost life and death out there. There’s no days off with him, it’s win all the time, at all costs on the court. Winning for guys like him, coming out of his environment, is like seeing another day, so when you lose it’s brutal.” says coach Kayeye.
“John and I are very similar,” says coach Melnik when asked about his relationship with John. “and yes, I think he was always a vocal leader, I just think that as a young man, especially in grade nine when he was leading guys that were a year older than him, at that level, it’s a lot. Sometimes when your emotional, your body language doesn’t come across the way you wanted to, even so, if you need someone to run through a wall, get in a teammates face when you need that from your leader, John’s the guy.” Says Coach Melnik.
And what does John himself have to say?
“They don’t see the conversations after the game or hear what’s being said in those timeout huddles. I could call a timeout because I don’t like the setup we have on the floor and say it to my coach in front of everyone, and people on the outside are saying ‘oh that’s disrespectful’. But then I’ll get into the huddle, explain why I did what I did to coach, he’ll be telling me good job for recognizing it. So I get why people say what they say, but the only people that I’m working with out there are my teammates and coaching staff. Getting them to understand why I do what I do is all that matters to me.”
Akende had been a leader for FHC at every level by his final high school year. But by that time, everyone in his personal circle felt that in order to get that one final push before looking at colleges, a change in scenery had to be made. So, joining RISE at the beginning of the 2017-18 year.
Despite losing one of his top players, coach Melnik saw a bigger picture, and believed the move would help get John to where he needed to be.
Coach Melnik has never been the type to mince words, as anyone who has seen him scream and jump up and down sidelines all across North America would know. So, it wouldn’t shock most as to why he felt a change was necessary for his starting point guard.
“The thing about playing in your own neighbourhood, is that people around these players will put them on a pedestal, and the players start to believe they can do no wrong. Everybody can do wrong, and sometimes people need to be reigned in and be held accountable, and that’s why John needed the change. He had a great year at RISE Prep, I like Coach Jeremie, and I couldn’t be happier for the success John had this past season. To this day John and I still talk after games. He still asks for my advice, and I provide what I can, like I would do for any of my former players.”
Despite Melnik’s blessing and best wishes, John still felt a little hollow for leaving the only basketball family he knew through his high school career.
“It was a difficult conversation for me, because I felt like I had let Coach Melnik down, like we didn’t get a chance to finish what we started.”
But despite the changes, John still credits both coaches on allowing him to be the player that he has become, one that will surely be wearing an NCAA jersey in the very near future.
“I was lucky enough to have two coaches through high school that knew the game inside and out, and as a result they allowed me to be myself, to learn and grow. They helped me learn how to be a better leader, how to deal with different personalities in teammates, and how to get the best out of them.”
It’s a lesson in life he hopes to bring back to the kids of Rexdale looking to follow in his footsteps, as the smaller guard with the most amount of fight in him.
“Just have faith in yourself and don’t ever, ever, ever let them tell you that you can’t achieve. Believe me, if I could make it to this level, this point, you can as well. You come from a long line of amazing ballers, so keep that pride with you when you go out against anybody.”
Anybody, everybody, it doesn’t matter, John Akende has next.