Legacy is defined as something received from an ancestor in the past.
In any instance however, the past undoubtedly defines the future.
By this definition, the legacy of Eastern Commerce basketball dates back to 1974–a history jam-packed with success, failure, roadblocks, perseverance, long-lasting memories and lifechanging experiences that have impacted the future of countless youth.
Program Closing Down
Head Coach Kevin Jeffers is in preperation mode for the 2014-2015 basketball season, but this time it’s different.
This time, the end is near.
The School that currently serves only 65 students will be closing down next year due to lack of a student body. 12 of the 65 students in the school are on the basketball team, not only representing the name, but the legacy.
Yet, Jeffers is approaching this season like any other year; one practice at a time, while teaching his players about the game and infusing translatable life skills in his messages.
The lack of a deep talent pool to select from is not used as an excuse, rather a challenge to his players.
“When there’s a bigger population you can hide….over here there’s no hiding. When they look around, it’s only them” Jeffers told North Pole Hoops.
Chase Your Dreams
Typically, the student-athletes that walk through the Eastern doors face socio-economic challanges: single home households, poverty, and grind.
With the right guidance, commitment and support system in place, the Eastern Commerce basketball program has had these individuals surpass their own expectations over the decades, becoming successful professional basketball players, national team representatives, scholarship student-athletes, authors, buisnessmen and positive role models in the community that the Saints program can be proud of.
Kerwin Liverpool played at Eastern Commerce (1998-2003) and would move on to the CIS, playing at Cape Breton in the AUS. Liverpool is currently an elementary school teacher, Toronto Raptors Academy Lead Coach, an author, public speaker and entrepeneur.
The Saints alumni published a biography titled, “The Rise from Poverty to Prosperity.”
In his book, Liverpool references his experience at Eastern Commerce and the lessons he learned in those five years.
“Eastern players are able to dream,” stated Liverpool.
He says going to Eastern was a life changing experience as he was exposed to the culture of basketball and how to train.
“My high school experience without basketball will leave a huge void in my life because Eastern helped me build family, relationships, and it helped me become a man, with dreams and vision, on the other hand I am beyond happy because now I will get to make new experiences with The First Whistle academy.”
The Eastern Commerce program boasts an alumni list of 50+ NCAA Division one & CIS Players, including Jamaal Magloire, Joe Alexander, Colin Charles, Jermaine Anderson, Kingsley Constaine, Tyler Murray, Keaton Cole, Mark Hunt, Charles Roslyn, Earl Moncrieffe, Jimmy Peteford to name a few.
Eastern Commerce Basketball Family
“Basketball is that launching pad for the next level…being a part of the team is everything to these guys,” said Jeffers, who has had several opportunities to coach at different schools and at higher levels but has declined.
There is a commitment to his players, and a rewarding feeling in being part of the program’s contagious community-based culture.
“I didn’t graduate from Eastern…but I was welcomed into this community, and it’s overwhelming, said Jeffers.
“These people know your face, and they love your face…they really appreciate it.”
It is difficult to describe the true essence of Eastern Commerce basketball in words, however speaking with Lou Sialtsis provided historical insight.
Sialtsis is the rock for Eastern Commerce Basketball, and a program encyclopedia, having been involved since it’s inception in 1974, with a multi-faceted role that has evolved over the years.
“Lou inspired everyone, he’s the Godfather…without Lou I don’t know if there’s an Eastern Commerce,” stated former player and Head Coach Simeon Mars.
From teaching at the school to Vice Principle, Staff Advisor, securing financial support, and presently program advisor, Sialtsis has just about done it all.
“I’m an educator first, and coach second, but the two roles are compatible — when you’re coaching, you’re teaching and when you’re teaching you’re coaching,” said Sialtsis.
The first Eastern senior boys city title came in 1976, lead by Simeon Mars, who played a key role in the emergence of the program, according to Sialtsis.
“The impact he had on our kids and igniting that impact was significant. Simeon came up with a winning formula, and we sustained it throughout.”
After an hour on the phone with Mars, it was so clear that his philosophy was rooted around the main priority, the student-athletes.
Education and Accountability
“The number one thing we cared about was the kids, and not just from a basektball standpoint, but educationally,” explained Mars.
“The Most important thing for me was to watch these young men graduate,” he continued.
Mars played for Eastern Commerce, would graduate and then return to his roots approximately a decade later, as Head Coach.
In four seasons, Mars won two provincial titles, compiling a 140-21 overall record, including an undefeated season at 44-0 in 1994-1995.
“My premise was to develop good young people and it wasn’t just me…we shared this philosophy in the program from top to bottom.”
Mars credited Nabuko Khan, the team’s academic advisor, as she was instrumental in the success of Eastern players, including Jamaal Magloire, describing her as caring and selfless while pointing to the fact that every player in the program would agree.
Sialtsis exclaimed, “she personifies dignity, respect and class” referring to Khan.
“We had everyone involved to support these young people. If we didn’t have success in classroom, we were not going to succeed on the court,” said Mars.
This academic standard helped instill the discipline necessary to achieve excellence.
The Saints have only missed participating in the city championship four times between 1976-present. In this 39-year span, EC has claimed an unparalleled 24 senior boys city championships.
In 1982, Eastern became the first team to win the OFSAA provincial title from Toronto in twenty years, as the Southwest region (Niagara Falls and Windsor schools) dominated for an era.
Since then, Toronto teams have dominated.
“Eastern commerce basketball was really a perfect storm. It wasn’t just about winning championships, but we were the first real community based team representing the city—our players came from everywhere around the city and our coaches even to this day, represent community involvement,” said Sialtsis.
In 2001, Eastern Commerce became the first team to ever win four OFSAA titles in a row, (2001,2002,2003,2004) under the guidance of Jonathan “Big Jon” Smith, Roy Rana, Trevor Bullen and Kevin Jeffers .
Sialtsis recruited Rana, as he was impressed with the work he had done in challenging young people at his previous school C.W Jeffries.
Rana explained there was a clear difference from both coaching experiences.
At C.W Jefffries, “it was starting from scratch…building a program, tradition and culture.”
“Eastern was already a great program in Canadian basketball history. I was just trying to fit in, embrace what existed, and add anything that I could,” continued Rana.
It was a responsibility that was taken very seriously, to uphold the standard that was set.
Cialtsis explained “Roy took a very good thing, and made it better,” while mentioning that there were a lot of similarities between Roy and Simeon.
The key was demanding the best from players and always giving the best to players.
“Roy is a passionate and bright person who continues to improve himself as a coach,” said Sialtsis. “He drove me nuts asking questions when I first met him…and to this day he always seeks knowledge in his experiences.”
Following his time at Eastern, Rana elevated the Ryerson Rams program and is Head Coach of the Canadian Junior National Team, having coached the country’s best young talent.
Reminiscing on his time at Eastern, Rana says, “I mean it’s just a special place, a special group of people with a powerful effect that has been attached to it. I’m proud I was able to make a pit stop, and contribute to such a strong tradition.”
In Rana’s tenure at Eastern, a name that stuck out was Kingsley Costain, “probably the greatest example of resillience and grit that I’ve encountered in coaching,” he explained.
Costain was a once chubby 5’7 guard that fought a learning disability, but would go on to make the Canadian Junior National Team and play NCAA basketball at Pepperdine.
“He was relentless, just a work horse, a get up early, stay late kind of guy.”
Players developed a toughness to them, through their training enironments, which translated into everyday life.
“They faced challenging economic circumstances but that never stopped them from succeeding,” Sialtsis explained.
Team work within the entire program was stressed–from obtaining sponsorship, to school administration and coaching staff–everyone was on the same page.
The school’s alumni have also been a major part of the long-term success as they have given back to the community, and play the role of mentor to upcoming groups.
Whether it’s returning to Eastern’s compact gym to speak and compete with the current group, or maintaining a connection with the coaching staff, the alum support has been a valuable part of the program.
“It’s beautiful when you get messages from overseas…these are messages we hold dear to us,” said Jeffers.
Over the year’s, Eastern teams have travelled to Africa, Europe, Japan, the Bahamas and all over North America; their alumni have done much of the same playing professionaly across the globe.
The Basketball Gym
If you walk into Eastern Commerce’s basketball court for the first time, you could easily mistake it for a practice gym due to it’s size.
“You will never know the true story until you walk in and see the gym,” said Rana.
Once again, instead of being used as an excuse, the gym’s lack of size has been instrumental in preperation and development for Eastern players.
“When you understand the nuances of the game in terms of spacing, footwork and intangibles…it worked to our advantage,” said Liverpool.
The Eastern Commerce gym has evolved into a symbolic representation of the underdog, illustrating that economical setbacks are just that…hurdles in the way of one’s goals and dreams.
“Guys didn’t have much and when you see the gym, and you see the accomplishments of these young men, you see they are self made,” said Rana.
Mars wanted to make sure that the players were exposed to hard work which means earning what they received, “They were great young people, but they didn’t have the silver spoon; they wanted to learn, listen and work hard.”
During Jamaal Magloire’s high school career, that same tiny gym had the biggest names in the basketball world enter the Eastern Doors.
Rick Pitino, Jim Boehiem, Tubby Smith, Tom Crean, John Thompson, Tom Izzo–all the big time NCAA coaches in Toronto.
“It’s the most amazing thing…all the coaches came in and wondered, ‘this is not where you guys play games is it?’ explained Mars.
“It worked well for us in learning how to work in short space; cutting quickly, changing direction quickly, you never have enough room.”
Mars coninued to say it was like heaven when matching up against opponents, as the game came so easy.
“We suffocated them, put the press on and they had nowhere to go.”
The Eastern Commerce program has pressed their way into a total of eight provincial titles, and five silvers.
2014-2015 Season – The End is Near
The high school season has tipped off, and Coach Jeffers undoubtedly has his troops prepared, as the final year of Eastern Commerce basketball is looming.
The Saints are once again one of the top high school teams in Canada, having quickly busted into the #NPHTop25 National Rankings.
“If we are going to go out, we are going out the Eastern Commerce way. I know I can bring that forward…I know the history and the standard,” said Jeffers.
This year’s team is by no means the most talented in school history, however the players hold a great responsibility in their hands; to represent the name on the front of the jersey.
“Representing is the first thing we tell them…there’s no one person bigger than this program.”
The team knows its their last year, but it hasn’t sunk in yet, to understand how much of an impact the closing of the school will have on the basketball community and on the name.
Lou Sialtsis simplifies the scenario, “It means the same to them as it means every year…understand and appreciate the legacy that’s happened before you and enhance it by generating your own legacy.”
The 2014-2015 roster will be the last version of the Saints.
“A sad day for a lot of people, a happy day for a lot of people…these 12 guys will be a part of history,” explained Jeffers.
Everything that has been put in…it needs to be recognized.
“Its hard to describe…once you’re part of the Eastern Commerce family, you remain that for the rest of your life,” explained Sialtsis.
“When basketball dies, Eastern dies. It’s sad but it’s a circle of life. It’s a time that we have to smile and celebrate,” said Rana.
The end of Eastern Commerce basketball will be a celebration of team and individual accomplishments compiled over four decades.
And while the school itself will close down, the Eastern Commerce Toronto Basketball legacy will live forever.