Growing Up a Saint – Robert Hakaj, Eastern Commerce Class of 94′

Editorial Note: The following entry illustrates the Eastern Commerce Basketball program from a player’s perspective, through the lens of Robert Hakaj, Toronto all-star, class of 1994 alumni.

In wake of the recent news that Eastern Commerce High School is closing its doors and the Basketball Program will be no longer, I felt an overwhelming urge to share my experience as a Saint Basketball player in the Early/ Mid 90’s. I believe like the players before me, that we opened the doors for the future Saints.

This is my journey.

I can still remember the day that I walked the halls of EC on my first day of school. The upper levels of the school were like any other; the high ceilings, the shiny floors, and glass trophy cases with achievements, and awards filling the halls. Lurking below my feet almost at a slight whisper was a consistent pounding, calling my name.

As I ventured downstairs the pounding sounds grew louder, the entire mood of school changed. Like a medieval dungeon in the 1500’s, doors at every turn, tight corridors, the smell of sweat and chlorine, exposed pipes, and eventually the gym. I had found my calling.

EC Vintage

When I walked in the gym for the first time I couldn’t believe that our gym was half the size of a normal one. You walk in the door and right away you feel something–a certain energy.

The wooden backboards, the brick walls, the cut off three point line on one side of the gym, all things that would point that this is a dump….until you look up past the exposed pipes, the radiator on the wall, at the banners hanging from the bricks. I started to get chills thinking to myself that I would like to be part of this…I had to be part of this.

The Jr. Basketball coach at the time was Neville Edwards. He was and always will be a Life changing teacher for me. Neville was also my History teacher. After a grueling one week tryout period I had made the team. I remember my first Student Athlete lesson that Mr. Edwards taught me. The morning after a game just before class started Mr. Edwards was at his desk. I was talking to him about the game the night before. He patiently waited until I was finished speaking and asked me to step outside the class. It was there the lesson was taught. He simply said “when we are in the class room we talk History and academics….when we are outside the classroom we can talk basketball or anything else that you want to talk about….Never mix the two together….it’s a toxic recipe. Stay focused.” Saint Lesson.

In my Jr. Basketball year I was called up to play Sr. ball from time to time to get exposure to the next level. Being coached by the likes of Harry Baird and Lou Stialtias was intimidating enough. Guarding the likes of Mark Hunte, Patrick McCoy was at the time out of my league. Saint Development.

Going to tournaments and games away were far more exciting than our home games. Some of the student body attended our home games but the limited gallery space, and the sauna like temperature of the exposed pipes made it almost criminal to want to watch and cheer on the beloved Saints.

Playing in tournaments is where the real test was for us. We wanted to know if we really were the best of the best. Silver Fox – Orillia Black ball – Jarvis – Humber – everywhere we could play.

At tournaments it seemed that we were always the talk of the crowd. As we would walk in the gym…you can feel everyone talking about us. Good and bad we all heard what was really being said. Everyone wanted us to fail. Not just loose but be humiliated. I was always nervous waiting for the previous game to finish. In my mind I am going over all the plays and all the lessons trying not to forget any of them. I always believed in my coaches and systems that we ran. Then we took the floor. Jump ball – Full Court Press Full court trap the entire game.

10 minutes after jump it was over. Saint Pride.

EC Banners

We trained in our small gym like it was a football field. We ran twice as hard. Twice as fast. Running the stairs in our school to compensate for the small gym. Timed sprints and runs to ensure that we would withstand full size gyms. We pushed each other. We challenged each other, and just when you would feel tired and mentally drained you would look up and see the banners to be reminded to push through. Look into the eyes of one of Eastern Commerce’s legends and want to run harder. Saint legacy.

I was exposed to the big rival game for the first time at Oakwood. It was the first time that I saw Greg Francis play. It was the first time that I played against O’neil Kamaka, and it wouldn’t have been the last. Like the Saints before me – Hunte had Francis, I had Kamaka. Saint Rivalry.

Grade 11 being coached by Harry Baird, Simon Mars, and Lou Sialtsis was somewhat a nervous one for me. I had great players on my team – Patrick McCoy – Jason Dawkins – Mark Ambers – Collin Charles but we felt like we always had to out-do the past teams accomplishments. It was a tall order. Saint Goals.

In my senior year it was time to shine. I had a taste of the “good” life the year before. It was easy to feel the energy of the starting year. Basketball was everywhere. At lunch times when we didn’t have any intramurals games, we would all go to the gym and there was always some type of “basketball game” going on. We loved to play “American” 6 to 8 guys would play. We played every man for himself. Every possession you would try to make anyone that had the guts to step up and guard you look like a fool. It was clean fun. It started to fuel the fire. By the time ball season rolled around it was all business. Everything that you did was for one goal. To win a City Championship and an OFSAA title.

Having been coached not only on the court but off the court was something that I didn’t realize until later in my life. All the Cafeteria mentorship Coach Simeon Mars would preach slowly started to seep in my soul. Never one to brag or boast Coach Mars would simply put life lessons on your plate to make you think.

Eastern not only focused on basketball. The great teachers throughout my tenure really helped me grow and understand just how important not only a high school education is but a post secondary education is. Mrs. Khan, Mr. Edwards, to name just a few really put education on the map for so many of us. They cared and sacrificed their lives for us to succeed. We would have study hall before practice began and they were always there after practice if we needed that little extra time. We would carry around Attendance and Participation sheets to every class and get the teachers to fill them out. Without them filled out and in good standing you would not practice. And everyone knows if you don’t practice you don’t play. Saint Education.

After a Great win over rival Oakwood in the City Championships at Jarvis, and a heartbreaking loss at OFSAA I knew that my tenure as an Eastern Basketball Player was over….but never forgotten. The Toronto All Star squad was next. Playing in the Toronto All Star game at Varsity Stadium was another milestone that I will soon not forget. The great players on that team and the great coaches truly made me feel like a college player.

After accepting a NJCAA Div I (Nebraska Northeast C. College) offer and thinking back to all the sacrifices not only me as a player and person have made but all my family, friends, and most importantly teachers have made to get me to where I wanted to be, I can only thank God that I was blessed to be an EC Saint and be part of this everlasting basketball legacy in the City of Toronto.

Long live the Saints.

Robert Hakaj

Class of 94’
Eastern High School of Commerce
Northeast Nebraska C. College


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