The city of Windsor, like most Canadian cities not named Toronto, may not seem like a basketball hotbed to the average Canadian.
But to the inner circles of the basketball community here in Canada, Windsor has a much different reputation. It is a reputation that is proud, is arguably the most successful of the twentieth century, and with the most history out of just about any geographical region in Canada, including Toronto.
“Canada’s only Olympic medal in basketball, a silver in the 1936 Berlin games, was won by a team made exclusively of Windsor players,” says Peter Cusumano, the retired head coach of Catholic Central High School and who was recently inducted into the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame. Cusumano’s teams racked up eight OFSAA medals, including two gold, between 1998 and 2015.
The titles don’t stop with just coach Cusumano and Central though, as he is quick to point out that an additional eight Windsor teams won OFSAA titles from 1966 to 1981, with an additional three more before that, and believes that, had it not been for the regional qualifying rules for OFSAA, there could have been even more champions from the city.
“In fact, in many of those years, if two Windsor teams had been allowed to participate I have little doubt that they would have both medaled. There were so many good teams, they made each other better – they forced teams to raise their level just to get out of the city. That combined with many elite coaches made for great teams.”
The success isn’t just relegated to the amateur game however, as the first Canadian NBA players ever, Gino Sovran and Hank Biasatti, suited up for the Toronto Huskies back in 1946. Both players called Windsor home in the offseason.
So how does a mid-sized city like Windsor carry so much weight in the Canadian basketball community? It’s actually quite a simple answer if you look at a map.
“I know for my teams a major reason (for success) was our relationship with Detroit REACH program, and the growth of youth programs such as Core City Hoops. We had a luxury of playing year-round against Detroit teams.”
Rock City, literally a stone’s throw across the Detroit River, was one of the premier hotbeds for basketball in the second half of the twentieth century. They have produced notable NBA players such as Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, former Toronto Raptor Voshon Lenard, and hall of famer George “The Iceman” Gervin, and it is very likely at some point or another in their high school careers, they went up against players and teams from Windsor.
It’s the tried and true method of “steel sharpening steel”, and in a time where there were a limited amount of AAU programs to travel around the country with, the city of Windsor thrived in all amateur sports, not just basketball, being little brother to one of the largest cities in the Midwest.
Even as the amateur basketball talent in Detroit has slightly declined since the turn of the century, the University of Detroit-Mercy Titans continue to be a Mid-Major basketball power to be reckoned with, and Windsor has still managed to thrive as a viable region for the game.
The Windsor Express of the NBLC is one of the most successful franchises in the league’s seven-year history, with high attendance and two of the leagues seven championships so far. Josh Collins, who played for the Express 2014-15, will be bringing forth both his professional and University (Windsor) experience to the forefront for the Windsor NPH Showcase participants.
Windsor players have also still been leaving their mark all across North America, Mychal Mulder just finished his first year in the G-League after playing at Kentucky during his senior year, a transfer after averaging just over 15 ppg at Vincennes. Munis Tutu has carved out a respectable amateur career so far both representing Canada, and currently playing for Canadian powerhouse Carlton University.
Then there is Mike Rocca, a Sarnia native whose appearance at the Windsor NPH showcase in his senior year of high school, gave him a chance to be picked up by the University of Windsor. Rocca’s journey with Windsor basketball will come full circle this year, as he returns to camp, this time as an instructor and speaker.
Even in a time now where the internet can make almost anyone famous, coach Cusumano still believes that exposure events like the NPH Showcase coming up in Windsor next weekend, are as important as ever for coaches to be able to see the talent the city still has to offer all of these years later.
“I believe that Windsor has had a lot of undiscovered talent. So, any light North Pole Hoops’ puts on these players is greatly appreciated. Many of the local players need to discovered and the exposure that NPH can provide is invaluable.”
The game has indeed evolved, like the rest of the world. As the planet gets a little smaller due to communications and travel advancements, Windsor’s advantage of being located right next to a major American city is a gap that has been closed a little, but in truth the real explosion of talent could be right on the cusp.
If anything, Windsor has had a level of experience dealing with top flight competition that no one, not even Toronto, has a history of interacting with in such a close geographical area.
The current coaching staffs have either played or coached against premier talent for most of their lives, as did their fathers, mothers, and other mentors before them. As the city continues to diversify and grow into its own identity, and out of the shadow of Detroit, they very well could have next when it comes to being THE Canadian basketball hotbed, as they were in the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s.
Some will even tell you that they’ve never left, and if you check the OFSAA records, they have a point, which is why exposure and eyes on the court still is, and will continue to be, the most important part of getting to the next level for any young player in Canada.