Former Canadian professional basketball player Junior Cadougan remembers the day his then five-year-old brother was hit with five bullets in his community known as The Lanes in 2005. The high school player, who was also grazed.
But the 15-year-old then and there insisted on taking the higher road.
“I could have picked up a gun and retaliate on behalf of my bro, but I would have been a target myself,” the 32-year-old said. “Playing basketball kept me off the streets.
“It literally saved my life,” Cadougan said.
He and Toronto teacher Oluwa (Tosin) Tokunboh are two leaders in their local communities of Jane and Finch and Rexdale in Toronto’s North York. They together launched a rep basketball program named Cadougan Elite, but they say it wasn’t easy to accomplish.
“We had the little behaviour issues, but when it came to like respect, and knowing when to separate ourselves, we always knew better,” Cadougan said.
Cadougan played in the U.S. between 2009-2013 at Marquette University in Milwaukee as a point guard. He was in the 2013 NBA Draft but didn’t get selected.
He went on to play for Batumi-RSU in Georgia that year and ended up with the Edmonton Stingers of the Canadian Elite Basketball League for the 2021-22 Basketball Champions League Americas season.
Tokunboh is a teacher that works with autistic children at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and is the founder of the clothing brand Family is Keys. He has been employed with the school board for nine years now.
But it was also a rocky road for him to reach his potential.
“I’ve been subject to violence. I’ve seen it,” Tokunboh said. “I have close friends that passed away through those types of things, and it’s tough to kind of constantly see that, and, so to speak, see that as a norm.”
Even though Tokunboh knew the friends in his circle were doing the total opposite, he said he wanted to take that negativity of his young childhood and show the public that there are some smart individuals in the community.
“The lifestyle around me was obviously really, really tough,” he said. “But we as children, and respectful adults at the time, were able to cloud us a lot from the distractions that may fall us to get into any trouble.”
Both men grew up in poverty areas, which can be a tough neighbourhood for kids growing up. The friendship they have cannot be broken. They both play basketball, but also their bond existed before they even knew of each other.
“Our families have always been connected through middle school, high school, and elementary school in all platforms before we were even born,’ Tokunboh said.
“It’s a god-giving connection that we always have which is great.”
The duo formed Cadougan Elite, part of the non-profit organization called Teach and Ball. It provides youth with an opportunity to participate in sports while gaining valuable life skills and learning tools that will improve their quality of life.
“To know that I grew up in Rexdale and came out to become a teacher, where I’m from that is impossible to accomplish,” Tokunboh said. “Bringing mentorship, fixing vocabulary and giving these young teens the tools, they need to bring along with their basketball career.”
Amare Andemariam, 13, joined the program this year and feels like he has a chance to be successful by playing the sport he loves.
“I’ve played basketball my whole life here and there, I’ve played a little rep when I was younger not too much though, nothing serious, um as this is my first year playing basketball consistently,” he said.
“I want to do this for the rest of my life and I love the game,” Andemariam said.
Although the program is named after him, Cadougan wants to make sure that the world knows that Tokunboh was the creator behind the name and behind the process of getting the non-profit organization running.
“I didn’t make the decision, to be honest, I just had to think about it,” Cadougan said. “Before that, we were thinking of a name and then you know Tosin was like, forget that you know, let’s put it under your name.”
Cadougan’s name is revered in Toronto’s basketball community, and he has used his elevated status to build a program uniting kids from local areas. The team practices two times a week and has 15 basketball players registered in the program.
“I keep on telling them the people are not just giving me love because I play basketball, it’s because of the humbleness, the humble love that I show everybody,” he said.
“There’s no need to act big time, you know. I mean, people love you for your humbleness, not for your big-time moments,” he said.
One particular trip stood out to 15-year-old shooting guard Shayden Irons Betty when he went on a 10-hour trip to check out Cadougan’s old stomping grounds.
“Coach Junior ended up taking us to some of his games,” Betty said. “We got to go out to Milwaukee to watch his former team play. They ended up getting the W.
“We went to other places and we even watched one of his games. It gives us a lot of opportunities to do stuff. And I’m really grateful for that opportunity,” he said.
Tokunboh has committed to providing tools and knowledge he has learned through basketball to design a program that is defined by excellence, that focuses on the overall development and well-being of each player, parent, and partner that this program connects with.
“What could I say like, that’s why the non-profit is a non-profit Teach and Ball,” he said.
“I love my job, I love assisting and teachings new material, and new tools, and allowing them to teach me at the same time, too. So it’s very important,” Tokunboh said.
While basketball has grown domestically, Canadians like Cadougan still validate their success through an American sports framework that promotes hyper-individualism.
For Cadougan, trauma, poverty, and gun violence could have just as easily destroyed him rather than pushed him to rise above them.
“You know the basketball, kept me from those distractions and elevated me to eventually take my talents” to an Atlanta prep school.
During that time you know, I was getting a lot of publicity from grassroots rep basketball and was a part of Slam Magazine,” he said.
It’s that type of story that got 15-year-old Kamarlee Jones feeling like his confidence has been lifted to a whole new level because of the program. He already sees his future in the coming years.
“They’re very influential like they care about what you do on the court, but they also care how you are off the court, how you doing in school, and mentally and stuff like that,” Jones said. “I see myself in the NBA in about five years.”
Tokunboh and Cadougan feel the goal of making Cadougan Elite a staple in Canada has started on a good note.
“I get to finally come back home and give back and do a 360 you know, show them that anything is possible,” Cadougan said.