Despite an enrolment of only 62 students, Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute continues to have one of the best basketball programs in Toronto. With the school facing closure, we followed the team through the playoffs as the Saints tried to defend their city championship, and the school's legacy.
In a brightly lit sixth-floor gymnasium, coach Kevin Jeffers watches his Eastern Commerce Saints battle their arch rival, the Oakwood Barons. He’s anticipating a heated match—Oakwood is one of the top teams in the city, and the Saints are arguably the most storied high-school program in Toronto’s history. Over the years, more than 50 NCAA Division I and CIS players have emerged from the program, including former Toronto Raptor and NBA all-star Jamaal Magloire. Basketball is a source of pride for the school, and the team’s pedigree is impressive. They’re the defending city champion, although they lost to Oakwood in the provincial playoffs last year.
But as Eastern Commerce squares off against Oakwood in this year’s regional championship, the Saints’ minds are not as focused as their legacy might suggest. Because today isn’t just another game, it’s also a day of reckoning that Jeffers and the team knew would come. Hours before game time, students and faculty of the 89-year-old Eastern Commerce learn that their school will close in June.
Despite sparse enrolment—Eastern Commerce only has 62 students, and for the past two years has not had a grade-nine class—the Saints are one of the best high-school basketball teams in Toronto, ranking fifth in the city. There are two weeks left in the season, the final one in the historic life of Eastern Commerce basketball. In that time, they intend to show Toronto what being an Eastern Commerce Saint means.
“What the fuck are you guys doing!” cries Jeffers to the team as it falls behind to the Barons in the third quarter. “This is not how Eastern plays basketball.”
Jeffers calls a timeout, and the team huddles. Listening to his words are 11 sweaty teenagers and one player not in the game due to injury. There are also assistant and junior coaches, two team managers, and former coach Lou Sialtsis. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes one to produce a top-notch basketball program.
The Eastern Commerce Saints are close to the hearts of many people, and that’s particularly true of Sialtsis; he’s one of the guys who got the program off the ground in the 1970s. He was around when the team won its first city title in 1976 under the coaching of Simeon Mars, and the Saints quickly became known for their talent and tenacity, and things grew from there.
The team went undefeated during the 1994-1995 school year and won OFSAA gold. In 1996, they won it again, and then won four consecutive OFSAA titles between 2002 and 2005, with Jeffers new to the coaching squad. By then, the Saints had become the team to beat, and the school became known for its basketball far beyond Toronto.
The legacy means a lot to alumni and supporters in the Danforth and Jones community where Eastern Commerce is located, and Jeffers is the latest to carry the torch.
He looks the part of a gym rat. His wardrobe is almost exclusively track pants and T-shirts, and he is fiercely dedicated to motivating youth through basketball. “It’s a vested interest,” says Jeffers in his minivan on a lengthy drive up to a playoff game. “It’s time, money, commitment. And it’s not just because they can throw a ball through a hoop. It’s because they’re good kids.”
For Jeffers, who is also the father of young twins, the basketball program is about more than what happens on the court. “[The student-athletes on the Saints] have been neglected or weren’t heard or been looked at as a thug just because of the game they play. Nobody takes the time to look at the kids inside.”
“The program is a real family,” says Gula Osman, a point guard who is hoping to study engineering after high school. “Through my years here I made a lot of friendships and a lot of bonds, and I hope that even though I’m not going here next year I can continue those bonds with my brothers.”
Back in the huddle: a decent scorning from Jeffers, and the Saints are on the court again. They run back out to play the Eastern Commerce way.
The team claws back, and in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter, in spite of the news they heard hours before, they have a chance to beat their rivals.
With four seconds to play, the Saints are down two points and the Barons have the ball. But six-foot-two guard Narcisse Ambanza grabs the rebound, and his instincts kick in. He’s in his element here—Ambanza’s ability to nail clutch baskets with seconds on the clock has earned him the affectionate nickname “Buzzer Beater.” He barrels down the court towards the opposing team’s net. Swarmed by Baron defenders, he tries to create room for his own shot. He bends, shoots, and the crowd gasps as it waits to see the fate of the ball.
It clangs off the rim. The buzzer goes off, and the rivals win the regional championship.
The loss today hurts. If they want to defend their city championship, and give the school’s basketball program the ending it deserves, then there is work to do.
The now-tiny school didn’t always struggle to attract students.
When it opened in 1925, it was absolutely brimming with prospective pupils—“[f]illed to capacity on registration day,” according to a 1925 news clipping from the Globe. By 1927, it was clear Eastern Commerce needed more space: 12 overflow classes with over 500 students were being taught in the school’s basement and auditorium. Ten double portables sat outside.
Almost 90 years later, the state of Eastern Commerce is very different.
Past and present staff members note myriad reasons to explain how Eastern Commerce became the struggling TDSB’s most under-utilized school. “I could have told you five years ago this was going to happen,” says former coach and former principal Lou Sialtsis.
The school’s late start program, instituted in 2009 to combat absenteeism and boost alertness in class, is one source of criticism. One former faculty member said that some parents don’t like the late starts because it means leaving their child alone at home to start the day.
The semester structure is another factor that may have had something to do with its dwindling population. Margaret Varnell, who has been at the school for 52 years, says semesters may have invited a more “transient population” with students coming through the school not for a traditional 9-12 run, but instead to pick up just a credit or two.
Optional attendance, Varnell remembers, was introduced to the TDSB in 1999, and gave students a chance to attend schools outside their home district. The school doesn’t perform well on traditional metrics—the 2012 Fraser Institute school report gave it a 0.7 out of 10, ranking almost last among 718 schools in Ontario.
Assistant coach Nigel Tan says that he’s even heard some people blame basketball itself by claiming the program attracts the “wrong crowd of kids.”
Whatever the reason, the result is regrettable for everyone who invested so much into making Eastern Commerce a part of the community for so long.
Simeon Mars was a student at Eastern Commerce, played on the team, and, years later, returned as a coach to bring the Saints through their first city championship win in 1976. “It’s definitely a sad moment, because of how instrumental the whole community has been, and [has] developed me as a person,” says Mars. “It’s almost like it was an integral part of our community and the neighbourhood. It was one big family … It wasn’t just a basketball program. It was more like a family.”
The day after the regional championship loss, Kevin Jeffers takes his students through a set of drills in the Saints’ tiny practice gym.
The drills last a while, and when they’re done, the team heads to an upstairs classroom to watch game footage. Despite the close result against a tough team, Jeffers says the regional championship loss was the worst the team has played all season. “We’ve just gotta eat it and move on.”
The game footage plays. The room is hot and dark. Jeffers stops the DVD. “What is that?” he asks, looking at one player in particular. “I was trying to dig,” says the player. “We dig in the post, we don’t dig on guard,” says Jeffers. He moves on. The team faces all sorts of obstacles to defend their city championship, and they only have two weeks to improve.
The hard work pays off.
They beat Sir Wilfrid Laurier CI 69-34.
In the semi-finals, they put on an offensive clinic, and top William Lyon Mackenzie CI 80-42.
The victories set up a re-match with the Oakwood Barons for the city championship.
The big game takes place at Ryerson, where Roy Rana, the coach who recruited Jeffers 14 years ago and fine-tuned his coaching skills, now heads heads the university’s men’s team.
“Coach told us to dress up,” says Wendy Yip, the team’s manager, as she walks into the gymnasium in high heels. It’s a special occasion, and so Jeffers’ track-suit uniform is nowhere in sight. Underneath an argyle sweater vest, he sports a collared shirt and tie.
Current principal Jennifer Chan and former principal Bob Nicholson are there. Coaches from other teams that Eastern Commerce beat to get to this spot gather too, to watch the final city championship game the Eastern Commerce Saints will ever play. Former NBA All-Star Jamaal Magloire is there, talking to his former academic advisor Mrs. Khan, and telling her she should bring her grandkids to a Raptors game. Students line the benches and holler, “Let’s go Eastern, let’s go!”
“It’s funny,” coach Sean Henderson remarked at a game just days before, “I’ve never heard a ‘Let’s go Eastern’ in all my time being here. Usually the [fans] are too cool. It’s nice to hear.”
Despite the support, the Saints lose, but in the end, the basketball is secondary.
After the game the Eastern Commerce community, past and present, rallies and hugs and reminisces on the basketball court. It was never about the wins, although those are nice. Really, it was about what it all meant beyond the court—the memories created, the skills taught, and the bonds forged.
“It’s a different type of program … it’s deeper than basketball.”
Junior coach Gyasi Moffett says the decades-long basketball program was about more than the sport. “It’s a different type of program … it’s deeper than basketball.”
Kadre Gray, who just received a two-year athletic scholarship to Northwestern University, agrees with Moffett’s take. “Outside the basketball stuff, these guys are a family,” the standout shooting guard says.
“It’s just a loving environment. We’re all trying to make each other better,” he says.
Despite the city championship loss, or the impending school closure, Jeffers might take heart that comments like Gray’s mean the Saints’ legacy will live on; the players have learned the Eastern Commerce way.
Although the Eastern Commerce Saints were defeated at the city championship match, the team still secured a spot in this year’s OFSAA tournament in Windsor, Ontario. There, they will have one last chance to triumph before their school closes in June.
Photos by Megan Marrelli