When you think about the elite high-school basketball programs in the city of Toronto, one name generally stands above the rest – Eastern Commerce Collegiate.
After all, the Saints lay claim to eight provincial titles and are the reigning four-time city champions in the Quad-A division, the highest level of high-school athletics.
It all makes sense, but when you walk up the steps of the 85-year-old school, it’s hard to believe it’s home to a basketball power house.
The gym, where the Saints hold their practices and four home games each season, is underwhelming. Put simply, it’s tiny. As is the diminutive the student body, with just 552 kids registered at Eastern Commerce. With such a small student population, becoming a dominant force in basketball seems all the more improbable.
“It goes back to the commitment and the dedication not only from the coaches but the players. It’s a pride in the tradition,” said Kevin Jeffers, who is in his second season as head coach but has been a part of the program for more than a decade, serving as an assistant in the late’90s. “Although we a have a low enrolment, the high calibre players throughout the city still come to our school.
“Every school has their own way of recruiting kids, I don’t want to use the word recruitment but it is what it is. We hold middle-school tournaments for the kids in the surrounding area to identify who lives in the area, who is talented enough and who can standout.
“Our reputation sells a lot…people hear of what Eastern does and they want to be a part of that. The winning tradition speaks for itself.”
In six of the last nine seasons Eastern Commerce has captured the Toronto District School Boards Quad-A crown and won both the boys and girls title in the same season, the only school to do so, back-to-back.
The success and tradition caught the attention of 17-year-old Aaron Best, who decided to transfer to the Saints after realizing he needed to expand his game.
“It started when I was in grade 10 and I was looking towards my basketball career after high school,” said Best. “I looked at the school I was at [Mowat] and that school didn’t really have what I needed in terms of [playing] post-secondary. I went to a camp that was held here, I met Roy Rana [former head coach] and he told me this will probably be a good school to come to in terms of developing.”
Since his arrival, the lefty small forward has shown great improvement and has emerged as a top prospect in the city.
“He’s the epitome of what Eastern Commerce basketball should be,” said Jeffers. “He’s the hardest worker on the floor, he leaves it out there, he’s running when he has cramps and he’s a student of the game.”
The pride and tradition of Commerce basketball has set it apart from other schools. Jeffers says to be a Saint is a privilege not obtained through talent alone but by displaying a diligent work ethic and earning recognition as opposed to expecting it.
“The talent is always going to be there, you can’t coach effort, you can’t teach that stuff that has to be within,” said Jeffers. “It’s built in the off-season, it’s built the two or three years where they’re sitting on the bench backing up the star player[s] and now they come and rise to say, ‘it’s my turn, I’ve risen, I’ve put in my time,’ and that’s what it takes.
“When you put in your time at Eastern Commerce your name will be out there in the community.”
Best is the very essence of what a Saint is supposed to be and is constantly reminded of the tradition the program upholds.
“I see it every day, if you look at the banners on the wall you see it every day before you practice,” said Best.
Being as dominant as Eastern Commerce has been in recent years, the Saints have accumulated their share of praise – along with some criticism.
Detractors argue the school is strictly a basketball factory, uninterested in the well-being of students, more concerned with winning and adding banners to the walls than academics.
But in light of the recent trend that has seen an exodus of home grown talent for supposed greener pastures in United States prep schools, the intentions of the Commerce program has never been clearer.
“A lot of kids that walked through our doors in the beginning of September went to those prep schools because [they made] promises,” said Jeffers. “At Eastern Commerce we make no promises, we don’t offer anything, we just say ‘if you want to work hard and be a part of something special, please come.’
“Our kids believe in what we do, trust in what we do. We don’t just say ‘OK here’s a ball now go play,’ we groom them, we coach them, we prepare them and then we help them try to get that post-secondary education.”
Having stood on Phin Avenue in the heart of East York for more than eight decades, it’s hard to believe the community would not be enamoured by the legendary local team.
“The community that lives here it is a different community, a lot of our kids come from neighbouring communities,” said Jeffers.
With few local fans supporting the team, the defending city champions find themselves trying to win over hostile crowds and neutral parties in the stands as temporary fans.
“Everyone wants to see Eastern Commerce lose, so we do have fan support it’s just on the other side,” joked Jeffers.
Though the Saints cheering contingent may be small their presence, much like the teams, is always felt.
“We have a great core of alumni and a great core of teachers and administration that support us, so that little few we have cheering for us sound [like] so many.”