Canadian basketball was on the cusp of something special back in 2008.
Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson – years away from their NBA debuts – silently pioneered a youth movement to one of best prep schools in the U.S., opening the doors for their fellow countrymen.
The high school talent was exploding with two basketball titans – Eastern Commerce and Pickering High – taking centre stage and showcasing a record number of future National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Canadian ballers.
And an off-season deal for the hotly touted Hedo Turkoglu had the Toronto Raptors’ fanbase delirious for the upcoming season.
But in the middle of it all the Ryerson Rams basketball program stood oddly still.
This the same institution located in Toronto’s downtown core – only minutes away from some of the city’s most recognizable outdoor courts and the Air Canada Centre – home of the Raptors.
All factors considered, it seemed the Rams would be the ideal suitor to reflect the basketball uprising happening right outside its very own university walls – but it didn’t.
That is, before Roy Rana arrived on the scene one year later.
“He’s helped bridge the disconnect between Toronto basketball and the CIS and Ryerson. Now obviously his profile as the junior national team head coach, cadet national team coach, and grassroots involvement has helped elevate our brand to the next level,” said Ivan Joseph, Ryerson’s athletic director since 2008 and the man responsible for the coach’s hiring. “Roy has been just instrumental in the whole grassroots movement of basketball”
In Rana, the Rams had not only found their man but also the heartbeat of Toronto basketball.
As a nine-year high school coach for the mighty Eastern Commerce Saints – and with nine city titles, four Ontario championships and an estimated 40-plus graduates having played in the NCAA – Rana was at the helm for some of the best years in one of Canada’s greatest high school basketball programs ever.
If anyone were to turn around the Rams’ program and resuscitate the team’s pulse, it would fall on Rana.
But it wouldn’t be easy as the school’s coaching timeline could attest to.
There was Glenn Taylor who failed to reach the second round of the playoffs in his four-year tenure as the bench boss.
Patrick Williams’ miserable two-year stint including just one victory in 44 regular-season games.
Terry Haggerty’s 22-year coaching span with the Rams was the closest thing to stability and success the program had seen in some time despite a 10-year stretch where his teams rarely hit five wins per season.
Haggerty eventually managed to steer the ship in the right direction towards the end of his career, culminating in the school setting a single-season wins record with 17 in 1999-2000.
But for whatever consistency Haggerty had established, it quickly disappeared following his messy “surprise” firing and then athletic director David Dubois, with details remaining murky to this day.
The rocky past wasn’t lost on the players either with many acknowledging the uphill battle when Rana sought them years ago.
“Ryerson was not on the map for basketball before Coach Rana was here,” said Derrick Allahyarian, a fourth-year shooting guard. “You have to give him props for changing the direction of the program from losers to national contenders.”
So in came Rana in 2009 – an accomplished coach with a penchant to win big with big talent, but with the Rams’ basketball reputation increasingly dwindling despite routinely producing the best talent in the country.
The university, and the newly hired Joseph, knew something had to be done. They had to step in and help – even the revered coach couldn’t do this alone.
“We initiated the Global Spectrum movement and we went out and bid on the CIS national championships – Toronto had never hosted the CIS championships before,” said Joseph, when asked what had been done to improve the fan experience. “And overall we’ve just ensured that we’ve had a great support system in place for our student-athletes.
The results have worked beautifully for the last seven years.
Rams perennial powerhouse in CIS
Under the guidance of Rana, 46, the Rams have emerged as a perennial powerhouse in CIS basketball.
The team has had a record above .500 in the past four campaigns, but the Rams didn’t truly catapult into the spotlight until their bronze-medal finish at the CIS tournament last season – the school’s lone national medal in any sport.
Rams capture 1st CIS medal
The Ryerson Ram’s bronze-medal win at the 2015 CIS men’s basketball championship was the first-ever medal for the school at a national tournament. It was also the first time in history that the Rams advanced as far as the semifinal round.
After disposing of the No.2 seed Windsor Lancers 82-68 in the quarter-final behind a 20-point effort from Jahmal Jones, Ryerson came up short of claiming a spot in the gold-medal game, falling to the third-seeded Ottawa Gee-Gees 84-75.
That set up a bronze-medal game against the Victoria Vikes and a chance to send final-year players Jordan Gauthier, Bjorn Michaelsen, and Jahmal Jones off on a winning note. Jones earned the MVP award, scoring 25 points and leading the Rams to a 82-68 victory.
The bronze-medal win followed the best regular-season in recent history for the Rams, earning a 17-2 record, tied for the Ryerson record for wins in a season.
The accomplishment on that night was as much symbolic as pragmatic.
Playing in its recently renovated Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC) – formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens – the Rams went toe-to-toe with some of the country’s best, providing exactly the type of thrill and excitement that had gripped the Toronto basketball scene just prior to Rana’s arrival.
“I still remember (their) semifinal game against Ottawa. That was one of the wildest CIS games and atmospheres I’ve seen for any sport,” said Bruno Kovac, a third-year economics student who was one of the many Ryerson students to help sell out the match.
“I’ve been keeping tabs on them since then, seeing how they’ve been playing. It’s a fun team to watch.”
On the heels of what may have been the greatest year in the program’s existence, Rana has decided to take a momentary pause as he currently serves a year-long sabbatical.
Routinely declining to comment on the team and program to media members – as was the case when reached by the Toronto Observer – it appears the Toronto native truly needs the recharge from a hectic transition plan set in motion years ago.
But in just walking a few steps into the MAC, it’s clear the enthusiasm that Rana has generated towards the university’s basketball scene is here to stay.
Former players immortalized
Images of former players are immortalized around the walls, athletes are regularly celebrated with large hanging banners and basketball events are routinely attracting higher profile personalities and media attention from the community.
“I’m not sure if we are on the national level yet but definitely if you are in the GTA then we are one of the players you must consider,” said Joseph, the man who initiated a successful referendum in favour of a new athletics facility in 2009.
So in the wake of those transformative years interim head Coach Patrick Tatham has been given a team that is feeling less David and more Goliath.
“I think we are the favourites whenever we step on the court (this year), teams will be coming at us and giving their best game,” said Allahyarian, whose team went 7-1 in pre-season action against CIS opponents.
“We will be ready for that.”
Gone is first team all-star Jamal Jones but in his place is Ammanuel Diressa – a former NCAA Division 1 player at Tennessee Tech, along with a more experienced group of players to support the team’s leaders, Aaron Best, Juwon Grannum and Adika Peter-McNeilly.
Carleton and Ottawa will always be the favourites to come out of Ontario until proven otherwise but the Rams, filled with a mixture of confident, athletic, and perhaps most importantly, hungry and now prideful players, may finally be primed to break through.
“We know we have a good chance of winning nationals this year,” said Roshane Roberts, the third-year starting guard. “That’s what drives us to get better every practice.”
And for a program just years removed from irrelevance in Canada’s biggest basketball market, what a truly satisfying transformation that would be come March.