On December 1st, the new kids on the N.B.L.C. block will return to the easternmost edge of our nation. Saint John’s Edge, Newfoundland’s first professional basketball team, will defend The Rock in its home opener against the Niagara River Lions.
Starting guard, Alex “Superman” Johnson, will face off against River Lions forward, Dwayne Smith, who hails from the same Toronto neighbourhood as him. Both have walked near-identical professional paths, living out of suitcases to keep their hoop dreams alive.
Though they are friends off the court, Dwayne in a River Lions uniform will make Alex hungrier for St. John’s first ever home win. To understand Alex’s hunger and determination, however, one must understand where he comes from.
Alex was raised in Jungle, formally known as Lawrence Heights in Toronto. Long considered Toronto’s underbelly, it’s an isolated community, tucked underneath Yorkdale Mall where Drake recently opened his flagship OVO store. As shoppers come in droves to Yorkdale, housing (more aptly, condo) demand in the area has skyrocketed. To service the lifestyles of the Yorkdale shopper, Alex’s neighbourhood is being bulldozed as you read this. Like many of Toronto’s social housing communities, Jungle is subjected to the same fate — the g-word, the phenomena occurring in every urban city across the world: gentrification — and its revitalization will be the biggest project to date, even bigger than Regent Park’s.
Staring into Phase 1 of the revitalization project for the first time since returning home this past summer, Alex was lost for words. He grimly reflected, “I don’t know how I feel about it,” looking into the intruding eye of the newly constructed condos, still in its nascent, skeletal form.
The very community that raised him will disappear in due time and its remnants will only survive in memory. Though the City of Toronto’s development plan attempts to breathe life into Jungle, Alex found his refuge — his life’s purpose — on these concrete courts long before the condos came. Basketball kept him immunized from the tripartite forces of poverty, violence, and drugs that have and continue to plague this community. He recounted a time when basketball, quite literally, saved his life; he was on an A.A.U. trip to Florida when few of his friends were shot. Had he been home that day, he could have been seriously injured or even worse, dead.
Alex came up in a bygone era when Toronto basketball was overlooked south of the border. A trail to basketball superstardom was never blazed in Jungle, so Alex grew up idolizing those cornrows, that signature, almost-a-carry crossover, and was mesmerized by the lightning quickness of an undersized guard much like him. Allen Iverson made Alex believe that he too could get to The League one day. So Alex practiced — yes, I’m talking about practice! — everyday till darkness befell on Amaranath Court, obsessively repeating every drill until his mom would flicker the lights, signalling him to come back home.
His talents later took him to Cal State Bakersfield and North Carolina State (Coach Dunlap was Alex’s assistant coach at NC State). He even played against NBA All-Star, Paul George, the best player Alex has ever played against. He was drafted #1 overall in the 2013 N.B.L.C. draft and played 11 games in the G League (then D-League) for the Grand Rapids Drive.
Though Alex is a professional hooper, his life has been far from a Cinderella story. When he returns to the Lawrence Heights Community Centre on 5 Replin Road, kids swarm him with questions of why he’s not in the N.B.A.