Richard Amardi: Soaring out of Cataraqui’s Cage
If you’ve ridden Toronto’s tin can east of Vic Park Station, you’ve probably seen a small community located on the south side of the train tracks, right before pulling into Warden Station. Its red brick walls are draped in graffiti, and on a hot summer day, you’ll see kids playing around in the adjacent park.
Nestled in a neglected pocket of Oakridge, this is Cataraqui a.k.a. Block 13. In 2015, Toronto Life ranked Oakridge 111th out of 140 neighbourhoods in “The Ultimate Neighbourhood Rankings”. Oakridge has the lowest employment rate in the city, and Warden Avenue Public School is currently being rebranded due to the stigma it has received, most notably by the Fraser Institute school rankings, which gave it an abysmal 1.6 out of 10.
Behind the screen of our mobile devices, Oakridge seems impoverished and violent, embodying all of Scarborough’s negative stereotypes. Walking through Block 13 with Richard Amardi, however, the world looks a lot different. Standing 6’ 9’’ and radiating with infectious positivity, Amardi grew up in Cataraqui. He recently returned from his first season with the Niagara River Lions of the National Basketball League of Canada.
Amardi is the only basketball player from Cataraqui to ever go pro. He fell in love with the game playing behind the rec centre, known locally as ‘The Cage’. Here, the lines on the littered concrete floor have faded into obscurity with the passage of time.
Long before the college offers came flooding in, long before he ever made a dollar hooping, Amardi’s competitive fire was nurtured on this pavement. “There were a lot of battles down there,” he reminisces and he took the same hunger he had at ‘The Cage’ to the United States, Romania, and Niagara.
Today, kids — around the same age as Amardi when he first moved here at seven years old — flock to the caged court to watch him shoot. Amid the loud, rattling noise of the train tracks, he checks up on them, ensuring they’re staying focused in school. Everywhere he goes in this neighbourhood, kids swarm him as if he is their Muhammad Ali. He is bombarded with questions: “Do you play in the N.B.A.?” “Can you dunk?” “Why aren’t you in the N.B.A.?” One kid even challenged him for his hat or Jordans.
The strong bonds forged here in Cataraqui are foreign to an outsider. Perhaps it’s his 6'9'’ frame or magnetic personality, but he cannot walk alone uninterrupted. Regardless of where his basketball journey takes him, the influence he has in this community is one of his greatest achievements.
His ability to inspire others in Cataraqui will never appear on a stat sheet, nor will it be readily apparent on the court. However, his presence reminds everyone here that where you’re from doesn’t determine your destiny. For them, neighbourhood heroes like Amardi are not only their pride, but needed.
When neighborhoods are branded as being “at risk,” a “priority,” or a “neighbourhood improvement” area, residents internalize these labels as a mark of inferiority, “an implied acceptance of ghetto citizenship and status,” in the words of the late activist, Jane Jacobs.
Amardi’s ethos encapsulates the mentality needed to crush labels, and soar above these two-storey, red brick walls. He has also had his share of setbacks; undrafted by The League in 2014, released by a professional team overseas, and his future with the River Lions remains uncertain.
He continues to be unabated. At 27 years old — and like countless others in Toronto— he still dares to dream of having the coveted Jerry West logo embroidered on his jersey.