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Over a decade ago, Shamar Coombs packed his bags, and ventured south of the border to chase a hoop dream. This was a time in Toronto’s basketball history when Canadian players were overlooked and underestimated.

Shamar Coombs. The name means very little to anyone outside the tight inner Toronto basketball circle. But today, he is the working man’s ball player. His story encapsulates the true price of chasing a dream, requiring dogged persistence and belief in oneself, despite the odds being against his favour.

Behind a cluster of three Tar-Heel blue, Gordonridge housing projects, Shamar stares at the empty ball court. Here, he pounded the rock on the concrete, dreaming of one day playing on an NBA hardwood. He credits his cousin and Toronto legend, Denham Brown, for fuelling his fire to chase his own hoop dream. Denham being drafted by the Seattle Supersonics made the dream within arm’s reach, at a time when Jamal Magloire was Toronto basketball’s only locally-produced N.B.A. talent.

Denham made it. Shamar still dreams of “touching NBA waters”. Both share the same grind, bouncing from team to team, country to country, just to seize the chance to professionally hoop. Since 2006, Denham has changed jerseys and area codes every year. Shamar has taken his talents to Florida, Texas and Columbia.

Both their professional lives mirrors one of a precarious temp worker, rather than an NBA celebrity. Though they are no longer considered young in the short lifespan of a pro ball player, their passion for the game remain kindled. Shamar speaks of having to always be “mind focused and ready” to play. This requires him to keep his mind and body in tip-top condition all the time. “It’s all about performance. If you don’t perform, you get sent home,” he says.

He’s become acculturated to the dog-eat-dog world of professional basketball. At Corpus Christi, his coach convinced Shamar to stay an extra half year, but abandoned him for greener pastures — taking a coaching job at a different school. They haven’t communicated since, and Shamar says “I was in a major jam”. Having no coach or agent to depend upon, reality hit him.

“I just [had] to go hunting. It’s like a hunting game…If you don’t have nothing, it’s very hard because now you gotta hunt.” He played several seasons in the ABA, and many times, it was easy to become discouraged — “I killed the workouts,” he says, “and still don’t get selected”. But Shamar’s strong mind kept him focused on basketball.

In the past, there’s been a string of tragic local hoops stories; players coming back empty handed from the hunting game. Instead of sticking to their vision, they were lured by the streets — nota bene: Alwayne BigbyTyler Richards, and Charbel Chibani. One is awaiting trial, the other dead, and the last one behind bars.

The allure of a quick dollar has always been there for Shamar. He walks on the sundried patches of yellow grass in the Gordonridge community of Scarborough — his old stomping grounds — with close friend and founder of PINDAB, Michael Opoku. Both rose above a life of crime and violence, having stayed focused on their purpose. Shamar and Michael were both given immunity, being the sole hooper and community activist in their circle of friends.

Success doesn’t always equate with being the next Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, or Andrew Wiggins. There are countless other Shamars in this city who continue to pursue their hoop dreams, paying whatever price necessary to sustain their love for the game.

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