Graddy Kanku walked into the Campus Recreation and Wellness Centre (CRWC) at 10 a.m. on a cold February morning, wearing a parka, gold chain and still reeling from a 101-61 loss to the Wilfred Laurier Golden Hawks the night before.
The Ridgebacks star player scored a season-low 6 points after returning from injury, and was determined to never let that happened again.
“First in the gym, eh Graddy?” shouts one of the gym’s staff.
“Always,” he replies.
The 6-foot-5 guard takes a seat courtside with assistant coach Rob Birstonas and begins looking at game tape to diagnose what went wrong the night before.
“I don’t really have anything that motivates me but myself,” he said later. “Even though I had a bad game today, I have another one tomorrow. I can’t change the past, but I can change the future.”
Although his game is loud, filled with windmill dunks, short shorts and galloping fast breaks that awe the crowds, off the court he’s an introspective and quiet man at heart, always looking to improve.
In his first season with the Ridgebacks, the Montreal born guard made a splash. Averaging over 20 points a game, he was named to the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) All-Rookies team. He won Male Freshman Athlete of the Year and Rookie of the Year for men’s basketball at Ontario Tech.
Kanku has been playing basketball since grade six but his first break came through a friend who had just been recruited by Canada Topflight Academy (CTA), a premier basketball prep school in Ottawa.
Kanku went to his mother and told her he was interested in attending but with five kids to support, she just couldn’t justify the expense.
“So, I’m thinking, man, I’m not going to be able to play,” said Kanku.
CTA was owned by the same people who owned Ottawa Elite Basketball, so he figured he might get their attention by trying out for Ottawa Elite.
In his third tryout for the Elite, CTA’s practice ran directly after and Kanku was able to get his time to shine in front of the coaching staff.
“Next thing you know, I dunked on someone,” he said with a smile.
The coach pulled him aside after the dunk to say he wanted Kanku to be a part of the program, and suggested they meet with him that weekend to talk to his mom and figure out a deal – which ended with him on a scholarship to CTA.
Kanku led the team through a tough start. They lost to the top teams in their conference but they managed to make it to the National Preparatory Association Championship in their inaugural year as a school and Kanku lit up the scoreboard in the championship game, scoring 29 points. He was named MVP.
“I couldn’t believe it, to be honest—at one point, it was like is this actually going to work or am I just going to waste a year? And some way some how, we just got through,” said Kanku.
After winning the national championship, he was nationally ranked as the 25th best player in his class by North Pole Hoops.
He decided to take the next step in his basketball journey by heading to America to attend Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C.
“I love challenges, I wanted to see if I could do the same thing I accomplished at CTA and bring the same kind of energy in Washington,” he said. “I wanted to be able to say it’s not just because I play in Canada that I’m good.”
But the trip to America was one that ended up shaping Kanku in a way that he wasn’t expecting.
While he still had his bright spots, including a 20-point outburst in a preseason tournament, he was plagued by a hamstring injury that kept him out of the line-up for extended periods.
“It had a huge impact on my mood at the time,” said Kanku. “I was 18 so there was a lot I didn’t understand about injuries, basketball and life itself.”
Self-doubt and negative thoughts crept into his mind but he centred his thought process on getting his diploma and coming back to Canada so that he didn’t waste the year in America.
“I was mad in the moment but I had to get at least one thing accomplished,” said Kanku.
When he returned to Canada, he took some time off to heal the hamstring and eventually took a year off to get his body and mind right to return to playing basketball.
“I really needed that gap year just to think about how I’m going to move from now on,” said Kanku. “If I ever get in a situation like Washington again, am I just going to be negative about it, or am I going to find the positives in a really negative situation?”
He stayed ready throughout his time off and eventually found himself at another first-year program with the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks where he had a deep connection with one of the assistant coaches, Emil O’Neill, who has been a mentor to him throughout the years.
At Ontario Tech he was surrounded by a group of young players who were looking to find their spot on the team and many of them knew who Kanku was because of his time at CTA.
AJ Cummings, Kanku’s teammate, said the pair grew together, creating a big brother, little brother dynamic.
He said at the beginning of the year, Kanku was a consistent voice in his ear, urging him to not pass up shots.
“That’s my big bro, I can call him, face time him whenever, he’s always there,” said Cummings.
Now, with another season lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kanku’s mindset is finding ways to grow and make the best of whatever situation he finds himself in as he works towards his ultimate goal of being the best basketball player he can be.
“I told myself I could either be a victim of COVID-19 or I could also work during that time and get myself right and make something out of nothing,” he said.
With the season all but lost, Ontario Tech still has exhibition games on the horizon, and when they come, Kanku will be ready, mentally and physically to play basketball again.