National Film Board of Canada
Photo: National Film Board of Canada

Ryan Sidhoo, creator and director of True North, a documentary about the rise of Toronto Basketball, spoke exclusively with regarding the challenging aspects of creating this film, his thoughts on basketball in Toronto and more.

How difficult was it for you to create this documentary? What were the most challenging aspects of this procedure?

“Basketball is my first love so getting out and spending time in gyms with the subjects of the film, that is fun and just second nature to me. I can spend hours upon hours around the game and never be bored. 

The difficult part is when you end up with 500 hours of footage. You need to comb through all of it and bring to life the most compelling stories for the audience that runs about two hours.

Our editor Graham Withers was super valuable to have in the edit to help in that process, he helped us focus on what we felt were the most important themes and issues to explore on screen. 

Then, there is the challenge of just getting the funding to actually go out and produce a film. That is the hardest part of any project. Luckily, Canada is having a moment with basketball and The National Film Board and Red Bull Media House saw value in that story that and wanted to get behind True North.”

What is your opinion about Toronto Basketball? Do you think it has been overlooked compared to other cities in Canada and the United States?

“In the first episode of the series we chart the rise of basketball in Toronto and we talk to a lot of forefathers of the game in the city. Based on what they lived, back in the 70’s and 80’s the level of talent was overlooked compared to the States.

It seems the talent was always there, but it was untapped. I feel because the internet wasn’t a thing back then, it made it harder for D1 programs to really know how much top tier talent existed in Toronto. However, if you look at the story of Toronto basketball, it was all a progression or perfect storm over time.

There was more awareness of the talent in the 90’s with high school teams like Eastern Commerce. Having a guy like Jamaal Maglore on that team, who went off to Kentucky and became a first round pick helped raise Toronto’s profile. It just kept progressing from there: The internet boom, Coach Ro Russell’s Grassroots’ teams barnstorm AAU tournaments in the States, Vinsanity, former players returning from pro careers abroad to start more youth programs. 

This lead to more kids playing and the coaching was getting better and now Toronto has progressed into being a talent hotbed. If you look at RJ Barrett’s story, he is the poster-child of this progression of basketball in Toronto. 

Overall, Toronto is the leader of Canada’s basketball scene, but Montreal is producing some really amazing talent. Luguentz Dort at ASU looks like a first round pick and they have another young stud coming up named Quincy Guerrier, who will play at Syracuse next year.”

Yasin Osman
Ryan Sidhoo – Photo: Yasin Osman

Do you think this documentary can raise people’s interest and have a positive impact on the rise of Toronto Basketball?

“I think the basketball world knows Toronto and Canada have arrived on the world stage. We have the most NBA players outside of the United States in the league, we won the FIBA U-19’s and the 2019 Draft class is loaded with Canadian talent.

What I think True North did is unravel how this happened as well as give insight into what life looks like inside this cottage industry of youth basketball up North.”

Given the fact that you had interviews with many young players, as part of the documentary, and see how they practice and play, who do you think has the potential to become a professional player either in the NBA or overseas?

“Without a doubt, I think all of the five players we focused on in the project can play professional basketball – it just remains to be seen at which level.

Obviously, Elijah Fisher is a very special talent and receiving high major D1 offers at 14. His ceiling is very high and it has been fun to see how much he keeps progressing and refining his game each summer. 

I also really like the story of Jalen Celestine whose father is from Montreal and played a bit overseas in France. Jalen has been under the radar and now starting to gain traction from D1 programs, but I think being a late bloomer has helped him. Super smooth lefty with good size. It has been really cool to see his journey and maturity as a player. 

But, what’s most important to me and we make this a point in the film, is that these five young men are bigger than basketball. Whether they go play pro or not, they are going to make their community a better place. In the film, we play with this idea of “making it” and what that really means today for young basketball players.”

Yasin Osman
Photo: Yasin Osman

You have a lot of different NBA players in your film. DeMar DeRozan, Steve Nash, Jamal Murray to name a few. Was it difficult for you to conduct the interviews with former and current NBA players? Were they excited to contribute to the documentary?

“It was amazing to maybe get the chance to have one NBA voice in there, but we were lucky to have six or seven in the project which really added to True North.

NBA Players are super busy and can be a bit hard to track down, but each player was very gracious with their time. We went to Indiana to visit Cory Joseph and we had a lot of fun taking a trip down memory lane since he is a true product of Toronto’s grassroots scene.

Speaking with Steve Nash was surreal at points because he opened up about his vulnerable moments as a young player coming up. It was cool to hear that from a two-time NBA MVP.

Damon Stoudamire, the Raptors first ever draft pick, actually came out to the premier we had and spoke. Damon is just the truth and that comes through on camera.”  

Do you think there is room for improvement on the development of Toronto Basketball on a grassroots level?

“The talent is there and the coaching keeps improving – Toronto and all of Canada are just getting started. I think Canada will medal at the Olympics sooner rather than later. 

Toronto is now a household name in youth basketball. Couple that with the fact that AAU/Club basketball is unregulated in North America and getting a bit out of control, I hope to see the community stay together and focus on what benefits the kids rather than all of the monetary baggage and pitfalls that come with the politics of shoe circuit events and college recruitment.

Maybe the European model of development is better, but there is too much money involved in youth and college basketball in North America to really see it change, but who knows what will happen 10 years from now. The money has a trickle down to effect to grassroots basketball and the game is a business for kids as young as 12. Is there a way to reverse that?”

Yasin Osman
Photo: Yasin Osman

Do you think the documentary has been successful so far? Are you planning to create similar documentaries in the future, focusing, for example, on European Basketball?

“The engagement around the film has been great and the cool thing is that it still has a life and finding new audiences.

I would love to something in Europe, I spend a lot of time in The Balkans which has a very rich basketball scene. The grassroots basketball world across Europe is something that really intrigues me and I want to educate myself more about it. Hopefully I can get something going in the next few years.”

*You can watch the nine-part docu-series here