The same thing that has inspired millions of Canadian kids to chase the dream of playing professional basketball motivated Ryan Sidhoo to make a film about it.
The Lord Byng graduate was raised on Vancouver’s West Side, but never really felt at home here. Simply put, there weren’t a ton of people at his high school that looked like Sidhoo, the son of an Indian immigrant father and a Jewish mother.
But there were pockets of the city that felt a bit more natural. It’s probably no coincidence that a couple of them were basketball gyms.
One was the Kitsilano Community Centre, where Sidhoo played in Mel Davis’s Kitsilano Basketball League as a kid. The other was the gymnasium at his alma matter, where he played pickup basketball against Mike Hamilton. Davis’s son Hubert went on to direct an Oscar-nominated short film (Hardwood) about his father, while Hamilton co-helmed a feature called Nash, about Victoria basketball star Steve Nash.
So when Sidhoo, who had spent some time producing segments for Vice, set his sights on capturing Toronto’s burgeoning basketball scene for the National Film Board’s True North, he was motivated in the same way many of his subjects were.
“The big thing is that so many kids from the GTA are making the NBA, and to them it's like ‘That seems very possible that I can do that, because [Minnesota Timberwolves star] Andrew Wiggins grew up two blocks away from me,’” says Sidhoo on the line from Helsinki, Finland where he’s visiting friends.
“In the same way that seeing Hubert influenced me, because he refereed my games and then he’s out making documentaries and at the Oscars. And back in the day playing basketball with Mike at Lord Byng and having him be a consultant [on the film], it’s just like ‘I can do this.’”
True North is a nine-part documentary that follows five young basketball players in the Toronto area and their dreams of making it to the pros.
And while Vancouverites are raised to hate Canada’s biggest city with the passion of an underappreciated younger brother, Sidhoo had a completely different experience in The Six.
I always felt at home playing basketball, because it brought all walks of life together that you didn’t really see in Vancouver at that time,” he remembers. “And it really wasn’t until Toronto that I felt truly at home on Canadian soil, just because of the diversity that you see there. It’s a bigger population and a bit more connected to the rest of the world geographically.”
When asked why Toronto’s professional basketball team has had such a different fate than that of his hometown Vancouver Grizzlies after both clubs started in the NBA the same year in 1995, Sidhoo has a ready-made answer.
“It was a bit of a perfect storm. Toronto’s always had a bit more of an appetite for basketball and a bigger population, and then they had the really dynamic players. Mighty Mouse [Damon Stoudamire, who, along with stars like Nash and DeMar DeRozan, is in True North] was a big thing at the time, and then you had Vince [Carter],” says Sidhoo.
“Unfortunately with the Grizzlies, we didn’t have a player that really galvanized the city. Shareef [Abdur-Rahim] was a really solid player and so was [Mike] Bibby. But they weren’t putting people on posters and making behind-the-back passes. We didn’t really have players to get fans excited about. You didn’t get the fair-weather fan, they wanted to go watch Vince Carter dunk, not see Shareef shoot a 15-footer. As much as I love that, I think that when you’re introducing basketball to a city that doesn’t really get it, that was tough.”
That’s not to say that Sidhoo thinks basketball has no future in this city. “I think there’s too much money in Vancouver now for a team not to be there and I think Vancouver’s ready for it.”
Whether it can generate the same grassroots movement that Sidhoo documents so delicately in True North remains to be seen.
Turning 30 this year, the filmmaker thinks he was at the exact right point in his life to document Canada’s hoop scene.
“I was at a really unique age to do the project because a lot of my friends are having kids and are parents, but then I’m also not that much older than the kids,” explains Sidhoo, who spent Christmas at one of his subject’s houses.
“I could talk about music and ball and NBA2K to the kids. But I could also talk to the parents about basketball in the ‘90s or parenting, because I’m at that point in life where it’s not too far down the road for me potentially. So I think it helped being at that age where I can be a big brother with the kids but still be on the same level with the parents, because we’re both paying taxes.”
After all, True North, like everything Sidhoo has done, is about people. “I have this curiosity about someone else’s life and I get to explore it and understand it and collectively get to share that with an audience and bring their stories to life. And I think the sport thing is just an entry point into it all.”
Getting to know Ryan Sidhoo
1. What's your favourite NBA team?
My dad loved Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When he was coming up, the only people he saw on the TV—my dad doesn’t look like Bobby Orr—but Kareem was this cool guy. My dad liked jazz, Kareem had a big jazz collection and was in Bruce Lee films, so my dad was like this is cool, this is someone I can identify with. So my dad loved the Lakers. And growing up, we had this old Magic Johnson VHS tape about how to play baseketball that I remember and Magic Johnson was dropping a basketball through a hoop because he loved the noise of a swish. I loved watching those as a kid. I’m actually wearing a Lakers shirt right now, a vintage one from 1990.
So I’m a huge Laker fan, but obviously it’s great to see the Raptors build their fanbase and it was really heartbreaking when the Grizzlies left. So it’s cool that the Raptors have kind of become Canada’s team and I'm sort of adopting Toronto as a city that’s near and dear to my heart. Seeing basketball in our country be so popular, that makes me really happy knowing what basketball’s done for me in my life. Seeing this movement of basketball here, and with the Raptors at the forefront of it, you can’t not support them.
2. You can choose anyone in the world to join you in a starting five. Who do you go with?
First is my Dad—he put the ball in the crib.
Spike Lee, he could talk a lot of shit.
Kobe, because we need someone to get it done.
And my man Elijah Fisher from the documentary.
Watch the first episode of True North:
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