After the Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship in June, Chris Boucher proudly wore a giant Canadian flag around his shoulders like a superhero sporting a cape.“Chris didn’t take the flag off for a day or two,” says Jama Mahlalela, the head coach of the 905, the Raptors’ G League development team. “He’s taken it as a real honour to be the Canadian on our team.”Boucher didn’t get to play in the finals, but the past year has allowed him to progress toward his goal of putting Montreal on the map when it comes to high-level basketball. In addition to being a part of the Raptors’ championship season, he secured the G League’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Raptors forward Chris Boucher, right, blocks Brooklyn Nets forward Alan Williams during NBA pre-season game in 2018. The Bell Centre crows gave Boucher, a Montreal native, a standing ovation when he entered the game.
Pierre Obendrauf /
“Growing up it was hard to get seen in Montreal, it’s hard to get noticed,” Boucher said, who moved to Canada from Saint Lucia when he was five. “We need to show people that we have talent in Montreal.”Boucher first felt the responsibility of representing the city in 2018 when he played in a Raptors preseason game in Montreal. When he took to the court, Boucher was met with a standing ovation, followed later by chants of “MVP.”Now, Boucher is looking to provide children with opportunities he didn’t have growing up. On Friday, he’s bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy to three different locations around the city, followed by his first basketball camp and barbecue on Saturday.“He doesn’t want any other child to potentially slip through the cracks like he almost did,” says Ibrahim Appiah, who coached Boucher at Alma Academy, and will help him run his camp on Saturday.Finding an opportunityBy 19, Boucher had dropped out of high school and was washing dishes at a St-Hubert chicken restaurant. Unknown at the time in basketball circles, he was discovered when he filled in on a buddy’s team during a friendly tournament in 2012. By chance, coaches from Alma Academy, a basketball program in rural Quebec that serves as an alternate for high school and CEGEP students, were in attendance.“The provincial government doesn’t really invest in growing the sport until they’re elite athletes,” said Daniel Grimard, the director of Basketball Québec. “We don’t have enough resources for the communities right now. That’s where the challenge is. … We don’t have the full package yet to make sure kids can get to the NBA.”In eight years, Grimard says Basketball Québec has gone from 27 to 46 ministry funded basketball programs. In the past five years, the program has seen a growth from 39,000 to 52,000 participants. Its goal is to catch up to Ontario.“Every year in Ontario, they expect to create at least one professional player,” said Appiah. “If they don’t, it’s like they didn’t do something right.”Quebec is represented in the NBA by Boucher and the Orlando Magic’s Khem Birch, who both entered the league as undrafted players. Ontario has recently produced top 10 draft picks in players such as the Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray, the New York Knicks’ R.J. Barrett and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins.“In cities like in Toronto, kids get to see pros all the time, like at (Raptors) games or at camps,” said Boucher. “Kids need to feel like they can stay in Montreal and become successful. That they don’t need to go to Toronto or the States to be seen. … Kids are working as hard in Montreal.”The Montreal Canadiens dominate the sports landscape here and Quebec is no doubt a hockey province, at least in terms of funding. Hockey Québec, which has just over 90,000 participants, received $637,645 to nurture its future stars while growing the game in the province in 2018-19. Basketball Québec, with its 52,000 participants, received $336,588, according to the Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement supérieur.The passion for basketball in Quebec is evident. When the Raptors were in the NBA Finals, thousands of fans gathered in the streets of Montreal to watch a live broadcast. Business groups and investors have been trying to bring an NBA team to Montreal for years, but the logistics are complicated.“We’d all love to have an NBA team in Montreal,” Appiah said. “But if we don’t first nurture the grassroots, our young players, we won’t be able to take advantage of the influence an NBA could have on our city.”The grind continuesBeing close to home has helped Boucher’s development. He’s closer to his friends, his mom’s cooking, as well as his favourite steak house, Madisons.A year ago, he was in Santa Cruz, Calif., playing for the Golden State Warriors’ G League team, recovering from a torn ACL he suffered at Oregon University in 2017. NBA teams shied away from him after the injury and he went undrafted. Unable to impress in the G League, he was cut by the Warriors. “I took it for granted,” Boucher says.The Raptors decided to give him a second chance. Once in Toronto, he learned from veterans Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Kawhi Leonard, and emerging star Pascal Siakam to develop a mindset of always staying ready. It led to playing time in 28 NBA regular-season games and two playoff contests.Mahlalela says at 6-foot-10, Boucher is special, since he can create transition opportunities as a ball handler. If he continues to work on his rim protection and ability to stretch the floor, there won’t be much stopping Boucher from becoming a “really good NBA player for quite a while.”AT A GLANCEChris Boucher brings the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Montreal, on Friday, July 26 to Parc le Carignan (noon), Centre lasallien Saint-Michel (3 p.m.) and Parc Champdoré (6 p.m.)Boucher will host his first community basketball camp and barbecue on Saturday, July 27, (noon to 4 p.m.) at Danyluk Park. Spots in his camp are sold out.