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Why is Canada suddenly good at basketball?

Watch above: Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of Canadian stars in the NBA. That’s thanks to a program aimed at helping young athletes. Mike Drolet has this week’s Everyday Hero.

TORONTO – For years the face of Canadian pro-basketball was two-time MVP Steve Nash, who was considered an anomaly from north of the border in the American-dominated sport. Fast forward to 2014 where more than 25 homegrown athletes are among players to watch during this year’s NCAA March Madness tournament.

So what happened?

The answer involves a bizarre combination of a big game show win, an Ontario rivalry-turned-partnership and an era of Canadian kids who grew up wanting to dunk like Vince Carter.

Back in the early nineties two guys in Brampton, Ont., each started an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) program to train kids in the sport first created by Canadian James Naismith in 1891. Mike George founded the CIA program (which originated in a church and stood for “Christians in Action”) and Tony McIntyre founded Bounce. The two were high-performing rivals that often met at tournaments.

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“We were competing head to head, and it was a very competitive situation where we’d go to the [United States] … we’d face each other down there and it became more annoying than it was, ‘Great, we’re in the finals,’” said McIntyre.

“It was like, we could play these games a block from our house.”

About 10 years ago, they combined the teams to form grassroots basketball program CIA Bounce, where CIA now signifies “Characteristics Inspiring Achievement.”

McIntyre, father to high-performing college basketball players Brandon, Dylan and Tyler Ennis, said he and George both wanted to help kids get scholarships through education as well as basketball.

Tony McIntyre
Founder and owner of CIA Bounce Tony McIntyre. Edison Sigua & Mark Vallena

The two men started the program with their own money, but by 2007 they badly needed funding.

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Cue the Hollywood magic.

George applied for the Howie Mandel show Deal or No Deal, made it on with his CIA Bounce backstory, and won enough to support the program for about five years.

“We ended up at the end of the day winning $144,000 on the show,” said McIntyre, more than half of which went directly to the program. “Without that, I don’t know where we would’ve been.”

Watch below: Friends, family, and supporters of the CIA Bounce program gathered at Cardinal Newman Catholic School to watch Mike George compete on Deal or No Deal Canada.

And it’s a good thing, because McIntyre and his partner won the money at a time when a certain Toronto Raptors star’s slam dunks were inspiring the younger generation.

“While Steve Nash provided the great Canadian vision, Vince Carter was in Toronto every day. He was doing school visits, he was the player that young guys could go see play at the Air Canada Centre,” said Canada Basketball’s Executive Director Michele O’Keefe.

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“I don’t think we can discount the impact that having a role model so close to you—how important it is.”

O’Keefe champions the grassroots clubs across the country, but particularly in Scarborough and Brampton, and stresses the importance of seeing the “bigger picture” the way CIA Bounce has.

“Those guys have given the athletes a great opportunity to train, they get them a lot of gym time, they make sure that they’re getting trained properly, and they give them experience to play against the best every day,” said O’Keefe. “So Tony McIntyre and his coworkers have done a fabulous job.”

Watch below: Canada Basketball Executive Director Michele O’Keefe on Canada’s basketball tipping point, and the role emerging stars in both the NBA and the NCAA tournament are playing.

Today, parents pay a fee, CIA Bounce rents the gym, and volunteers run the programs. They also participate in the Elite Youth Basketball League, which is a circuit with stops including Sacramento, Dallas, and Virginia and culminates with a national championship tournament in South Carolina.

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“Everyone [working] in our program has a full time job,” said McIntyre. “And so everything that is done in this program is all based on volunteers, based on people putting back into the community.”

CIA Bounce’s programs run from 17-and-under (which is sponsored by Nike) down to 14-and-under, plus Ontario Basketball Association (OBA) teams that go down to 7 and 8-year-olds. McIntyre said there’s also an introductory “small ball” program for 4 to 9-year-olds.

“The exciting part is the young guys we have now—and young girls for that matter—that are 10, 12 years old now, they’re seeing the Canadian guys now as their role model,” said O’Keefe.

And these same Canadians playing in March Madness are eager to take on the role model duties.

“All these guys that are in college, the first thing they do when they touch down in Toronto is: “Coach, we’re here. Where’s the gym? Where’s the kids? Let’s go.’ And they’re right back in the gym giving back to all the kids that were in the exact same spot that they were,” said McIntyre.

Andrew Wiggins
Potential 2014 No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins in his CIA Bounce jersey. Edison Sigua & Mark Vallena
Anthony Bennett
2013 top draft pick Anthony Bennett shooting hoops with the CIA Bounce team. Edison Sigua & Mark Vallena
Dylan Ennis
Dylan Ennis, son of Tony McIntyre, playing for Villanova. Edison Sigua & Mark Vallena

But as important as the gym is, McIntyre emphasizes the classroom, and says what separates CIA Bounce kids from others is their understanding of how important education is in their ability to “make it.”

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Those “kids” include Tristan Thompson and 2013 top NBA draft pick Anthony Bennett, who both currently play for the Cleveland Cavaliers; Andrew Wiggins, who could be the number one pick in 2014, Melvin Ejim and Tyler Ennis, who are all likely to be drafted this year.

“It’s possible for Canadians to make it here, you just gotta work hard,” Ennis said at a recent Elite 24 event in Venice Beach.

Watch below: Tyler Ennis on why he’s thankful to the CIA Bounce program. Courtesy: Edison Sigua & Mark Vallena.

In addition to being a proud father, McIntyre says Bennett as the top draft pick would be an “easy” proud moment to list—but the best may be yet to come.

“My proudest moment is probably coming up in April or May when Melvin Ejim of Iowa State graduates, and we have our first guy that comes through with a degree from a 4-year program who’s competed night in and night out, who’s been a scholar in the classroom, and he graduates and has a chance hopefully to play in the NBA. That’ll be a very proud moment for us.”

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No other program in the country can claim the success rate of CIA Bounce, but McIntyre remains humble.

“When these guys get [a] scholarship, there’s a checklist of people responsible for every one of those players. And it’s not only CIA Bounce. CIA Bounce was an avenue that allowed that bus to go down a paved road with a lot of hard work.”

For inspiring the next generation of Canadian athletes, Tony McIntyre is one of our Everyday Heroes.

What makes an Everyday Hero?

There are many people trying to make a difference who rarely receive the media attention they deserve. Everyday Hero is our attempt to provide better balance in our newscast. We profile Canadians who don’t go looking for attention, but deserve it. People who through their ideas, effort and dedication are making a difference in the lives of other people.

If you know of an Everyday Hero whose story we should tell, share the information with us by emailing viewers@globalnational.com.

With files from Global News reporter Mike Drolet