The next wave of Hamilton basketball stars has arrived
As she sized up the competition, she couldn’t help but notice what she was up against at this tryout. So many of the other girls hoping to make the national under-16 basketball team were physically impressive. Or intimidating. Take your pick.
There was a five-foot-11 guard, a collection of six-foot-plus forwards — including two that are listed on Canada Basketball’s website at the unusual height of 5foot-12 — and most eye-popping, a 15-year-old centre who was already six-foot-six.
“A lot of the girls were really tall,” Kaillie Hall says.
At five-foot-eight, the Stoney Creek native is hardly Lilliputian. Still, it was daunting. Making this team would put her on the first step of the national program’s escalator toward better and better teams and eventually, maybe, the senior national team. More immediately, this team was her ticket to jet off to Argentina to play in the FIBA Americas championship. So it mattered. A lot. It was a big deal for Aerial Wilson, too. By the time she stepped on the court for this final tryout, the Dundas native had already long dreamed of playing for Canada. Sure she’s also just 15, so long is relative. But wearing the red and white had been a goal for much of her young life.
The two local girls’ stories of how they got to this point were remarkably similar. Both started playing the game when they were in Grade 3 or 4. Both skipped house league and went right to rep. Both eventually found their way onto the same Transway squad then made Team Ontario.
Once there, both were identified as unique talents and ended up playing in specialized programs. Hall is part of Lincoln Prep, a basketball-specific school program based out of St. Mary Secondary in Hamilton. Wilson is with TRC Academy and goes to St. John’s College in Brantford. Neither plays high school ball but rather, are part of an elite eight-team league spread across the province.
In December, the pair was part of a large group of prospects invited to an assessment camp in Toronto. It wasn’t technically called a tryout but everyone there knew it was exactly that.
They did well enough to get invited to a second, whittled-down camp in March. There, they again performed strongly enough to earn an invitation to May’s official
tryout for a spot on Team Canada.
Late last month, both made the cut.
If Hall’s biggest battle came in making the team, Wilson’s came once she arrived in South America. While playing a scrimmage against the U.S. two days before the tournament opened, she rolled her ankle. The joint felt terrible but she’d travelled 9,000 kilometres to get there — and invested immeasurable amounts of emotional and physical capital to be part of it — so she gritted her teeth and kept playing.
Whatever hopes she had that it wasn’t badly damaged were dashed that night when she showed it to the training staff. The ankle was swollen to double its size and streaked with various shades of purple. Ice and rest and compression were a start but could only do so much.
So Wilson sat out while Hall and the rest of the Canadians obliterated Venezuela 89-38, destroyed the Dominican Republic 89-48, and slipped by Argentina 71-65. The quick healer returned in time to help beat Colombia 64-38 in the semifinals.
Eventually, however, the Canadian side ran into the powerhouse Americans who spanked them 9146 in the championship. But a silver medal is a silver medal. And the result earned the team a berth in next year’s world championships in Belarus.
The timing of their emergence is perfect. Within weeks of Hamilton’s Shona Thorburn announcing her retirement from the national team after more than a dozen years wearing the Maple Leaf, this city’s next wave of rising stars has suddenly entered the conversation. Some day, both hope to follow in her footsteps while playing alongside local legend Kia Nurse on the big stage.
When the uniforms were handed out to the under-16s before taking off for Argentina, they were distributed by height. The lowest number was 4 which went to the shortest player. The tallest got 15. Wilson got 6. Hall was second shortest so she got 5.
“Oh,” she said, as soon as she looked at it. “That’s Kia’s number.” Thorburn, meanwhile, wore 6. It’s a start.
Aerial Wilson of Dundas has always wanted to play for her country, and will at the upcoming FIBA Americas championship.
Stoney Creek’s Kaillie Hall competes in the FIBA America’s under-16 basketball championship in Argentina.