Montreal’s Basketball Talent Following Luguentz Dort’s Lead Towards NBA
LAS VEGAS -- The G League Winter Showcase isn’t quite the jam-packed schmoozefest that the NBA Las Vegas Summer League has become. But even a closed-door, pared-down basketball convention in late December—smack dab in the middle of the NBA season, and not unlike what the league could resort to in a potential return from the coronavirus shutdown—can spawn a heartwarming hoops reunion.
Luguentz Dort enjoyed one of his own on the Friday before this past Christmas. He had finished pouring in a team-high 24 points for the Oklahoma City Blue, the minor league affiliate of the Oklahoma City Thunder, inside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center when he spotted a pair of towering figures in black sweats. He stopped to dap them up and shower them with advice in Quebec French, his native tongue, as if they’d known each other for years because, well, they had.
But these two hadn’t traveled from Luguentz’s native Montreal all the way to Sin City just to say hello to an old friend. In fact, they hadn’t come from Canada at all.
Rather, Bennedict Mathurin and Olivier-Maxence Prosper—Ben and O-Max, as they’re known to friends and family—had come to Las Vegas from Mexico City to compete with other top prospects from the various NBA Academy programs around the world. They were two of 22 teenagers from 10 different countries, split into two squads that played both against each other at the G League Winter Showcase and opposite American prep teams in the Tarkanian Classic at nearby Bishop Gorman High School.
Luguentz, of course, was plenty busy himself. He and the Blue had lost to the Iowa Wolves in Des Moines earlier in the week, and would lose again to the Westchester Knicks in Las Vegas on Sunday before heading back to the Sooner State.
But for a few minutes, they weren’t basketball players trying to impress NBA personnel and pave their paths to the league. Instead, they were just friends from French Canada, alums of the same AAU program en route to college and (perhaps) the pros, looking to leave their marks on the game that has taken them all over the world.
When it comes to sports, Montreal may well be “Titletown, CA.”
The Montreal Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup championship 24 times—the most of any team in the National Hockey League. The Montreal Alouettes have claimed seven titles in the Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. The Montreal Expos never won the World Series, but were among the best teams in Major League Baseball during two seasons (1981 and 1994) disrupted by players’ strikes.
(In December 2004, the Expos relocated to Washington, D.C., to become the Nationals, who won the World Series last year.)
Though Montreal has never had a professional basketball team that lasted more than one season, the city has seen its fair share of NBA success. Bill Wennington won three championships with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen during the Chicago Bulls’ second “three-peat” in the 1990s. Joel Anthony filled a role alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on back-to-back championship teams with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. Chris Boucher was the lone native Canadian on the Toronto Raptors during their run through the 2019 NBA Finals.
Despite those successes, basketball still lags behind hockey in Montreal’s sports culture. But the sport is growing in popularity—and pumping out more promising prospects as a result—thanks in part to an influx of Caribbean immigrants, who gravitate toward the city’s diverse Francophone culture but often can’t afford hockey’s cumbersome equipment and youth leagues.
That was true for Lu, Ben and O-Max. All three grew up as the sons of Haitian immigrants who moved to Canada in the 1990s. Lu and Ben did so in Montreal-Nord, one of the city’s most dangerous boroughs.
“I feel like basketball just helps so much people [in Montreal-Nord], even people that don't make it to the [United] States or the NCAA or whatever,” Lu tells CloseUp360. “Basketball was really a big connection for all the kids there.”
Basketball kept Lu and his friends out of trouble. It did the same for Ben, who was raised by a single mother, Elvie Young, and gravitated towards the game while watching his older sister, Jennifer, play.
“Every time I finished school, I was going with her to her practice,” Ben tells CloseUp360. “I was watching her, so I started picking up basketball and I started dribbling.”
Like Lu, Ben’s childhood interest in hoops led him to the Parc Ex Knights, a youth team in the Montreal Basketball League (MBL) led by a local coach named Nelson Osse.
O-Max also played in the MBL, for a club called Brookwood, which has been competing in the league for 50 years. His father, Gaetan Prosper, was an All-Canadian college basketball player at Concordia University. His mother, Guylaine Blanchette, played one year at Manhattan College in New York City before moving back to Canada to finish her schooling at Concordia, where she met Gaetan.
“I've been around basketball all my life, since a little kid,” O-Max says. “Just going to their games and watching them play, I fell in love with the game and that's how it started.”
Though Lu, Ben and O-Max all played in the MBL, they didn’t build their bond there. For one, three years separated Lu from the latter two. And though Ben and O-Max were in the same age group, they knew each other only as foes.
It wasn’t until they reached the next step on their intertwining hoops journey that the potential future of Montreal’s pipeline into pro basketball started to take shape.
Bennedict Mathurin (left) and Olivier-Maxence Prosper competed against each other as kids in the Montreal Basketball League. (NBA Academy/Nicole Sweet)
In 2002, Brookwood expanded into the world of AAU basketball with Brookwood Elite. Now, when the MBL season ended in March, the kids on the Brookwood team could get to train and compete into the spring and summer.
The program became popular enough that, by 2010, Brookwood Elite was auditioning and accepting kids from all over the MBL, including Parc Ex.
In 2012, Lu made the leap from Parc Ex to Brookwood Elite. He was bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic than most of his peers. And after years of playing point guard for Nelson’s squad, he had developed a formidable skill set. But those qualities weren’t all that separated Lu from the field during tryouts for Brookwood Elite.
“He just had a different drive,” says Joey McKitterick, the director of Brookwood Elite. “Like, most kids that play like him have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder off the court. But this kid, what makes him more special than a basketball player is just Luguentz the person. He's just a wonderful person.”
Three years later, Ben followed suit, in the same incoming class as O-Max.
For Ben, the transition wasn’t without its trials. In 2014, Nelson, Ben’s coach at Parc Ex, encouraged him to try out for Brookwood Elite. Ben wanted to make the U-13 team, even though he was 12 at the time. That difference in age and maturity proved to be too much for Ben to overcome.
“I got cut,” he says. “I was really surprised because [Nelson] told me to come.”
As difficult as that shortfall was for Ben to swallow, it was far from the most devastating blow of his year. One day, his older brother, Dominic, was out riding his bike when he was hit by a car. In an instant, Ben’s brother was gone, at the age of 15.
The loss crushed and confused young Ben. During those dark times, the basketball court became his refuge. He committed himself to the game more than ever, driven by his brother’s memory and his own desire to make the cut for Brookwood Elite.
“I put extra hours in the gym,” Ben says. “I was the first one to come to the gym, the last one to get out. Just pushed my limits higher. There's no limits for anybody.”
The following spring, Ben returned to Brookwood Elite’s tryouts. He made the U-13 with ease.
“Ben played basketball with like a chip on his shoulder,” Joey recalls, “like he had something to prove in every game.”
“I was the star of the team,” Ben says.
Ben starred for the Parc Ex Knights in the MBL. (NBA Academy/Nicole Sweet)
But he wasn’t the only standout. In fact, O-Max quite literally stood out, a spindly beanstalk-of-an-adolescent rising above the field.
“He was like a little deer when he started playing,” Joey says. “He was long and gangly, and always had a motor and played hard.”
What O-Max may have lacked in coordination at the time, he made up for with what Joey described as “a studious approach” to basketball.
“O-Max thought the game and Ben kind of just went out there and applied his will on the game, to give as kind of an example,” Joey explains. “They're completely different personalities, but they get along really well.”
That was the case off the court as well. When Ben and O-Max weren’t busy playing basketball, they’d talk hoops, crack jokes, watch movies together, listen to rap and Haitian kompa music together.
The game, though, formed the foundation of their bond. They spent their springs and summers traveling across North America with Brookwood Elite on the adidas Gauntlet circuit. Wherever the team went—Atlanta and Los Angeles, Boston and New York, Dallas and Springfield—Ben and O-Max stuck together. And wherever O-Max went, his parents and his younger sister, Casson, followed.
In time, O-Max’s family became Ben’s.
“He's like a brother to me,” O-Max says.
O-Max's parents both played basketball in college. (NBA Academy/Nicole Sweet)
In the fall of 2018, Lu, Ben and O-Max proceeded on different paths—from Montreal, and from each other.
After emerging as a high school hoops star in Florida and Ontario, Lu headed west for his freshman year at Arizona State. The years of tough love he’d endured with Brookwood Elite were beginning to pay off.
“We coach our kids very hard, and we coached him the hardest,” Joey says of Lu. “Anybody that ever saw us coach him could never say, ‘You know what? You're just too hard on him.’ Because if we can be hard on him, we can be hard on anybody.”
That included O-Max, who grew into a sturdier, more coordinated 6’8” wing with perimeter skills. As a result, he drew the attention of prep school coaches in the U.S., including those at Lake Forest Academy in Chicago. They offered him a scholarship, and he jumped at the chance to hone his hoops skills in the Windy City.
“I always wanted to go to the states back then because a bunch of guys were going to the U.S. to play high school ball,” O-Max says.
Ben, meanwhile, was shining on the Quebec provincial team, alongside O-Max, when a coach from the NBA Academy Latin America approached him with an offer to continue his education, in basketball and beyond, in Mexico City. After consulting with his family, Ben accepted.
“Ben needed a little bit more structure in his life, and the one thing the NBA Academy offered him was that,” Joey says. “It wasn't like your prep school that ends in May and kids are home May, June, July and August. The NBA Academy kids are there almost year-round.”
Thousands of miles from home (and from each other), Ben and O-Max adjusted to their newfound independence and continued to grow as basketball players. College coaches from across the country started sniffing around these two precocious kids from Quebec.
All the while, Lu was tearing it up in Tempe. He led the 23-win Sun Devils in scoring, at 16.1 points per game, and carried his squad to the 2019 NCAA tournament.
In June 2019, Ben and O-Max reunited in Medellin, Colombia. They were both there for the Basketball Without Borders Americas camp—Ben as a member of the NBA Academy, O-Max on an invitation from a scout involved with the NBA’s global development program who had seen him play for Team Quebec.
The two friends reconnected while running through drills and competing in scrimmages, with Canadian and Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray and former Raptors forward Bruno Caboclo taking part. Ben and O-Max performed well enough to earn All-Star selections on the boys’ side.
While the NBA already knew plenty about Ben, O-Max’s performance earned him an offer of his own from the NBA Academy in Mexico City. The opportunity to work on his game under the tutelage of NBA-trained coaches, in an NBA-sanctioned program, was enticing enough. So, too, was the chance to show off his skills in front of college coaches and pro scouts who could further his future in hoops.
Whatever doubts O-Max might’ve had about moving to a new country yet again, Ben was able to assuage by sharing his experience with his friend.
“He asked me a lot [about the NBA Academy] because he wanted to come also, and I wanted him to come here,” Ben says. “I keep telling him how we have great opportunities to play in front of coaches and how the Academy part is going well also.”
So, in the fall of 2019, O-Max reclassified from the class of 2021 to the class of 2020, packed up some of his belongings and headed down to Mexico City to continue his basketball journey by Ben’s side.
“I already had somebody I knew there that could help me in the transition and also somebody that could challenge me, especially in practice,” O-Max says. “So he definitely had a little impact on me going there, helping me with the transition and everything.”
Meanwhile, somewhere in Oklahoma, a certain Montrealer was beaming at what had become of his former Brookwood Elite understudies.
“When I heard Ben was going to this Academy, and then O-Max went the year after, it was just, like, ‘Man, that's big, man,’” Lu says. “Everybody got a different route.”
It’s a chilly Sunday morning in Chicago. Hours from now, the biggest names in basketball will battle it out in the NBA All-Star Game at the United Center.
But here, on the West Side of Chicago, the game’s future is on full display during the final day of the Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Global camp, which runs in conjunction with All-Star Weekend each year.
Inside Quest Multisport—the longtime home of the NBA Draft Combine—Ben is having the game of his life. He splashes pull-up jumpers with supreme confidence, drives past defenders at will and throws down a flurry of jaw-dropping dunks, including one towards the end of the game that ends in a hard fall and a free throw.
“It's not the first time I'm doing dunks like this,” Ben says with an understated yet unmistakable swag.
That explosive performance helps Ben carry his team to victory, while O-Max and the Prospers cheer him on from the sideline.
“He's a player that has that dog in him, that likes to attack,” O-Max says of Ben’s performance. “For him to make all those dunks, I'm very happy for him.”
It’s a joy that they’ve shared across years and borders. Here, they’re both chosen as All-Stars at BWB Global. And after months as classmates at the NBA Academy Latin America—including a trip back to Montreal to play exhibition games in front of family, friends and former coaches—they’re much more than that.
“We've known each other for a long time, and now that we're living with each other in Mexico City, we've built that brotherhood between one another,” O-Max says. “It's fun.”
“We're not really friends no more,” Ben says. “We're just like real brothers.”
Soon, these brothers will part once again. In the fall, they will head to opposite ends of the U.S. to begin their collegiate careers.
This past November, O-Max signed his National Letter of Intent (NLI) to play at Clemson University. In January, Ben verbally committed to the University of Arizona, where he will soon send his own NLI.
And who hit him up on FaceTime that day, despite having played for the Wildcats’ in-state rival? Lu, of course.
“I just told [Ben] that when I played at U of A, I beat them twice,” Lu says. “I just had to let him know.
“But really, I know Arizona is a great program. They've got a great history, and if Ben feels like it's the right fit for him and it's a great place for him, I'm not gonna blame him to go over there.”
Soon enough, Ben and O-Max hope to join Lu in the NBA. O-Max, in particular, has his sights set on being “one-and-done” at Clemson, much like Lu was at ASU.
Granted, Lu’s path from Pac-12 Freshman of the Year to the NBA was far from foolproof. He went undrafted in 2019, but played well enough in the Las Vegas Summer League to earn a two-way contract with the Thunder.
In December, Lu drew his first call-up from the G League. The following month, his football build, defensive acumen and emerging skills were undeniable enough to claim a spot in OKC’s backcourt next to Chris Paul. By the time the NBA (and the rest of the sports world) shut down due to the global COVID-19 outbreak, Lu had started 21 consecutive games for the Thunder.
Following in Lu’s footsteps will be no easy feat for Ben and O-Max. But doing so would mean the world to them, not only as fellow Brookwood Elite alums, but also as representatives of Montreal in particular and Canada as a whole.
“Brookwood Elite is like Golden State over there [in Montreal],” Ben says. “Everybody wanted to be on that team and if you're on that team, you're like a superstar in the inner city.”
“I want to represent where I'm from, my community, the people,” O-Max says, “especially in Quebec, the French province.”
Ben will continue his basketball career at the University of Arizona in the fall. (NBA Academy/Nicole Sweet)
Odds are, they won’t be the last in that line from French Canada. Whenever Brookwood Elite is free to resume its activities, it will do so with more auspicious prospects to perpetuate the pipeline.
There’s Jefferson De La Cruz, a promising 6’1” point guard in the class of 2022, who’s already bonded with O-Max. And Malik Montero, a 6’4” guard who went from Parc Ex to Brookwood Elite, just as Lu and Ben did.
The biggest of all, though—both figuratively and literally—is Olivier Rieux, a 7’2” phenom who went viral in 2018 while towering over fellow 12-year-olds.
“I think we've got a few kids that will be in the conversation,” Joey says.
For now, though, those young prospects will have to wait, just as Lu, Ben and O-Max are. Whenever basketball resumes, Lu will get back to repping his French Canadian roots on the sport’s biggest stage, knowing full well that reinforcements are on the way.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.