Keith Vassell’s 73pts in a high school game for Mother Teresa CSS has since been eclipsed by Denham Brown’s 111pt barrage but it was no less an accomplishment considering it was done in Italy on his first trip ever playing FIBA basketball. It’s exciting to share a part of Keith’s journey, not because he is a great friend but a true pioneer of Canadian Basketball who helped make all of Canada, the United States and every other FIBA country have to pay closer attention to what was developing in Hockey Country. With the fast pace in which basketball in Canada has grown in popularity, it’s easy to forget there once was a grind it out period for the ones laying the foundation.
By today’s standard Keith Vassell’s amazing scoring and athletic ability would have put him on everyone’s YouTube play list and earn him a place on every national ranking system’s top 10 prep ballers. Keith was 6’5” 205 shooting guard from Mother Teresa CSS in Scarborough and the #1 player in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and for many that made him the #1 in Canada. Very few, if any, Canadian basketball players today have accomplished more on Canadian soil than Keith Vassell.
Many of our modern day superstars have made Canadian basketball famous by taking advantage of the American system of AAU and NCAA on route to the NBA but Keith Vassell is a Canadian High School great, who turned down numerous NCAA scholarships to stay in Canada and become a Canadian University Hall of Famer at Brandon University in Brandon Manitoba where he shot and incredible 74% from the field with a 24ppg average, on the way to player of the year in the Canadian Interscholastic Sports League (CIS), to go along with his CIS Rookie of the Year and many all star selections. Keith is enshrined in the Manitoba Basketball Sports Hall of Fame. He represented the Canadian national team program for over a decade as Jr National and National Team player, helping Canada qualify for the 2000 Olympics alongside 2x NBA MVP Steve Nash. Keith broke barriers becoming the first Black CIS Head Coach in Eastern Canada and is currently Head Coach of Niagara College in Niagara Falls, Ontario. All that work on Canadian soil lead to a 11 year professional career in Europe of which 3 years he was a player coach.
It was less than 30 years ago in 1989 when one of Canada’s greatest high school player’s was the only Greater Toronto Area (GTA) representative on the Canadian Jr. National Team headed to Uruguay. By 1994 Keith would become the youngest of a wave of GTA players to first make the Canadian Men’s National Team. Keith was the face of the future for Canadian Basketball and that was reflected in his selection as flag bearer at 1995 World University Games in Fukuoka, Japan. That year was a sneak preview of what was to come from Canada with the Canadian University Team capturing a bronze medal. Next up would be the 1999 Pan Am Games where Keith would again rep for Canada and finish the tournament as the 4th leading scorer and 4th in offensive rebounds. But what may just be the greatest highlight of Keith’s Canadian National Team career and one of Canada’s proudest moments in international basketball to this date, would be a helping to lead the team to a Silver Medal at the 1999 Americas Olympic Qualifications in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately the following year Coach Jay Triana made the decision to cut Keith and he would never get a chance to join his teammate Steve Nash at the 2000 Olympics in Puerto Rico. That would be the last time Canada’s Men’s Team made an Olympic appearance.
Many of today’s young basketball prodigies, probably couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for Keith not having social media to make even the smallest accomplishment known around the world. For guys like Keith the motivation had to be something much greater…
“My passion came from a couple things… at an early age I became a student of the game and the more I learned the better I saw I was able to get. This motivated me to study the game in even greater detail. I also have a non-stop love for competition combined with a great pride in representing my school, community or country.” – Keith Vassell
For 3 decades Keith Vassell set and raised the bar for his peers in basketball. In high school he took a newly build Mother Teresa C.S.S. and elevated in to an Ontario powerhouse. He was hands down the most feared high school basketball player every time he set foot in a gym. At 6’5” 205 pounds, his 40 inch vertical was the highest of all the GTA Elite (Sherman Hamilton, Rowan Barrett, Mark Hunt and myself all were measuered at a Jr National Tryout and Keith had us all beat). If I had to compare him physically to a modern day Canadian Superstar, he would be like NBA #1 pick Anthony Bennett with a pure jumpshot. Keith lead his Mother Teresa CSS team to numerous major tournament finals including St Mikes Championships and 3 trips to OFSAA. Keith was unanimously a Toronto Sun and Toronto Star top 5 players in the GTA
“Mother Teresa CSS was a very special team simply because we didn’t know any better. We came into the school as a group of grade 11’s with no precedent or expectations because we were a new school. We never thought we would end up consistently ranked in the province and never lose a game to what was Scarborough’s top school, West Hill C.I. in our cross town rivalry.” – Keith Vassell
Keith sites several influences on his early career and the things he learned as a basketball player and a person.
“Dez Hennesy, Ron Burrows and Tom Oliveri were my coaches while at Mother Teresa CSS. Ron Burrows was always their to support at a time when success on the court was beginning to make me arrogant and full of myself. He had a way of giving me perspective I would actually listen too. Ron was simply the right person for me. Dez was a drill Sargent and his serious no nonsense approach helped me learn how to hold my ground.” – Keith Vassell
Keith ushered in an era of what would many become years of dominance by Mother Teresa CSS and spawned some of the GTA’s most famous names in basketball – Sean Green, Doug Johnson, Dean Labayan, Jay McNeilly, Jamie McNeilly, Kaylan Anderson, Maurice Walker, Ashton Khan, Adika McNeilly, Papa Oppong, Justin Dennis…
Keith’s influence wasn’t limited to Mother Teresa CSS. His influence extended into the immediate community of Malvern and across the City of Scarborough. Malvern was a fairly small community and Mother Teresa CSS was only the second public high school when it opened for Keith’s incoming class in 1989. The Neghbourhood of Malvern was a budding sports community and Keith gave it a big boost with his early national and international accomplishments. His influence reached across Scarborough because there wasn’t AAU teams back then so our local centers served as our clubs. Regent Park, Driftwood, NACI, Jungle, Malton and so on.
For us living in the back end of Scarborough, Malvern would join Galloway and we would all represent the Galloway Travel Club Team formed by Mervin Busby. Mervin and veteran Scarborough legends Delroy and Leroy Williams served as our Coaches and took our loaded Galloway team on tour. Even with future NCAA D1, CIS and National Team Players (Wayne Dawkins – Eastern Michigan U., Greg Francis – Fairfield U., Canadian Men’s National, Doug Johnson – U. Miami Ohio, Sean Green – Brandon U., Rowan Barrett – St John’s U. Canadian National team), Keith ruled the back end of Scarborough and with him anchoring our Galloway Travel Team we left our mark on everyone’s turf we entered. Our imprint was left as far as Montreal when we travelled to the famous Sun Youth Tournament to take on Riverside Church from out of New York City. It was packed from wall to wall and people would seat chairs across the half court line to watch our line up of dunkers vs theirs, during warm ups. Riverside won the game but Galloway won the warm up!
Keith’s #21 jersey from Mother Teresa CSS and his # 4 jersey at Brandon University are both retired. If I could retire a jersey for someone who represented an era, Keith’s would certainly be hanging on a flag pole somewhere in Malvern. It would still be a little premature, because he continues to build on his legendary career in the Canadian Basketball Community. Keith’s playing years are behind him but his competitive instincts are lived out in his current coaching career at Niagara College. After only 2 years at Niagara College, Keith’s strong desire to inspire the next generation of Canadian Basketball players has already elevated the program to national recognition.