Toronto was the latest sports scene for the Cree youth of Eeyou Istchee as they attended two Raptors games and opened their eyes and minds to a wealth of southern delights.

In all, 27 youth and 24 adults from seven communities traveled to Toronto March 28 to April 1 to catch two Raptors games and soak in the city of Toronto. They ranged in age from 11 to 17.

“It was absolutely one of the most phenomenal trips,” said Gord Hudson, Director of Youth Healing Services in Mistissini and the main organizer of the trip.

The kids had a very busy itinerary in Canada’s largest city. Shaquille O’Neal of the Miami Heat and Canadian Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns gave them inspirational speeches. “It’s one thing when you have someone telling them education is important, but when they’ve got Steve Nash and Shaquille O’Neal telling them that, it’s a different story,” said Hudson.

In what sort of turned out as the side story, the Miami Heat beat the Raptors 98-94 on March 29. Nash’s Phoenix Suns thrashed the Raptors 140-126 on March 31.

The trip was an eye-opener of many sorts. “I really wanted to get the kids used to other cultures so I invited a group called Leaders for Life from Ottawa,” he told the Nation by phone. “They work with at-risk youth between the ages of 13 and 18. We paired them up and I asked them at the first breakfast to find out one thing about each other. They did and they exchanged emails and have been communicating that way already.”

Paul Dennis, the Maple Leafs Player Development Coach, made a speech about low self-esteem, alcohol and drugs and underage sex amongst other topics. The kids were very receptive and asked a lot of questions. They opened up quite a bit, despite the seriousness of the topic.

At one point, they huddled at centre court on the Raptors floor to take part in their “Read to Achieve” incentive. One 13-year-old kid told them he couldn’t read, so former Raptor Jerome Williams took him aside for a private teaching session. After that, the kid told Hudson he wanted to learn to read, so they agreed that they would make arrangements to get him a tutor to teach him.

“Just seeing that kid come up to me and telling me he wanted to learn to read, made my whole trip,” said Hudson. “It told me we are doing things right.”

Another highlight of the trip was Raptors player Pape Sow. He and a host of others, including Team Canada coach Jay Triano, put on a mini basketball camp. He told the kids his story of how he had to leave his family back in Senegal for many years and how he was so poor he had to wear the same clothes for six months. The Director of Player Programs said it was the most he’s said since he’s been with the Raptors.

A direct offshoot of this trip is a regional basketball tournament September 7-10 in Mistissini. Some players and coaches are going to fly in and act as guest referees. During that weekend they will put on basketball clinics to sharpen the kids’ skills and introduce the game to more youth.

They’re also going to try and start a few recreational leagues in Eeyou Istchee. Basketball Canada has funds available to promote the game in new locales.

The idea came to Hudson one day last year and it wasn’t long before everything was set in motion. “I realized that people up north were really into basketball,” he said. “I made a phone call and Rob Babcock, the Raptors former General Manager, called me back and it was put into motion.”

The kids were asked to raise funds for the trip and they didn’t disappoint.

Fundraising activities included breakfast brunches and delivering lunches at $10 a plate within the community. The kids also made moose mitts to sell, put artwork up for auction and they cut nine cords of wood for the elder’s home. Hudson also wants them to write about their experiences.

He added that without the tireless efforts of Gloria Coon Come, Geneva Voyageur, Emily Wash and Maria Macleod, this trip would not have been possible. The ladies were instrumental in organizing the fund raising activities and the trip.

“I also wanted to thank the Toronto Raptors for the dedication they’re showing for the betterment of youths’ lives,” said Hudson. “You could tell that the change this trip made for these kids was just amazing.

“They learnt that anything is possible. Steve Nash is only 6’1” and he never played basketball until he was 13, yet he was the NBA MVP last year. No matter how big your dream is, anything’s possible and they realized that in Toronto.”