By Ned Bekavac
The all-time leading points scorer for the Guelph Gryphons men’s basketball team is these days all about the assists.
“I still have a passion for the game,” says Guelph’s Mike Ayanbadejo, on the line from Australia.
And he’s doing something with the passion. Ayanbadejo is assisting others by teaching them and grooming them to become better basketball players, and better people.
The former First Team All-Canadian Gryphons baller can nowadays be found passing on his vast basketball know-how to athletes at a hoops program he runs in Australia.
The Our Lady of Lourdes graduate is currently a teacher at Our Lady of the Way school in Brisbane, and he has launched a program called Believe Basketball.
“The concept is simply to boost children’s self esteem and courage through participation in basketball skill development,” says Ayanbadejo.
Players as young as five are part of the program, and at the other end, he’s had athletes go on to receive scholarships in the U.S.
Ten years ago, Ayanbadejo led the Guelph Gryphons to the national university basketball championship finals, where the underdog locals were oh-so-close to knocking off the mighty Carleton Ravens. Guelph had to settle for the silver medal.
Three years ago, he was inducted into the Gryphons Sports Hall of Fame. Ayanbadejo remains the Gryphons’ all-time leading point scorer with 1,389.
His post-Gryphons career saw him go play pro in Europe, but things got cut short by a wrist injury that didn’t quite right itself after surgery.
He says Australia and Canada are a lot alike – before he playfully plays up how wonderful the weather is over there – and that he considers himself very much a Canadian.
These days, though, he doesn’t quite sound like your average Canuck.
The local cage legend seems to have picked up quite an accent.
“All my friends and family back home tell me that, I haven’t really noticed,” says Ayanbadejo.
“They say I’m just starting to sound more and more weird,” he says with a laugh.
The Tribune recently caught up with Ayanbadejo for a Q&A. See below.
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Q: What is something neat or funny you recall about one of your first times playing basketball, as a youngster?
A: Not really funny but interesting. I remember being a pretty shy kid. It was summertime and we had recently moved to Canada from England.
I was in love with soccer but it was not as big at that time in North America. I remember my mother gently encouraging me to ask my neighbour, who had a basketball hoop, if I could play. I would just stand and stare watching him shoot. Eventually I garnered the courage with my mother’s support, introduced myself and asked if I could play. I’m glad my mother did that. I didn’t look back.
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Q: The Trib’s paying the tab. What’s your tipple and where would you be having it?
A: (Laughs) Well I don’t drink, but I’ll have a Ginger Beer on the rocks (laughs).
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Q: With your Believe Basketball program, you see a lot of people playing basketball and a wide range of ages. Can you share a particularly eye-opening moment for you?
A: Eye opening I’m not sure, but it’s great when you see young people embrace working hard.
Our whole thing is let’s make working hard fun! Relish hard work! When you see kids doing that you know you are helping to set them up for a successful life.
It’s great when the kids you have taught or coached come back and say thank you. It’s great when they say “that thing you said or when you encouraged me or believed in me it resonated.” It makes you feel good.
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Q: What are the three most-played songs on your iPod?
A: Man, I like to switch it up. Too many songs. Probably right now a combination of tracks between Drake, Ed Sheeran and Frank Ocean. I love the Frank Ocean album, Channel Orange, classic.
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Q: This year marks the 10th anniversary that you and your Guelph Gryphons came so close to winning national gold medal. What do you most vividly recall about that? And where do you keep that silver medal today?
A: Time flies! It still hurts that we did not do it. I felt it was our game.
The chance to win a national championship does not come every day. In a game like that the margin of error is so small. I often think about what more I could have done to get us over that hump.
The silver medal is somewhere at my mother’s place. It’s probably a bit sad, you don’t treasure it like you probably should, but it is more pain than joy.
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Q: Alive or not, who are three famous people you’d like to have over for dinner and drinks?
A: Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Malala Yousafzai are amazing people, truly inspirational!
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Q: Your cousin, Brendon, and the Baltimore Ravens made a surprise run to the Super Bowl title this past season. What was Super Bowl day like for you and what was it like having cuz hoist the trophy? How long after did you get to talk to him?
A: I was hoping to get down to the game. Unfortunately my schedule did not allow it.
I actually watched the game at home, it was amazing. I had a few of my friends down here who were saying that they could not get it done. That the team was not talented enough. On paper you might say that, but it shows the power of intangibles.
I was fortunate enough to visit Brendon at his facility. A lot of pro teams don’t like having families hanging around, but I was treated so well. The atmosphere there was amazing, friendly, caring.
Brendon made the point after the Super Bowl that the team did not win because they were more macho or meaner or tougher. They won because they loved each other and cared about each other. I love that! It’s a great teaching point for my young athletes, the idea of a TRUE TEAM.
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Q: Why did you move into education after your basketball career?
A: Well firstly I love young people and I like to help. I was very blessed to have some passionate teachers who influenced me greatly, people like Les Schmidt, who was my health and physical education teacher at Lourdes, John Candiotto who did the same before becoming a principal and Holly Conway who was a guidance counsellor and is now the principal at Bishop Macdonell high school.
I enjoy what I do. I am definitely passionate about my job!
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Q: How often are you back in Guelph and, aside from visiting family and friends, what are three must-do things for you upon return?
A: I usually get back home every Christmas. Friends and family are the priority.
Aside from that, three must-dos include a few visits to the University of Guelph to watch the current crop of Gryphons play and to catch up with head coach Chris O’ Rourke.
I also have to have a Tim Horton’s Vanilla Cappuccino and get down to Toronto for some Jamaican food. It’s hard finding good Jamaican food in Australia (laughs).
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Q: Where do you see yourself life-wise and basketball-wise in, say, seven years?
A: I want my company Believe Basketball to do some things on the global scale.
I think sport is such a great vehicle to bring people together and for teaching life lessons. We are currently working on doing some things in impoverished areas here. I would love to be in a head coaching position at a major institution.
I have not ruled out coming back to Canada at some point, but Australia has definitely become my second home.
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• Band or musician: Coldplay, Frank Ocean
• TV show: Piers Morgan
• Movie: Cloud Atlas
• Actor: Christian Bale, Denzel Washington
• Actress: Halle Berry, Toni Collette
• Food: Anything authentic Mexican
• Drink: Ginger Beer
• Day of the week: Friday
• Sport aside from basketball: American Football
• Pro sports franchise: Baltimore Ravens