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Meet Canada's next basketball star

Sunday - 24/12/2017 19:44
Already scouted by dozens of top-flight NCAA schools, slam-dunking 16-year-old Laeticia Amihere is the on cusp of becoming the face of the Canadian women's senior basketball program

When Laeticia Amihere stepped in front of a cross-court pass for a steal at the top of the key in the defensive zone, the mood in the sparse gymnasium in Hampton, Va., during a women's basketball tournament, had been rather sombre.

Knocking it forward, Amihere collected the basketball near mid-court and, after a couple of powerful strides, rose toward the basket at the other end.

Most were anticipating a simple layup, as women who play the game are not expected to go airborne for massive slams a la LeBron James, especially a 15-year-old high school student from Mississauga.

But Amihere had other ideas.

The 6-foot-3 athlete with a 6-foot-9 wingspan kept on rising and then propelled the ball through the hoop with her right hand for a demonstrative slam dunk that sent those in the gymnasium into a frenzy.

With that thunderous move, Amihere, who is now 16, became the first Canadian woman to dunk during a competitive game, according to Canadian basketball officials.

And the exploit served notice that the teenager is on the cusp of becoming the face of an already solid Canadian women's senior basketball program, ranked fifth in the world.

At 15, Laeticia Amihere became the first Canadian woman to dunk during a competitive game.

"She has the vibrant personality, the skill set and the ability to have a presence with our national team for a long time if she keeps going in the direction she's on," said Carly Clarke, the head women's coach at Toronto's Ryerson University.

Amihere's dunk, for the Ontario under-17 team, was in late April at the Boo Williams invitational tournament, one of the premier annual events on the basketball calendar in the United States for high school-aged girls.

Spectators roared in disbelief at what they'd witnessed and Amihere's teammates could barely contain themselves, jumping up and down on the sideline.

"Once she got the ball I wasn't really expecting her to do that," said KeishanaWashington, 17, a Toronto native and a teammate of Amihere's with the Ontario team. "I was kind of expecting a layup.

"So when she put it down, I mean the whole room went crazy."

The Boo Williams is heavily scouted by NCAA Division 1 birddogs looking to attract the best of the best to their institutions. And they obviously were impressed by Amihere's feat.

"The NCAA coaches, they're usually very poker-faced and try to act so professional," said Christa Eniojukan, who was Amihere's coach on that U-17 squad. "But I'd never seen them so excited. They'd never seen a female dunk like that before."

Amihere, centre, joins other athletes in a stretch during Canada Basketball camp at Humber College in Toronto on Dec. 15, 2017.

And why wouldn't they be impressed? 

Even at the level of the Women's National Basketball Association, dunks are a rarity. The league reports that in its 21-year history, there have been only 16 dunks during the regular season by six of its players, with 6-foot-9 centre Brittney Grinerof the Phoenix Mercury the runaway leader with 10.

Amihere, who attends King's Christian Collegiate, a private school in Oakville, won't graduate from high school until the spring of 2019. But she has already been contacted by dozens of top-flight NCAA schools offering lucrative scholarships. She said she has narrowed down – narrowed down – her list to 14 schools, including perennial powerhouse University of Connecticut and Michigan State.

Kia Nurse, the Hamilton native who helps lead Canada's senior women's team when not directing the offence as the point guard for the No. 1-ranked Connecticut Huskies, said Amihere's dunk is to be celebrated.

"I would say so," she said. "Obviously most of the criticism that comes against women's basketball is that it's not played above the rim. So for somebody to be able to do that, the first Canadian to come out and do that in competition, it's absolutely great."

To meet Amihere several months after her headline-grabbing leap, you encounter a mature, self-assured young woman who sports a diamond stud in her nose. She was speaking recently from the north campus of Toronto's Humber College where Canada Basketball was conducting a couple of player camps.

To win an Olympic medal for my country would be an honour.

LAETICIA AMIHERE

Amihere goes by the social networking handle of @_Theblackqueen_ in homage to her African heritage. Her mother is from Ivory Coast and her father from Ghana. Her first language is French, but you would not know it to hear her converse in English.

"My ultimate goals are to go to a great program in the States and make my mark over there – win a Final 4, win a championship," she said. "My ultimate goal is to go to the Olympics and win a medal for Canada.

"I wear Canada with pride, every single day. To win an Olympic medal for my country would be an honour."

She almost seems bemused by the attention the dunk has brought her. While it was her first one in competition, Amihere has been dunking the basketball in practice since Grade 8.

"I was dunking before so to me it was like, 'Oh, you'd didn't know I could do this?'" Amihere said.

But while Amihere tries to be coy about the whole thing, it did not stop the rest of the sporting world from sitting up and taking notice.

A video of her throw-down has gone viral and Amihere has received extensive coverage in the U.S. from the likes of Bleacher Report, USA Today and ESPN, who has ranked her No. 2 on its list of the top high-school college recruiting candidates of 2019.

Amihere cheers on athletes during testing at the Canada Basketball camp.

Former NBA great Shaquille O'Neal sent Amihere an Instagram message after seeing a replay of the dunk, saying, "That's nice." Canadian hip-hop music star Drake also sent her a message and is now an Instagram follower of Amihere's.

"It's a big deal," said Lisa Thomaidis, the coach of Canada's senior woman's team. "To have a Canadian female athlete do that in competition, that's huge. Any time you can bring attention to the sport and to young female athletes I think is phenomenal. And to direct attention to Canada Basketball, what we're doing with our younger age groups, is also important."

So impressed is Thomaidis with Amihere's potential that she chose her for the Canadian senior side that participated in a five-game exhibition series in Spain and France toward the end of May. And she said the teen held her own, averaging just under 10 minutes of valuable playing time each game.

"Tons of upside," Thomaidis said. "Athletically she's a phenom. She can get up and down the floor, she's got great ability to change the game at both ends with her length. And she's pretty competent at handling the ball.

"We brought her up to the senior team just to give her a taste of what it's going to be like at the senior level, and I think that really served her well. It gave her a visual of what the best players in the world look like and the skill set they have."

While everything seems to be falling her way, one dark cloud has emerged for Amihere.

An injury in her left knee has cast doubt on her 2018 season.

While playing for her high school team in late October, she suffered a complete tear of her anterior-cruciate ligament in her left knee. She also suffered a second-degree tear in the lateral-collateral ligament.

She is still waiting for surgery and the injury has cast doubt on basketball playing for the 2018 season.

"The sad part about it, the injury happened during a blowout, like we were winning by 30 points," Amihere said. "I shouldn't have really been in the game. But I was and I went for a fast break and my knee kind of tweaked. Right then and there I knew that there was something wrong."

Such an injury is not uncommon, especially with young women. But not knowing the extent of rehabilitation after the surgery weighs on Amihere's mind.

"The test of all great athletes is how they handle adversity," Clarke said. "You hate to see her have to go through this, she was on such a great path. But everybody has a different path and their own path and how you deal with it is really the most telling thing.

"Knowing her courage, her character, I don't expect any major setbacks."

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