Fitzsimmons: The world of Tyler Ennis
Tyler Ennis is used to waking up to the same smell.
Michelle Farrell’s pork roll, egg and cheese sandwiches are just about ready to be served for breakfast, and that’s probably the only thing that will get him to throw off the covers and trudge downstairs to the kitchen.
He’s not home, not even close, but beautiful Point Pleasant Beach has become home enough on some weekends for the St. Benedict’s Prep basketball superstar. Tyler, like many student-athletes enrolled at the school, does not call New Jersey home. With every homemade meal, even in the early hours, though, he’s getting more comfortable saying it is.
Bob Farrell, a well-respected assistant coach at St. Benedict’s, will often treat his players to an escape from the dorm life at the Newark institution and open up his and Michelle’s home. The residence down the shore is scenic, quite different from the place the nationally ranked Gray Bees are used to.
“He makes everyone on our team feel good. He’s always welcoming us to into his home and helps us with anything we need,” Tyler says of Bob and the generous Farrell clan. “We know he’s there for us, and he’s just a great person with a great family.”
Tyler and the rest of his misplaced teammates need that kind of hospitality. They are all far from home, far from what they know, and are doing their best to cope. These days, life is good for Tyler, a 6-foot-2 junior point guard, blessed with the ability to play basketball in a way many cannot.
But he’s not where he wants to end up.
Welcome to the world of Tyler Ennis.
Tyler grew up in Brampton, Ontario, a middle-class suburb of Toronto, with his parents, two older brothers and two younger sisters. His father, Tony McIntyre, is heavily involved with the basketball leagues around the community and his mother remains an avid sports fan.
“We grew up into basketball and sports. We had no choice,” Tyler laughed.
When it was finally time to send Tyler off to high school, the family decided it’d be best if he enrolled at Father Henry Carr in Toronto, a 40-minute bus ride away from Brampton, to begin his journey toward adulthood.
“My brothers all went to local schools in the area, but my parents saw how serious I was in basketball,” Tyler said. “Plus, at the school I went to, I really liked the Advanced Placement courses they offered.”
Tyler is a well-spoken, unassuming kid whose polite and warm demeanor often makes it difficult to imagine him as a relentless competitor. Perhaps that’s why he always wanted more, always wanted to take on challenges far too lofty for a typical teenager to handle with poise.
While Tyler enjoyed his time at the city school, his mind often wandered. He thought of the possibilities of taking the route less traveled, the dream of moving far from home to achieve something special. After all, doing so was a budding trend in those parts.
“I noticed a lot of Canadian players were going to prep schools in the United States, so I always had it in the back of my mind I was going to do the same. Kids in Canada, everyone wants to play in the states. They know, that if they’re ranked among the best in Canada, they have the chance to get better opportunities at prep schools in the United States.”
The American dream wrapped its arms around the hearts of Canadian hoopsters – finding a way to obtain a top-tier college education free of cost so the path of success will be paved – and in the case of Tyler, never let go.
“Canadians don’t take basketball as seriously,” he shrugged. “In Canada, all of the coaches are teachers at the school. Here, there will be situations where the coaches are just coaches. They get paid for that job alone and that way, they are able to take it more seriously. Canada has always had talent. It just never has the exposure.”
How was he going to reach his goal of playing college basketball at a high-level without being noticed in high school during the precious recruiting periods? That question forced him to make a difficult choice, but the end result of his decision is uttered with confidence.
“You have to sacrifice being with your family if you want to go to college for free.”
Welcome to the world of Tyler Ennis.
Around the metropolitan area, basketball junkies have become accustomed to hearing about the Playaz from Paterson, New Jersey, the Gauchos of the Bronx, and many of the other high-profile AAU programs that dominate headlines throughout the summers. The top high school players may be enemies during the winter, but are able to team up during the offseason by representing the same travel squads. Such is life in the Toronto areas, too.
Four years ago in the Toronto area, a dominant AAU team called CIA Bounce was formed due to the merge of two elite programs. Tyler’s father owned one of those juggernauts, team Bounce, while a man named Mike George owned another, team CIA.
Before the merger, both teams had a stranglehold of the market, simply because their rivalry was akin to St. Anthony/St. Patrick.
“It’s a big rivalry in Toronto,” Ennis said with heavy emphasis.
Once a deal was struck to combine the two powerhouses with hopes of completely monopolizing the hoops landscape, CIA Bounce was born and so was a trend that shook the high school basketball world – even hundreds of miles away.
Tyler joined the AAU program four years ago and was a member of its first-ever constructed team. Former University of Texas standout Tristan Thompson, who was the fourth overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in this past summer’s NBA Draft, was the new program’s shining star alongside Tyler’s older brother, Dylan Ennis, who currently plays at Rice University.
Other Canadians saw their stock rise throughout the years via the AAU explosion, namely Myck Kabongo, a flashy point guard now at Texas, and Cory Joseph, a former Texas point guard who was selected by the San Antonio Spurs in the same draft as Thompson. Those two played with team Grassroots, another major rival of the CIA Bounce hierarchy.
Nevertheless, sponsors and millions of eyes from across the southern borders began paying attention to the Toronto AAU scene.
“We would always play in tournaments there and in the New York City, New Jersey areas,” Tyler said. “And recently CIA Bounce just got sponsored by Nike, which allowed us to play in tournaments hosted by LeBron James in Cleveland.”
Suddenly, Canada has become a major source of talented basketball players, and that domino effect will continue to persist in the foreseeable future.
“I definitely think you’ll see a lot more Canadians in the NBA soon,” he said. “Prep schools here are going to keep getting players from where I’m from, and they’re just going to continue getting better.
“We don’t have a whole lot of Canadians in the NBA. But there’s Steve Nash and now Tristan and Cory Joseph. Steve Nash is like an idol where I’m from, and these guys making it shows everyone that it’s possible for them to make it.”
Welcome to the world of Tyler Ennis.
It’s all Tyler Ennis wants.
Before games, he will bob his head to the lyrics of Drake’s latest beat and let it all sink in. He’s come so far, but still yearns to go further.
After spending one year at Father Henry Carr, Tyler finally convinced his family it was time to move on to the United States and become the latest Canadian to leave his roots and cross over into another world of talent.
“My father said he wanted to make sure I was ready first,” he remembered.
Tyler spent the first semester of his sophomore year at Lake Forest Academy in Chicago. “It was the same school that Dylan eventually went to. But basketball-wise, the stage wasn’t big enough. At St. Benedict’s, though, you always play in front of big schools and coaches – UConn, Syracuse, they’re all there. It’s because everyone here goes on to play Division I.”
One night while traveling with his brother Dylan, who at the time was attending Wings Academy in the Bronx before accepting an athletic scholarship from Rice University, the Garden State basketball scene changed before anyone recognized it.
“It was kind of a weird thing,” Tyler said. “When my brother went to school in New York, we stopped somewhere and he mentioned how a school called St. Benedict’s was right down the street pretty much.”
The name rang a bell, simply because Tyler knew Tristan Thompson had spent time at the Newark prep school before transferring to Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) for his senior year of high school. Kabongo also played for the Gray Bees before following Thompson to Nevada for his senior campaign.
“I asked Tristan about it because I knew he went there and he said all good things,” Tyler said. “But I also heard about how strict it was. Still, though, Tristan said St. Benedict’s helped him get to where he is today.”
Thompson has fond memories of his time in the Garden State. He recalls working hard wearing a Gray Bees jersey and despising rival St. Patrick, located in nearby Elizabeth. On the eve of June’s draft, he admitted his first goal as an NBA player was to dunk on Kyrie Irving, a St. Pat’s legend who, oddly enough, was taken first overall by Thompson’s eventual employer, the Cavaliers.
That silly wish won’t come true because they now are teammates, but in the grand scheme of things, Thompson had made it. He reached the top, reached the pinnacle of his sport.
And that’s where Tyler, in his world, wants to be someday.
Bob Hurley, a Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame inductee in 2010, is known for being the architect of St. Anthony’s sterling legacy. The pride of Jersey City is also the patriarch of New Jersey basketball’s first family; his sons have played an instrumental role in the sport across all levels.
His oldest, Bobby, is considered one of the best players to ever wear a Duke jersey, and went on to be an NBA lottery pick before a tragic car accident derailed his once promising playing career. Bob’s youngest, Danny, also suited up at St. Anthony like his brother and went on to wear a Seton Hall Pirates uniform. He never reached the League, but found a home as a coach.
After a stint as a Rutgers assistant, he landed the head job at St. Benedict’s Prep, where he accumulated a 223-21 record over nine seasons. Such success afforded him a golden ticket to the college ranks, as he accepted an offer become the head coach at Wagner College in Staten Island.
Former NBA player Roshown McLeod took over as the Gray Bees leader in the winter of 2010-11, and struggled out the gate. His team boasted North Carolina State-bound forward Tyler Harris, an import from Long Island, and several other big contributors, but lacked a true point guard.
On January 2, 2011, Tyler enrolled at St. Benedict’s Prep and immediately began practicing for the team Tristan Thompson nudged his young friend toward.
“I felt comfortable right away,” Tyler said. “They really didn’t have a point guard, so when I came and practiced for the first time, I built up trust. The guys trusted me after that and they knew I could get them the ball. I felt confident from the get-go.”
Off the court, however, he was presented different obstacles.
“We don’t have much free time. We have, like, one or two hours late at night to watch television or hang out after study hall and practice, but that’s it. But even after the long day, we don’t even want to hang out. Most of the time we just end up going to bed.”
Tyler, then a sophomore, and two other new players from Canada, who both transferred prior to the current school year, stuck together during a time of such immense change.
“It wasn’t like we were outcasts, though,” Tyler assured. “The team always ate together, always practiced together, and always hung out in the dorms together. We had so many players who didn’t live locally, so we were all used to not seeing our families. We were forced to become close.”
It seemed as if Tyler was finding a home in the Garden State. He’d stay in the dorms at night, wake up early in the morning for school and then turn his focus to basketball. It was the routine of someone inching closer toward making it.
Tyler’s first game as St. Benedict’s starting point guard was a smashing hit, as he contributed eight points and dished out a game-high 14 assists in his team’s 68-39 victory over Peddie.
“I wasn’t used to playing guys that talented,” Ennis admitted. “I knew it was a national school, playing a national schedule, so I thought that maybe I’d have to sit at first. I knew we’d be playing the top guys in the country. But when I got on the court, it was nice to know I can give it up to guys who are going to play Division I and they would finish.”
More exposure came in a hurry, and Tyler’s second game for his new team was living proof. The No. 1 program in the nation at the time, St. Patrick, was set to meet the Gray Bees in a much-anticipated showdown at Kean University as part of the highly magnified PrimeTime Shootout event.
“When we played against St. Pat’s, I anticipated all of it,” Tyler said. “They had (Kentucky freshman Mike Kidd-Gilchrist) and (Western Kentucky freshman Derrick Gordon) and all them.”
Despite 14 points and four assists from Tyler, the Celtics walked away with an easy win. Weeks went by and St. Benedict’s never found a true rhythm. The team finished with a pedestrian 13-12 record, and after much speculation, McLeod was relieved of his coaching duties.
St. Benedict’s, which spent so much time in the national spotlight and had a weekly slot in the USA Today Super 25 rankings in years prior, had fallen so far and was now without a coach.
“At that point, I was actually looking to leave,” Tyler admitted. “I was looking to go to St. Pat’s or St. Anthony. I knew college coaches always go to watch in New Jersey, so I knew I was staying there.”
However, one phone call altered the plans of an exodus.
Ridge coach Mark Taylor had previously made a name for himself as the head man of St. Joseph (Metuchen), where he developed NBA talents Jay Williams and Andrew Bynum earlier in the decade. But when the opportunity to take over the Gray Bees came about, it was too good to turn down.
Athletic Director Jim Wandling announced Taylor, who entered this winter with a career record of 266-111, would be the leader strapped with the heavy task of bringing St. Benedict’s storied basketball program back to national prominence.
Still, Ennis was in limbo, teetering between staying and leaving for either St. Patrick or St. Anthony.
“But one day coach Taylor called me and said he wanted to build around me,” he said. “So I ended up coming back in the summer and just ended up staying.”
He also is beginning to realize his made the right choice.
“He coached Jay Williams and Andrew Bynum, so he’s a great teacher,” Tyler said. “With the players we have, and the way he coaches, it just works. He gives us freedom on the court and we’re a group of guys who need that. It works perfectly.”
St. Benedict’s enters the week ranked No. 2 in MSG Varsity’s tri-state poll, with a 10-1 record. The team, comprised of many new faces -- including Rice (N.Y.) transfer and University of Miami commit Melvin Johnson -- is clicking in a way it never did last winter. A lot of it has to do with the growth of Tyler as the area’s most talented floor general.
“He’s so mature for his age on and off the court,” gushed Farrell, Taylor’s best friend and loyal assistant. “It’s amazing for me, as a coach, to see a kid develop like that. He’ll come over sometimes on a free weekend and his demeanor is the same as it is on the court. He’s so level headed. Nothing fazes him and it’s because of his maturity. He’s just an absolute pleasure to coach.
“He’s a leader. The one thing coach Taylor demands is basketball IQ; Tyler brings that and so much more. He’s got a great sense for the game and because of that, it’s like having another coach on the floor.”
Tyler and company boasts enough gusto to be considered one of the top teams in the nation; last Sunday’s one-point loss to St. Anthony – ranked sixth in America – in the New Year’s Jump-off at Hackensack High School is concrete evidence.
Another great effort, however, took a backseat to what truly touched Tyler’s heart that night. His parents were able to sit in the stands and root for their son. It was the second time they were able to see him in person since he arrived in Newark.
“It’s always a big game for me when they visit,” Tyler said. “I have to play hard because they travel all that way, they travel for so long, just to see me. I have to play well.”
Welcome to the world of Tyler Ennis.
Tyler doesn’t want to talk about recruiting.
The gentle personality would rather talk about an infamous joke one of his friends told the previous night inside the St. Benedict’s dorm rooms or debate the hottest kicks in stores – he’ll argue the highlight-yellow Nikes he sported at the MSG Varsity The Magazine photo shoot are the best. But more times than not, he’ll settle for discussing a true passion of his: music.
“I’m big into music. I’m a big music guy,” he smiles. “I like fast hip-hop and R&B. Drake is my favorite. He’s from Toronto, too. So he’s definitely my favorite.”
He’s used to the question, though. That question.
His answer is polite, but simple: “I haven’t narrowed my list of college choices yet.”
“I’m just going to take my time and wait for schools with interest to come forward,” said Tyler, a coveted recruit who opened up enough to proclaim he will probably narrow his list over the summer and then commit in between summer and Christmas of next year.
The pressure to dodge questions from reporters about his pending future can become tiring. Will it be Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona, Louisville, Oregon State, Rutgers, Seton Hall, or another high-level program?
But that’s where Tyler’s maturity kicks in and separates him from other teenaged prodigies.
“He handles it all very well,” Farrell said. “What’s so interesting to me is how these kids’ schedules can become so monotonous. That’s why, whenever I can, I try to take them out, maybe go down the shore, go to the movies, whatever, just to get them out. It’s too much for them to go seven days straight of what they do. It’s too much, without a break. That’s why I give these kids a lot of credit.
“They’re great kids. They’re respectful, and just an absolute pleasure to be around. Fr. Ed, the headmaster and principal, once said to me, ‘I’ve got to tell you, this group is by far the best group we’ve ever had both academically and behavior-wise.’ But that’s what we preach. We teach them to respect others, say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ and the guys get it.”
And it’s no secret. Tyler is the one setting that example day in and day out for his peers.
Far from home -- just under 500 miles, to be exact – Tyler Ennis is waiting. He’s hoping and growing, blossoming and dreaming.
Is he the next big thing from Toronto to make it?
There’s plenty of time for that answer to reveal itself. For now, he wants to focus on each stepping-stone – and making sure he handles it all with grace and humility.
“Now, I’ve been away for so long that I’m kind of used to my whole situation,” said Tyler, who always makes it a point to stay in touch with his two older brothers, two younger sisters and 2-year-old brother. “I mean, in college it’ll be the same, so when that time comes it’ll allow me to adjust quicker than others my age. Every day, though, I miss my family. It’s the sacrifice.”
A sacrifice that will pay off. Someday.
Welcome to the world of Tyler Ennis.
Brian Fitzsimmons is the award-winning author of Celtic Pride: How Coach Kevin Boyle Took St. Patrick to the Top of High School Basketball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter