Star player’s final tournament marks end of hoops era at Lakehead University
Former Toronto high school star Yoosrie Salhia helped transform Lakehead’s basketball team from perennial loser into CIS powerhouse. Salhia plays his final tournament this weekend at the CIS championships at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.
By:Charlie WilkinsSpecial to the Star,Published on Fri Mar 08 2013
Arab Spring came to Thunder Bay, Ont., about three years before it reached the shores of North Africa. It came in the form of a solemn-faced basketball player with roots in Cairo and the eyes and passion (not to mention the serenity and courage) of a Saladin warrior.
Five years have passed since 20-year-old Yoosrie Salhia, a six-foot-six post player, left the rough streets of Parkdale in west Toronto and came north to tiny Lakehead University to join what was probably the feeblest university basketball program in the country. During the previous season the audaciously named Thunderwolves had won just one game (by one point) and lost 30 (often by as much as 30 points).
Thunder Bay, it should be noted, has (in the words of the old joke) about 10 months of winter and two of tough sledding.
“I definitely had to do some adjusting,” says Salhia, who had never been north of Lake Simcoe and hated cold weather (“I’m Egyptian!” he laughs.) More significantly, he had never played on a losing team.
And would not play on one for long.
Coach Scott Morrison had never seen Salhia on the court — not even on video — when the freshman arrived at the northern university after a high school career at Western Tech in Toronto and a year at Weatherford Junior College in Texas, where he never played a game because of injuries.
“The first day in the gym, we were doing a rebounding drill where the guys come down the lane from the foul line,” says Morrison. “I’m there putting up a little interference with the blocking pad. Here comes Yoosrie — I’ll tell ya, the kid hit me with more brute force than I have ever been hit in my life, moved me back about a metre. It hurt. He’s hard. Then he did it again. I thought, OK — a man among boys. This is the rock on which I’m going to build my team.”
It took about a year and a half for Morrison to mould Salhia and a handful of rookies (including Gregg Carter, this year’s CIS defensive player of the year) into a unit that, like Salhia himself, could play with the biggest boys in the country, as they will be doing this weekend at the CIS championships at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.
Since the year after Sahlia’s arrival, Lakehead has never missed the championships (an accomplishment matched only by the legendary Carleton Ravens). In 2011, the team won the OUA Wilson Cup and has consistently been one of the top defensive teams in the country. Sahlia has been a frequent OUA all-star and has several times led, or nearly led, the CIS in rebounding and blocked shots. He has been a persistent scorer, an OUA leader in double-doubles, and is a physical and psychological survivor of such Promethean durability that, after two major knee surgeries and a half-dozen back injuries, he plays regularly with three slipped discs and in more or less constant pain.
“Some mornings it’s scary,” says his roommate and close friend Greg Carter. “He’ll be lying there in bed at the apartment and just can’t move.”
The miracle, says Morrison, “is that by game time he’s always ready, giving it everything he’s got, even if he’s only at 30 per cent.”
Born in Toronto in 1989, Salhia, the youngest of five siblings, grew up under the influence of his mother Saadia’s strict Muslim faith (his dad died during Yoosrie’s first year at Lakehead).
“He was a scrawny little kid. Very shy,” says his oldest brother, Badr. “Then, in about Grade 8, he discovered basketball. Unfortunately, it wasn’t till he was halfway through high school that we realized how good he was. Suddenly, universities were calling from all over North America.”
To this day, the family, an entourage of ever-smiling cheerleaders, attends Yoosrie’s games en masse, often driving hundreds of kilometres on weekends to see him play.
At one point in his adolescence, Salhia spent nearly a year in Egypt. He has been back and forth twice since and like the rest of the family has evolved a keen consciousness regarding political and social rights in the Arab world.
“Ever since I was little,” he says, “I’ve been listening to my mother’s rants about bringing home democracy, about human rights, about narrowing the gulf between the rich and poor in Egypt. So when Arab Spring came along, it was a natural for us. We got behind it. It’s a very important movement if they can keep it going.”
Yoosrie does not drink, observes fasting and prayer during Ramadan, and has worshipped on occasion at the tiny Thunder Bay Masjid, the only mosque between Toronto and Winnipeg.
“I don’t know much about his religion,” says Carter. “What I do know is that he’s a great friend with great depth — a guy you could trust with your life.”
Salhia is legendarily quiet, both socially and in the dressing room.
“But when he tells you to shut up in the room,” says Carter, “everybody shuts up and listens.”
Asked how his ethics and beliefs jibe with his reputation for intimidation and toughness, Salhia submits that he’s flattered if anybody’s intimidated by him on the court. “It’s not something I strive for. Basically, I’m just a rebounder” — a monstrously successful one often overmatched in height by post players towering above him.
Queried on the secret of his success on the boards, he says, “Hard work, a feel for the ball, and an instinct for getting to it.”
Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “If possible, you want to give the guy you’re playing against a good shot just before you both go up for the ball.”
A good shot where?
“If possible in the chest — it gives him something other than the rebound to think about.”
“I guess he’s given a lot of guys a lot to think about over the years,” laughs Hugh Mullally, Lakehead’s sports information director.
“What I really want them to think about,” says Salhia, is that when they’re out there against me, nothing will be easy. Everything will be a battle.”
“He’s down to his last battle this weekend,” says Morrison. “Winning it would be a great way to end a great career.”
“What I want them to think about,” says Salhia, “is everything will be a battle, and that in the end they’re not going to win it.”