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Ro Russell leaves coaching job in wake of devastating Fifth Estate report

Ro Russell (left) with NBA lottery pick Tristan ThompsonIf there is a moral to the Ro Russell story, it is probably that the higher one climbs, the more he exposes.

The 45-minute Fifth Estate report on the Toronto youth basketball coach and the fallout thereof speaks for itself. On Wednesday, five days after the CBC aired a report by the investigative journalist Bob McKeown where Russell seemed to admit on camera that parents of ambitious Canadian ballers paid him directly to attend "prep school just for basketball players" when they thought they were paying tuition to a Christian private school, Russell admitted he has left his coaching job at said school. (The admission comes around the 39-minute mark in the report; it's the smoking gun.)

From Brian Daly:

Russell tells QMI Agency that he has temporarily left Christian Faith Center Academy (CFCA) just before the playoffs to focus on his wife and son in Toronto.

He says he is also dealing with the fallout from an investigation by The Fifth Estate that aired last Friday.

The state broadcaster contends that Russell exploited Canadian teenagers by misleading their parents into paying him directly when they thought their kids were attending CFCA in Creedmoor, N.C.

Russell insists the parents were aware that he was running a temporary prep school out of CFCA's gym because student visas had been delayed. (Toronto Sun)

One could hardly imagine a more stunning fall for someone who's made his niche in the sports world by claiming to discover top basketball talent. Last year, Russell saw his protégés Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph make Canadian hoops history when they were each selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Now he looks like he got pranked worse than a member of the Washington Generals. But there's obviously more layers to it than there is the cut-and-dried tones of an investigative report.

The real villain here is not Russell. It's the extremely shady world of college basketball recruiting. He's been cast as a grotesque, the figure in literature who points out something is rotten. Russell worked the angles in a system which probably works great for the top one per cent of ballers in North America, but largely strings along the 99%.

Yahoo!'s Dan Wetzel, who once co-wrote an excellent book about this called Sole Influence, wrote earlier this week that it "never ends because no one really wants it to." The NCAA wants to preserve their rules from 1843 (hat tip: Sam Cosentino) while remaining a big business that doesn't pay its performers. Colleges want to win. Coaches are under pressure to pile up the W's and go deep into the NCAA Tournament, where each win is worth millions to an athletic department.

Canadian kids see that spectacle and say, "Me, too." They get blinded. As Leo Rautins put it to McKeown: "How does it continue to happen over and over? That's something that is baffling."

(It's worth noting that if Canadian Interuniversity Sport would ever stop undervaluing its own product and start offering sports scholarships, perhaps more players and parents would be aware of there are opportunities north of the border.)

Russell thrived well within that framework. Does that make him an evil person? Arguably not. It just makes him someone who overpromised, underdelivered and cut corners while looking to hitch his wagon to another budding NBA star.

That just proves the flaws in the system. One is the misperception is that one person makes a great basketball player. That is how you get Ro Russell, et al., saying they got Cory Joseph or Tristan Thompson on the map, and using that to win over impressionable parents and players.  One of the most impassioned takes on the Russell stories came one of his ex-players, Vidal Massiah, who noted this comes down to people at the game's grassroots (pun intended) insisting on better.

It is not the responsibility nor place for government, shoe companies or corporate Canada to fix. Basketball always has, and always will be driven by communities. The community coach, mentor, and teams are at the foundation of any successful basketball program. When these individuals are not recognized it damages the game. I have always tried to share and include these people who are at the root of any success that may follow a player. In basketball we all start somewhere. What you see on T.V is the result of work done by many coaches behind the scenes over a number of years.

Our basketball community has never recognized these people from the top level down, and its resulted in what we have today. A community where everyone has "made" or "built" a particular player. All in the effort to be recognized! In basketball a coach taking sole credit for the success of a player couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, the most successful coaches are many times the ones with the best relationships. In others words someone (the relationships) has really help in the "making" of the coach, not the other way around. Strong relationships help land talented players and if he or she can coach, that helps too. Our community needs to become a community. Where success is shared amongst all who are involved in the process. Until this happens, what you see now and the climate within our community will never change. (Basketball Buzz)

The rumblings about Russell were always there. Even when he was on top of the world last yea, Toronto Star columnist Royson James noted that people spoke of Russell in "hushed tones, as if afraid to fully lift the lid on the story."

Whatever was going on, and the whole truth is probably too vast to be contained even in a documentary-length piece, was never believed to be a problem. Or people were willing to live with it. The truth is Russell can take a lot of credit for several Canadian ballers' success, but that invited scrutiny about his methods, especially for the players who got burned by the system. It's not a body blow to the Canadian pipeline to high-level hoops, though. An organism can only grow if it opens itself to light.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: Toronto Star).

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