Anyone's Game, a new docuseries airing on CBC, follows Canada's premier high school basketball program, Orangeville Prep, as they fight for hardwood supremacy both at home and in the U.S.-based Grind Session tournament.
The show's producers, Kyle McCutcheon and Jack Sussman, come from very different backgrounds. McCutcheon is a veteran documentarian. His production company, Game 7, has made docs like CBC's Inside an Athlete's Head and the TSN Toronto FC documentary The Northern Touch. Sussman is the mind behind the massively successful basketball-related Instagram account Best Crosses.
For McCutcheon, his interest in the Orangeville Prep program started close to home, literally.
"I grew up about 30 minutes from Orangeville," says McCutcheon. "I always knew that town as lacrosse and hockey.
When he started to read about Orangeville Prep in the local paper, he was impressed with what they were doing and reached out to them to see about possibly working together.
It turned out that Sussman, a Canadian now living in Los Angeles, had also been in touch with the school about making a show, and Orangeville Prep program founder Jesse Tipping connected the two. What intrigued Sussman about the school was how it was upending the traditional path for high- level Canadian ballers, who would normally head to the United States while still in high school.
"R.J. Barrett, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennet — they all went to play high school in America because that was traditionally the only way to get to the NBA," he says.
When he realized that Orangeville was rivalling traditional American prep school powerhouses for the number of alumni being drafted into the NBA, he was blown away.
One of the things that struck Sussman about the Orangeville Prep program was how intense their schedule was. He says that often, one of the major struggles for young players going from high school to college is how busy the college season is. But Orangeville players are used to that. Between their games in the Grind Session and their schedule in the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association — a five-year-old domestic circuit made up of other high level teams — Orangeville plays over 50 games in a season.
"No other high school does that," he says. "Even the top schools in the States don't do that. The way[they] have set it up, giving these kids the experience and discipline they need to play a 50 game schedule this early, I think that's what helps their grads be successful in college and the NBA."
"All the kids now wanna be basketball players, not hockey players." - Jack Sussman, co-producer, Anyone's Game
For McCutcheon, the thing that struck him the most was the extent to which the coaching and support staff have the players' best interests at heart.
"They don't ask anything of the players, other than to work hard and get better at their craft," he says. "That's all these guys are dedicated to. At a certain point, you're saying 'What's the catch?' And I couldn't find one. [Coach] Tony [McIntyre] and the staff just want these guys to go on to be stars and be successful at what they do. They care about them so much as people. It's really incredible to see and totally selfless."
One of the ongoing themes in Anyone's Game is Orangeville continually having to fight for respect in the Grind Session. As Tipping says in the first episode "nobody wants to lose to a Canadian school."
"Don't get me wrong, people were nice, but you definitely got this sense of 'Who? Where?'" says McCutcheon. " You can even hear some of the announcers and stuff like that, like 'the team from… Canada?'"
That said, he adds that the tournament's organizers definitely saw the advantage in having a Canadian team.
"In listening to the players, it's the easiest chirp on the court, but there also was, from the conveners and the people that organized the tournament, this respect level," he says. "One guy from [U.S.-based tournament] Hoop Hall said there's a reason Orangeville is there, and it's because Canada is becoming a mecca for producing NBA players, so they have to have representation from Canada. They'd be crazy not to follow that trend."
In addition to playing in the Grind Session, Orangeville also plays in the OBSA, a league of other Ontario prep programs who are also trying to put themselves on the map both here and in the U.S. Sussman says that, as this circuit grows, we may see a time when it's no longer necessary for Canadian players to feel the need to head to the U.S. while still in high school.
"All the kids now wanna be basketball players, not hockey players," he says. "That's how popular basketball is in the [Toronto.] I think in five to 10 years we're gonna see a huge boom of talent come up in Canada, and I think then we'll be able to say we're really competing with the U.S. when it comes to NBA talent."
McCutcheon says that, while Anyone's Game is a show about basketball, he wanted to make a show that you didn't have to be a basketball fan to enjoy. Ultimately, he says, it's a show about young people finding their place in the world.
"I think we've done our job if it's less about basketball and more about the characters," he says. "You feel for the characters and... what they're going through as teenagers. And I think there's a lot that teenagers and parents can relate to in any sport."
Anyone's Game starts Jan. 15 at 8:30 p.m. (9:00 NT) on CBC and CBC Gem.