At Scarborough’s Royal Crown Academic School, girls with WNBA dreams live and learn in a bubble

Lisa Tesson had never been in a bubble before.

The same can be said of her elite basketball teammates at Scarborough’s Royal Crown Academic School, who have been living dorm-style in a nearby hotel and shuttling to the school to study and train since early August.

It’s a team built specifically with the goal of becoming the best in North America at the high school level, but the COVID-19 pandemic has led them in unexpected directions.

“It’s tough (being in the bubble), but it’s fun too. I think it’s a little of both,” Tesson said this past week as players assembled for workouts after morning classes.

The team — which would normally be competing against other Canadian schools and in select tournaments in the United States at this time of year — isn’t yet complete, because of travel restrictions and pandemic-related delays in acquiring study permits. Their first game now isn’t expected to come until a Halloween tournament scheduled for their home court.

“We’re trying to get other schools (from Toronto) to play in controlled scrimmages right now,” said coach Handel Kipp, a Runnymede Collegiate grad.

The group of Grade 11 and 12 student-athletes is missing four key members: Emirson Devenie, from Australia, is expected to arrive soon while three American students — Kaia Woods, Ariannah Staton and Se-Quoia Allmond — are also en route.

When they arrive, they’ll have to get up to speed on the routine:

  • Each day, assistant coach and “dorm mom” Lesha Dunn — who played high school ball at Eastern Commerce at the same time as former NBA star Jamaal Magloire — makes sure the girls are ready for an 8 a.m. bus trip from the hotel.
  • They spend nine hours a day at school, near Finch Avenue and Brimley Road, including meals prepared with the needs of athletes in mind.
  • They attend classes twice a day.
  • The basketball regimen includes two hours a day on the court, gym sessions with trainers and video instruction.

“It’s made me focus more on my own game and see what I need to work on and add to my game,” said Shayeann Day-Wilson, who recently committed to Syracuse University along with Latasha Lattimore. Both transferred to Royal Crown from Crestwood Preparatory College.

“I went back and looked at my film, and I talked to our trainers about how I need to perfect it. I think being in a bubble has helped me as a player.”

The girls say they were also inspired by watching video of Toronto’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Oklahoma City Thunder star who trained at Royal Crown over the summer. The school’s response to the pandemic has drawn feelers from Netflix, Vice TV and Quibi about a possible documentary.

The players wore masks during practices for the first two weeks. Part of their daily protocol also calls for temperature checks, while basketballs and clothes are sanitized daily.

Through it all, they say they’ve still found ways to have some fun.

“We recently had a team BBQ at one of the girls’ homes,” Kipp said. “They had a water balloon fight, which was fun for them. We also brought them on a trip to Yorkdale (Mall), but it’s tough. There’s not a lot of things we can do. We have to be careful of what we expose them to.”

Kipp adds: “We have a thing call Crown Talk, where they come into the gym and talk to each other. Everyone gets a chance to talk: about life, about basketball, whatever there is on their minds.”

For health reasons, though, most of the talking — among team and family members — is done by video chat. Tesson, for one, is used to that part. Born in Paris, her family moved to Montreal when she was 11. Her parents stayed there after she chose Royal Crown to further her basketball career.

“I’m kinda used to being away from home,” Tesson said. “I played for a school in Montreal (Lucien Page), then I tried a high school in Virginia before I came here. I’ve never been in a bubble, but you kinda get used to (long-distance conversations with family).

“I miss them very much, but we can talk. That’s what social media is there for.”

Ultimately, the goal is to play college ball and pursue the dream of a career in the WNBA. But the pandemic has left tournament plans unsettled, and the four players en route to the private school — which costs $40,000 a year to attend (including food and housing), plus $15,000 for basketball training — committed in part with the expectation of high-level competition.



Kipp says a full game schedule might not be possible until the new year. The target, he says, is to be in full form for April’s Geico Championships in New York, where the top high school team in the U.S. is crowned annually.

“It’s never been done before,” Kipp said of a Canadian team winning the most prestigious tournament in American high school hoops. “The challenge right now is keeping them motivated, but the fact is we’re all in this together. They have teammates they can lean on …

“Hopefully we’ll have some games soon and they can get out and compete, and play the game they love.”

Mark Zwolinski


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