By Shaheen Karolia.
How do you tell a story that has no ending? The best success stories often begin with failure – a second chance – a shot at redemption. But what if there was never a first shot? Then perhaps the story of Kashif Daniyal Syed of Markham, Ontario is a unfinished work in progress, a continuous construction project like the famous Sagrada Famila church in Barcelona.
Streetball is the blue-collar of basketball. Concrete courts, hand drawn lines, the wind, rims that are bent or at different heights are just a few of the common variables that players face. Whereas professionals can be thrown off by having to call their own fouls, streetballers relish in the unstructured nature of the court, the game and often the rules. Where simply scoring a basket is not enough, the style and manner of each dribble, pass and shot are just as important as a made bucket.
The legend of Kashif Daniyal Syed begins with his upbringing in the town of Markham, Ontario, not unlike many of the now 300,000 plus Markham residents. During the mid 1980s, before Markham was a labeled a city, it became the first home of many young immigrant families due to new and affordable houses and easily accessible public schools like Milliken Mills Public School and then Milliken Mills High School.
It is here, that Kashif first developed his affinity for streetball. Several years before the Toronto Raptors would arise, when basketball was regulated to the boxscores at the back of the sports section and the last 30 seconds of the sports highlight show, basketball was still widely popular amongst the Markham schools that did not have the resources to fund hockey or football teams. “Milliken Mills was probably one of the first schools in the area to have outdoor courts, and it brought aspiring ballers from all over,” Kashif recalled. “I really have to thank the Milliken school planners that built outdoor basketball courts that we could all use, it provided us with an identity.”
But even then, while trying out for the school basketball team, Kashif had to deal with a system that developed coaching favourites for those that played the right way. This wasn’t unlike the classroom itself, those that put their head down, coloured in the lines, and occasionally brought an apple for the teacher, would often receive the most praise. “I was a pretty good student, but the basketball court was like my canvas, my stage,” Kashif said. “But it’s like a teacher telling Leonardo [da Vinci] how to paint the Mona Lisa, or giving Shakespeare a B+ grade for Hamlet.”
At this time Kashif was a few inches shorter then most of the kids, and when he shot the basketball, he would have to heave it in the air by bringing both his arms across his body almost like a two-handed shot put. But what he lacked in stature, he made up with his brash mouth and his willingness to take and make shots from distance. “If there was a four point line, I would be taking shots from there,” Kashif said.
Every time a shot went through the hoop, you would know it, with calls like “you can’t stop me” and even as a young teenager with seemingly no basketball resume, proclaiming “I am the greatest.” “It’s not like I was talking trash,” Kashif said. “Even then, I really believed in the things I was saying on the court.” But even as Kashif grew taller and his shot altered only slightly from it’s shot put form, the coaches of Milliken Mills Public School and then Milliken Mills High School could only find a spot at the end of their bench. For someone who’s game wasn’t easy to define, the coaches had no choice but to put square pegs into the square holes. “I was a competitor, so when coach told me to look at my glass as half full that I was on the team, I told him, that you can’t look at glass half full when its overflowing,” Kashif recalled.
But this is not to say that Kashif was uncoachable or a negative influence on the team, in fact, his coaches will tell you stories of someone that always arrived early to practice and stayed late, and was actually one of the most well liked players on the team. But even Babe Ruth had to have a history of hitting homeruns before he could call his own shot, and it became apparent to Kashif and onlookers that he was never going to get his shot playing organized school basketball. “I always did what I was asked by my coaches, but I would wonder, why can’t I do more, what happened to going above and beyond what you are asked,” he said.
But it was behind the schools that provided a more fitting stage for Kashif’s talents. These outdoor basketball courts, like the ones hanging off the school brick walls with no mesh so that when your shot goes through the rim, the ball slams back off the wall and returns right back to you. It’s here that Kashif not only built on his skill set, but found an audience for it as well. Street ball like it’s found in Rucker Park, NY is often associated with an MC that provides on-court commentary and story telling as the game is played. But Kashif quickly became a streetballer that was also the MC, dishing out comments and describing every move he was about to do, as he was doing it. It is as if he was Eric B and Rakim combined into one man, controlling the microphone while also setting the sound that he was about to rap to. “Rap music was a big influence as well,” Kashif recalled. “I was the kid that would write down lyrics in the back of my notebooks, playing a few seconds of the tape and rewinding the verses until I had the whole song. It’s like I was studying a second craft that would help me with my first trade, only I didn’t even realize it.”
And as witty and entertaining as his commentary would be to the crowd, he would equally impress if not more so, with his play. Shots from further and further out, shooting and then turning around to run up the court before even seeing the ball going in (which it did). And even when rivals would defend and push even harder, Kashif would pull up from even further, say “good D”, turnaround, only to have the defender watch as the ball would fall through the hoop, and shake the head in disbelief. “When you are telling your defender they can’t guard you, while they are guarding you, you are opening yourself up to failure and ridicule on every play, but I knew I wasn’t going to miss,” Kashif recalled about his on court commentary.
But after the games, Kashif had a manner in which he would be able to disarm any hostile feelings for a game lost, and shake hands, and engage in friendly discussions about the latest music videos, directions to the Champion outlet in Buffalo to find $8 dollar basketball jerseys, and even about joining their teams for future games. Probably the most remarkable fact to all of this, is that Kashif never got into a single fight. Despite all the talk and in the heat of the matchups, he was always able to step away from the court on that day with new friends made on the basketball court. “The competition made me what I am, but I would never disrespect my opponents or my teammates, because we all were all friends in the same community. The same person that I would hit a game winning shot over, would be the same person to offer a ride home from the bus stop,” Kashif said.
Over the summers, as the legend and the friendships grew, so did the nicknames – “KAT”, to the “Brown Mamba”, then it became “LeBrown James” incorporating Kashif’s Indian background. So even though Kashif found himself at the end of the bench during the high school games just a few feet over from the outdoor court, he would find himself picked amongst the first to lead a team during a full days worth of king’s court. “I’d often find that the same opponents that I would be watching from the bench while in school, would be the same guys that I would be scoring over a few hours later on the playground,” Kashif said. “I never lost the confidence in myself or what I could do on the court”.
But like being the underground street king of rap, what does being a Markham street ball legend really mean? Seeing Kashif on the court now, it’s like watching Benjamin Button play basketball – an individual that appears even younger and still plays with a youthful spirit, but also relies on his experience and years of basketball intelligence to outplay his opponents, often youths who are not even as old to remember Michael Jordan wearing the shoes that they have on their feet now.
The list of famous streetballers reads like a list of your Myspace friends list. A set of familiar names that you never forget and those that you have fond memories but might have forgotten until you browsed the list because you haven’t logged on in years. Most ballers are able to shout out streetball legends like Rafer “Skip to my Lou” Alston, Troy “Escalade” Jackson, Hot Sauce, and possibly the greatest legend of them all, Lloyd “Sweat Pea” Danials. But even these individuals found an opportunity – a lane – that allowed them to pursue their trade and reach white-collar success.
But for Kashif, is time running out? The KAT can’t come back, if it never left in the first place. Kashif recently had a sit down with a former Markham street ball legend who is blowing up as a national basketball analyst, using his years of being in the community and basketball knowledge to reach an ever growing basketball audience in Canada. A sage of wisdom, the legend offered his advice and mentorship, and encouraged Kashif to “create his own lane” because as the saying implies, there is going to be less traffic. “It’s like when Kanye West went to Jay-Z and gave him that H to the Izzo beat, maybe his voice wasn’t on the song, but he showed up in that video, and now people call him Yeezus,” Kashif said.
How do you create your own lane when there is no construction allowed on the road? How does a blue-collar employee succeed in a white-collar environment? Maybe if it’s not the lane that is going to take you where you are trying to go, maybe you look at building your own avenue - an even broader street permitting you to travel in different directions at one time. For Kashif, there might never be a need for a redemption story, because he has been on the streets - learning, teaching, and now he is ready to build - and whether it is blue-collar, white-collar or a black hoodie, he wears them all. “Everything that I’ve done to get to this point, this is just the prologue,” Kashif said. “The story is yet to come, the game is the game, and I will not lose...ever”