The 1999-2000 St. Patrick’s Fighting Irish out of Ottawa were the national high school champions that year, which included Alain Vixamar (#23) and Dion Williams (#4). Photos courtesy Dion Williams

Basketball journey made men out of boys

  • February 27, 2022

St. Patrick’s High School’s 1999-2000 basketball squad might be considered one of the best secondary school sports teams in Ottawa history.

More than the memories from an undefeated regular season that led them to a national championship, alumnae from that roster say the team was a vehicle that helped them on the path to purpose and destiny.

The Fighting Irish solidified the school as a basketball powerhouse in the late 1990s and early 2000s at a time when Canadian players began making a mark in the sport in the United States and overseas. Located in Ottawa’s south end near the densely populated Ridgemont and Herongate neighbourhoods, most team members hailed from first- or second-generation immigrant families from the Caribbean and east Africa.

More than a game, the players say basketball helped give the structure and community needed to protect them from the pitfalls plaguing vulnerable youth in their community.

Power forward and centre Alain Vixamar, of Haitian descent, is a social worker in Ottawa’s French Catholic school board where he also coaches basketball. He uses the sport as a tool to reach young people in challenging circumstances the way it reached him. Like many youth in his community, he struggled internally but says basketball and his Catholic faith always brought his life back into focus.

“My testimony that I try to give whenever I can is that there are two things that saved my life — my faith and basketball,” said Vixamar, a married father of two young sons. “I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for these things. To some degree they protected me from myself and from auto destructing, especially when you’re living in certain neighbourhoods.

“What I do now is a reflection of the deepest part of my identity, and what I believe to the core of me, which is my faith, making a difference in my community and helping others develop into their full potential.”

The athlete mindset still drives Vixamar and former team captain, Dion Williams, who remain good friends to this day. They can both still vividly recall that whirlwind season where their undefeated streak in Ottawa led them to the OFSAA provincial championships, where they lost the provincial title in a hotly contested battle with a top Toronto team. Their impressive performance put them on the Canadian map and the Fighting Irish were selected to represent Ontario at the national championships in Saskatoon, a trip neither will ever forget.

The impact of that season and the trip to Saskatoon helped to expand their horizons, showing them that with focus and dedication anything was possible for their lives.

“That trip going to Saskatoon was the highlight of our basketball career,” said Vixamar. “Representing the province, being on the national stage, having your face and your name on TV  for the first time was a glimpse of what it would be like to play professionally. It’s hard to describe in words but you were getting a taste of something that you would like so much. That was very special.”

“My favourite memories are seeing guys achieve their goals whether that’s the guy on the bench that never played and scores a bucket or travelling to Saskatchewan and seeing guys go on a plane for the first time since they’ve been in Canada,” said Williams, who went on to study business at St. Francis Xavier University (St. FX) and also played basketball, winning a title in his first year. “Those are the things I truly remember and most of those happened off the court.”

Williams, who is of Jamaican and Sierra Leonean descent, is also a married father of two. He works as a mortgage broker and runs an online platform called Ottawa Hoops which highlights community basketball news, events and spotlights local talent. Closer friends now than they ever were as teammates, Williams and Vixamar bonded on a deeper level as adults in their 20s both focused on pursing their careers and creating a bright future for themselves and those around them. At Williams’ wedding in the summer of 2020 Vixamar was the best man.

Passionate about mental health, Vixamar remembers being a young adult feeling like he had to figure things out on his own and wants to make sure other young males don’t feel the same way. A public speaker at local events, he hopes to contribute to changing the narrative for young men about mental health and creating a culture of openness and dialogue with students to show them they are never alone.

Williams believes that with everything basketball afforded him, through his experiences at St. Patrick’s to meeting his wife as a student athlete at St. FX, it’s likely that without the game, he wouldn’t be alive today.

With over 100,000 immigrants arriving in Ontario annually, Williams would like to see a greater investment in sports like basketball and soccer that have the greatest appeal for newcomer children. With the school gym closures during COVID-19, he has been bombarded with messages from kids on his platform inquiring where they could play. This along with his own experience as a young athlete is proof, he says, of where government investments in the next generation need to go.

“We need to create the resources for (newcomer children) to strive because if they don’t they’re going to be on the other side of the law,” said Williams. “Unfortunately COVID highlighted that when kids don’t have sport outlets, we’re seeing the results of that right now whether that be mental health or physical health.”

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