Nowadays, Junior Cadougan is making headlines for helping his Marquette squad defeat NCAA tourney favorites (sorry, Cuse) and preparing for a tough UNC matchup Friday night. But years ago, Cadougan was a highly-touted young’n in Toronto, readying himself for what appeared to be a bright basketball career. Then after a tragic shooting left his brother wounded and his future in doubt, he moved to Atlanta and started anew. From SLAM 93, this feature delves into the 6-1 guard’s incredible journey.–Ed.
by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker
For decades, Lenox Square has served as a cultural and economic hub for Atlanta’s north side, providing fireworks on the Fourth and a tree lighting for Christmas. It’s where well-funded Buckhead housewives come to shop, where big-name New York designers open southern outposts, where college students from the AUC work part-time to get through school.
Most of all, Lenox is where teenagers come to see and be seen. They cruise in packs, starting with a lap around the lower level, then up past the Apple store, in and out of Champs, momentarily settling in the food court, back up the escalator and over to HMV. On this mid-September Friday afternoon, prepubescent pedestrian traffic clogs the mall’s byways. Two kids—one of them an athletic 6-7, the other a thick 6-0—make their way from Starbucks up a wide flight of stairs to a Waldenbooks. The shorter one wears a Bo Jackson White Sox throwback and Sean Jean shorts. The tall one rocks a long white t-shirt and fresh S. Carters. He repeatedly tucks in the back of his shirt, trying to hide a stain caused by sitting on a Snickers bar in the car on the way here. The taller one, he’s funny like that, able to talk to anyone, nearly an adult at age 16. His name is Olu Ashaolu.
The shorter one is named Junior Cadougan. He recently turned 15 and he’s quieter, his wide eyes drinking in everything around him: the girls, the stores, the twilight streaming through the skylight. Three months ago, up in Toronto, Junior’s dreams were coming true. A lifetime of basketball met up with spurts of growth and confidence, and Junior went from being unable to crack his AAU first team to being perhaps the best high school prospect in Canadian history, a kid touted as the best teenage point guard in the world.
Now Junior is in Atlanta, nearly alone. Mom, the fam, they’re still in Toronto, trying to maintain in the notorious Jane and Finch neighborhood. Junior gets it, though; he understands. “From the beginning of grade eight, with Olu here in Atlanta, I wanted to come down.”
“I told him he was too young,” Junior’s mother, Suzette Cadougan, says from Toronto, her words lilting in her native West Indian accent. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m going to make it, I’m going to be fine.’” She begins crying. “It’s just hard because I love him so much.”
When did Junior know that he was coming to America? Maybe it was when he heard the bullets rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat indiscriminately across the front of the family house like a sprinkler someone forgot to turn off. Maybe it was when he saw his 4-year-old brother lying motionless on the porch, his body polka-dotted by bullet holes, crimson oozing through his little clothes. Maybe it was when he heard the sirens, competing for airtime with wails from his own mother as they struggled to keep his brother alive.
Probably, though, he and Mom knew it was time to go when they decided that all those bullets, every last one of them, might have been meant for him.
Junior Cadougan was born and raised in Toronto, where he lived with his mother, an older sister and two brothers, one older, one younger. His older brother, Kerlon Cadougan, is a 6-2 combo guard, regarded around Toronto as a blacktop legend. “They say he has the best finger roll in Canada,” Junior smiles. “When I was little, me and Kerlon used to have a little basketball goal in the house, and my mom would say, ‘You guys stop, you’re going to break something.’”
“He would take a milk carton and take out the bottom to make a net,” Suzette remembers. “He started from there. I told him, This is your gift from God and no one can take it away from you except Him.”
When Junior was in fourth grade, the family moved to Jane and Finch, a neighborhood that holds about 75,000 people from 70 countries. “It wasn’t always as bad as it is now,” says Rohan “Ro” Russell, a fixture on Toronto’s grassroots basketball scene, “but lately, a lot of younger kids are getting their hands on some guns. Because of that, they’ve been getting impulsive.”
Russell first saw Junior play ball as a sixth grader: “He was chubby and short, but he had skills. I didn’t think he’d project to be any legitimate prospect, but he knew how to play the game.”
Last season, at 14, Junior started out with the junior team at Toronto’s Eastern Commerce HS, the same school at which Toronto phenom Justin Shephard starred before he was murdered in the summer of 2001. Junior hit a growth spurt last summer and rose to his current height while his body stayed strong. And then it all happened. In his first game with the Eastern Commerce varsity, he caught a dunk and finished with 37. A series of big games against top-flight American comp followed, including a solid showing with the junior national team in San Diego, and capped by his showing at the annual Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions. “In my first game, against DC Assault, I had 26 points on the main court at the Dean Dome,” Junior says. “That’s when I knew. North Carolina, that’s my school. I kissed the floor.”
In little more than a year, Junior Cadougan had gone from a fair prospect to a sure thing being asked to work out with the Canadian Senior National Team. People talked about his court vision, his scoring, his maturity. Hoops heads mentioned Jason Kidd. Division 1 coaches were talking, even NBA scouts were taking notice. He was 15 years old.
“I’m not saying he’s Sebastian Telfair,” Russell says, “but it’s almost like our version of Sebastian, in how he’s a phenom that does things a kid that young isn’t supposed to do. He’s the future.”
Wednesday, August 3, was a sultry night in Toronto. Besides a summer of surprising violence that gripped the city, a heat wave had clamped down and refused to let up. Two weeks earlier, Junior had turned in another dazzling performance at the Nike All-Canada Camp, prompting national team coach Leo Rautins to introduce Junior to Steve Nash. Present, meet future.
With the humidity hovering, Junior’s mom came home from a 12-hour overtime shift and grabbed a seat on the porch. Junior was there, his 4-year-old brother Shaquan was there, his community coach Devan Thompson was there. Before long, 13 people had arrived, a spontaneous block party. Then a car slowed to a creep in front of the house.
“We were all chilling in front of our house, right?” Junior recalls. “I was going in the house, and as soon as I touched my screen door, I just heard, pop-pop-pop-pop. I ran inside and I came back out and saw my brother on the floor, and then my community coach was holding him. Then they came inside and we noticed my coach had been shot in his arm. I turned around and saw my little brother on the floor, bleeding and stuff. I was like, Dang! I was crying, holding my friends, everything. I was going crazy.”
Four people were hit in the drive-by shooting, most of them just grazed. The brunt of the bullets found their way into Shaquan’s body: one in the right shin, one in the left calf, one in the left foot, and one that transversed his body and ended up in his right hip.
One day later, Shaquan was in the hospital, starting a slow recovery from his injuries. As the Toronto media buzzed, Junior and his mother said they believed Junior was targeted by neighbors jealous of his success. A day later, four people from a different neighborhood were arrested and charged with the shooting. In a city that saw one of its best hoop prospects gunned down four years earlier, the story caused an uproar.
“I don’t even know about all that,” Junior says when asked if he could have been the target. “But since Leo Rautins started bringing me to the national team senior camp, people have been hating on me. They think that’s gonna bring me down, but that’s just gonna motivate me.”
It’s late in the day and Junior and Olu are taking laps around the mall. Now settled in the South, Junior just started 9th grade at Community Christian School (CCS), a small school with big plans just southwest of Atlanta. “We wanted to build a quality program like an Oak Hill or a Duke University, with a focus on academics,” says Community Christian coach Linzy Davis.
With a roster that’s made up almost exclusively of international prospects, CCS was stacked even before adding Junior—they finished 28-3 last year, and Davis estimates they could have seven D1 players graduate this year. Olu, widely considered one of the best sophomores in North America, arrived last year.
Davis moonlights as a coach with USA Basketball and the Georgia Force AAU team. Of Junior, he says, “He’s definitely the total package. He’s a very good passer and ballhandler, and he can penetrate. He can break down a defender, and he’s a good defender. We’re going to work a lot with his three-point shooting, where it will not allow people to play off of him when he gets to the next level.”
As Olu and Junior wander the mall, they mention their dream of playing together one day at UNC. Junior even dreams of hitting it big and playing in the NBA one day but says he’ll never forget Jane and Finch. “Even if I do make it big time or something like that, I’m gonna be coming back,” he says. “It’s home…I miss it.”
Outwardly, Junior appears to have moved past the shooting, but back in Toronto, Suzette Cadougan hasn’t found it so easy. The family temporarily moved from Jane and Finch to downtown Toronto, and she’s trying to find a quiet neighborhood to settle for good. “It’s hard to turn your life so fast. I don’t think I can ever get over this. Shaquan, he’s healing and doing better, but he’s still having bad dreams.”
“After what happened,” Junior says, “I knew I gotta work harder. All the hype and stuff, I don’t let that bother me. I just chill, don’t act like my head is big, you know? I gotta try to make my mom happy, try to make my goal, try to be the best I can be. You know?”