NBA's Khem Birch of Montreal hosts youth basketball camp

The proceeds from the camp go toward providing local basketball associations to support children who can't afford to play.

Montrealer Khem Birch of the Orlando Magic at his basketball camp at Sat-Laurent High School in Montreal on Saturday July 20, 2019. The 6'-9" Birch gave a helping hand to 8-year-old Julia Agozzino to dunk the basketball. Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

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Khem Birch’s turning point came as midnight brought in the year 2016. The Montreal-born basketball player was suiting up to play with Turkish team Usak Sportif, and was pondering his career moments before an away game in Gaziantep — a war-torn city less than an hour away from the Syrian border, 8,500 kilometres away from his hometown.

“Is this going to be my whole life?” he wondered. “Ever since then, I just took it seriously. I’ve been 100 per cent in.”

Three years later, Birch says he’s reaping the rewards. And he hopes young basketball players can take after him.

The Orlando Magic forward spent the past weekend in his hometown hosting the Khem Birch Elite Basketball Camp at the Émile-Legault high school gym in St-Laurent. Nearly 40 children, ranging from age 7 to 16, took part in basketball drills with the coaches, as Birch played alongside. The camp was previously held in Ottawa and will be in Dartmouth, N.S., later in July.

The proceeds from the camp go toward providing local basketball associations to support children who can’t afford to play. The camp raised nearly $6,000 last year, according to Birch’s mother, Wendy Sparks.

“It’s definitely an experience,” teenager Willensly Polynice said. “We’ve done dribbling drills, we’ve done shooting drills. Obviously, we’ve done some cardio while we’re doing it. I realize my cardio’s low, so definitely need to work on that.

“If there was more of (these camps), I feel like more kids would be recognized out of Canada, period.” Polynice added.

“When I was growing up there wasn’t a lot of basketball camps,” the 6-foot-9, 233-pound Birch said. “When I was a young, young kid, there were no NBA players coming back to give back to the community. I want to be that guy so kids can look back and say ‘Khem did it, so I can do it in the future.’ ”

Birch worried about having basketball gear to wear for his games. His parents spent more than $3,000 buying him clothes and shoes online — or travelling to the United States to get them — because they couldn’t find stores in Montreal that could outfit him properly, especially his size 14 feet.

Sparks said they would go out of the way “just so he could have that basketball look. It was really important to him.”

Birch encountered more struggles following his collegiate career at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He played in cities like Sioux Falls, S.D., Pireaus in Greece and Usak in Turkey — the latter of which he had to worry about games being cancelled because of bombs being dropped.

“I’d be calling him saying ‘hold on a second, what happened to your game?’ ” Sparks said. “And he’d be like, ‘oh, it got bombed.”

The 6-foot-9 Birch gave a helping hand to eight-year-old Julia Agozzino to dunk the basketball. Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

Once Birch took the game of basketball more seriously, he got a contract with the Orlando Magic in 2017. Now, he’s using his new-found opportunity to give back to his local community and take after another fellow Montreal and NBA player who has held basketball camps in his home city, former Miami Heat star Joel Anthony.

“Very big inspiration,” Birch said. “He’s my idol and I still look up to him.”

The camp is just one part of a great off-season for the Montrealer. He re-signed with the Magic this month on a two-year deal worth $6 million. He was also named to Team Canada’s training camp roster for the upcoming International Basketball Federation World Cup in China later this summer.

“I put all my apples into a basket and I’ve been successful so far,” Birch said.

With basketball’s surge in popularity in Canada already in full swing after the Toronto Raptors won this year’s NBA title, Birch is happy to be a part of the wave. He is focusing his attention on qualifying for the Olympics and seeking revenge on the Raptors, who eliminated the Magic in the opening round of the playoffs.

“I like it for the country,” Birch said. “But the fact that they beat us. I still am envious of that. I really want to beat them next year.”