Walking into the gym at the University of Toronto on Wednesday morning, Matt Letkeman experienced a thrill he won’t soon forget.
He was handed a basketball jersey with “Canada” stitched on the front and “Letkeman” on the back, signifying he’d cracked the roster of the Canadian under-19 men’s national team after surviving a two-stage tryout process.
On Wednesday afternoon, the 6’7” power forward out of Yale Secondary joined 11 of Canada’s brightest young basketball stars on a plane headed across the Atlantic. Team Canada will play a tune-up tournament in Lithuania (June 25-27), in preparation for the FIBA U19 World Championship in Latvia (June 30 to July 10).
“To have the opportunity to wear ‘Canada’ across my chest, it’s kind of surreal,” Letkeman marveled. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about, but it’s all happening so quick.”
Letkeman’s own shock at bursting onto the national (and international) scene stems from the fact he considers himself a late bloomer.
“I didn’t start seriously playing basketball until Grade 10 – that was when I really developed a passion for it,” he said. “The first regional tryout I went to, I didn’t even know what a ball screen was. I was so young in the game, so immature.”
Letkeman grew into a rugged inside force for the Yale Lions, earning first team all-star honours as Yale won the provincial AAA title in 2010. He parlayed that performance into a scholarship to the University of Calgary, where he was named Canada West rookie of the year for 2010-11 after starting 19 games for the Dinos and averaging 8.5 points on 50.3 per cent shooting from the floor.
Up until two days before the junior national team tryouts opened in Toronto, Letkeman was worried that a nagging hamstring injury would prevent him from attending. But he powered through.
“Going in, my goal was to attack in the paint and finish strong inside, rebound strong and be aggressive,” he said. “I didn’t want to play outside of myself and outside of my game, and I felt like that’s what I did.”
Making the junior national team caps a dizzying rise for Letkeman, who now finds himself playing alongside highly touted NCAA-bound players like Sim Bhullar, a 7’4” centre from Brampton, Ont. who’s ticketed for Xavier University, and Kevin Pangos of Holland Landing, Ont., a point guard headed to Gonzaga University.
At the FIBA U19 Worlds, Team Canada is in a group with Lithuania, Croatia and South Korea. Canada’s best finish at the event was a sixth-place result in 1987, and Letkeman would love to eclipse that.
“I want to win – do something that no one’s done before. Why not?” he said. “At the same time, I have no idea what to expect. The teams are going to be good – it’s the World Championships.”
For Letkeman, the only thing better than making his international debut for Canada would have been playing alongside Marek Klassen, his former high school teammate. Klassen, a point guard, just finished up a stellar freshman year at Point Loma Nazarene University, an NAIA program in San Diego. He was invited to the Canadian U19 tryout, but didn’t make the cut.
“That actually hurt me a lot,” Letkeman said. “I didn’t see it coming. It’s tough – he’s my boy and everything, and I was really looking forward to having the opportunity to play with him again.”
Even at 6’7″, Matt Letkeman (No. 7) is dwarfed by some of his Canadian junior national teammates, including 7’4″ Sim Bhullar (No. 6).