Shaquille Smith wants to help kids in North Preston use their love of basketball to build their futures
“Basketball is in my blood,” says Shaquille Smith, sitting in the board room at the North Preston Community Centre. Staff and daycare children alike are happy to see him. People emerge from offices to greet him.
Smith grew up in North Preston, going to school, attending St. Thomas Baptist Church and playing lots of basketball. “I always took basketball very seriously and trained a lot,” he recalls. “When I got to high school, I knew I could turn this into a university scholarship.”
He received a basketball scholarship to Acadia University where he earned a business degree. Smith now works as a digital strategist at Colour, a marketing agency in Halifax. He also coaches at Auburn Drive High School and the University of King’s College.
Smith’s energetic demeanor and wide smile belie the difficulty of his journey here, though.
Growing up, Smith found that the Community Centre was often occupied with day camps and the outdoor court was in tatters. During the summertime, Smith bused from North Preston to Shearwater and Cole Harbour to find a basketball court.
“The nets weren’t even regulation height because they were slanted in. There were holes in the fences, cracks in the pavement,” he says. “There wasn’t really a court for me to go to that was open all day to do the training I needed for Acadia.”
This was not the only obstacle Smith came across. He was a top student in high school but felt unprepared for the change of pace of university.
“University was a complete game changer,” he says. “Student athletes sacrifice a lot. You can’t get as much work experience through co-op programs because you’re busy with sports. When you see your grades starting to slip, it’s discouraging; you start to doubt yourself.”
Of the 40-some students from the community who received university scholarships for basketball, Smith can count on his hand how many graduated. He blames overloaded schedules and insufficient preparation.
Smith knew he did not face these challenges alone and decided to build a new court in North Preston. “I thought of the young basketball talent in North Preston and knew they needed a place to play,” he explains.
Kids in North Preston gravitate towards basketball; it’s at the heart of the community. People from North Preston have played on the Basketball Nova Scotia Team and among their accomplishments, won gold medal in the U17 National Championships.
“There’s a long history of basketball in the community,” Smith says. “We have plenty of players who went to university or play professionally. I wanted to make sure we continue to celebrate basketball and push kids to go to university, and hopefully go professional as well.”
Work on the court is currently underway. It’s larger than the former court, with space for audience bleachers. It will have an acrylic surface, which is more appealing and will allow the ball to bounce better. Work is scheduled to finish this spring. “We’re putting banners on the fence of everybody from the community who played at a post-secondary school or professionally,” says Smith.
The basketball court is not Smith’s end goal, though. It’s the first step to a long-term educational program he plans to launch. He wants to help student-athletes of North Preston as well as other youth in Nova Scotia be better prepared for university. He wants them to use basketball as a tool to build life-long careers.
“I’m planning a program that uses all the challenges I had in university…and show the kids how to overcome them,” he says. “I just want to give them the tools to succeed.”
A fundraising campaign for the court began with $10,000 from a community fund that Councillor David Hendsbee administers. Hendsbee used to play basketball in high school and on occasion, still plays a game of pick-up. He hopes North Preston will end up with some of the best basketball facilities in the municipality.
“The court will help develop youth talent,” he says. “North Preston has seen some of its incredible athletes become scholastic achievers.” HRM paved a new parking lot beside the court and made a safer walkway to the daycare. He wants to see more, though. “I’d like to see more landscaping enhancements to provide connectivity to the community,” he adds.
The contracting business, M & M Paving, is a North Preston company. From planning to building, the court is a community project. Smith is currently gathering potential names for the court, drawing from the community’s legacy: “That’s a tough one, there are so many worthy community members of North Preston.”
Smith is ecstatic about the progress. “I’ve been working on this since I graduated in 2016,” he says. “To see it come to life is just unbelievable.”