KITCHENER- Imad Qahwash has seen the basketball talent in this region first-hand.

While he’s helping to create a system to get more scholarships and notoriety for local players, Qahwash had to blaze a trail for himself before being able to help pave the way for others.

Qahwash played with the Grand River Renegades, graduating in 2006. His play, which included roles on the Ontario provincial team, earned him a scholarship at the University of Central Arkansas, a Division I NCAA school.

Back then, only about 20 players from across Canada earned Division I scholarships in the U.S. That number is now more than 100.

Locally, Qahwash says, this region is the second-best in Canada when it comes to young basketball talent.

During his offseason from playing overseas, Qahwash returns to Kitchener to do what he can to help local future stars.

Qahwash is in charge of the Tri-City Top 40 Camp, which has been running for five years. But this year, he’s adding a March Madness Elite Skills camp, which is open to both boys and girls.

Jamal Murray, who has been lighting it up during his first season at the University of Kentucky, was part of the first-ever Tri-Cities Top 40 Camp in 2011.

“It’s basically all the best basketball players from the entire region — Orangeville, Kitchener, Waterloo, Guelph, Cambridge, Brantford — so we have the best talent,” said Qahwash.

He said it was at that camp that Murray received the recognition his skills deserved.

“He was going to be a star regardless, but that was really when the public started taking notice of him.”

Qahwash actually helped Murray in a hands-on way. He drove Murray, who is also a former Grand River Renegade, to Toronto to meet with the coach of the Canadian cadet team.

“One thing led to another and the rest is history.”

Aside from Murray, TJ Lall from Galt Collegiate also attended the Top 40 camp. He is now playing with Carleton University.

“We didn’t have that,” said Qahwash, adding when he came back during summer break while in university, parents would always ask when

he was going to start a camp.

“I never had time,” said Qahwash. “After school was the perfect time to do it.”

Since university, basketball has taken Qahwash around the world.

His first professional season was in Russia, then he went to China and played against former NBA players such as Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas. He then went off to Spain, and last season he played in Iran and Jordan.

This season, Qahwash will play in the Phillippines.

Part of the reason for the explosion of high-level Canadian basketball players is social media, said Qahwash. Tweets and Facebook posts can put those high-level players on the radar of hundreds of university scouts instantly — something that was lacking in the past. But that extra exposure would be worthless if it wasn’t for the raw talent that has been produced by local club programs such as the Waterloo Wolverines or K-W Vipers.

“There’s been a shift in this region and in Canada as a whole,” said Qahwash.

He has put a lot of work into developing the camps and making it an enjoyable experience.

He hounded Adidas to be a sponsor for his camp and after trying a few times, he was able to scoop up some sponsorship and support.

Part of that support can be linked back to his reputation.

“I’m lucky that I’ve never had a coach or parent say anything bad about me or the camp,” said Qahwash. “We really, really spend a lot of time to make this program the best for our kids.”

The new March Madness camp runs from March 15 to 17, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

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