December 10, 2019

Winnipeg
-26° C, Clear

Full Forecast

Small man, big dreams

Single-minded five-foot-nine Winnipegger fully expects to earn a living on NBA hardwood; the lightning-quick 'Winnipeg Jet' survived a bumpy prep school experience in the U.S. and landed a NCAA scholarship

The details of the game have faded from memory over time, but the lesson Mercy Sackey learned more than a decade ago remains as vivid today as the day it happened.

Daniel Sackey as a boy (Supplied)

Daniel Sackey as a boy (Supplied)

Her oldest son Desmond was 13 and playing in Winnipeg’s Rising Star summer basketball league while her youngest child, Daniel, a pint-sized eight-year-old, was riding the bench.

Daniel, looking comical in his oversized jersey and shorts, had been practising with the older boys and the coach decided it was time to put him into a game. The score was close as the clock ticked down in the final minutes.

Mom protested briefly; then she relented.

"They set the play — big brother Des gets the ball to Daniel," she remembers.

"He shoots the three-point(er) and they win the game and my jaw drops. Since then, I say to myself, ‘I’ll never limit my child.’ Because he knows who he is. Since then, he knows and he’s fearless."

INTRODUCING TEAM SACKEY

When your little brother tells you he needs to leave home to pursue his dream of playing Division 1 NCAA basketball and the even bigger fantasy of reaching the NBA, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to Clementina Sackey.

"I’m so close to all my brothers but he means a lot to me," says Daniel’s only sister, better known as Tina.

Rising basketball star Daniel Sackey and his family. Top row, from left: Clement Sackey, Desmond Sackey, Daniel Sackey, David Sackey, and Stephen Tackie. Bottom row: Mercy Sackey, Clementina Sackey. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

Rising basketball star Daniel Sackey and his family. Top row, from left: Clement Sackey, Desmond Sackey, Daniel Sackey, David Sackey, and Stephen Tackie. Bottom row: Mercy Sackey, Clementina Sackey. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

"I want him to succeed in every capacity, so it was hard to see him to go, but at the end of the day, for him to stay here it wouldn’t have benefited him. I know he has a ton of potential. I know, one day, he can make it to the NBA if he has his mind straight.

"I was worried and I prayed for him, but at the end of the day, God’s got him and he focuses his mind."

Daniel Sackey (right) is blocked by his brother Clement on the court. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

Daniel Sackey (right) is blocked by his brother Clement on the court. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

All of which goes to say the members of the Sackey family can expect the unwavering support of their siblings and parents.

David, a custodian with the Winnipeg School Division, and Mercy, a vice-principal at Lord Nelson School, came to Canada from their native Ghana in the 1990s and instilled in their children a powerful desire to succeed.

Desmond, 24, is a recent grad of the nutritional science program at the University of Manitoba and a prospective medical school applicant while 21-year-old twins Clement and Tina are finishing up education degrees at the U of M and University of Winnipeg, respectively.

The three oldest siblings also played high school basketball and Clement was also a shot put athlete on the U of M track and field team for a time.

Through the years one of their biggest passions has been their music, which has deep roots in their religious upbringing at the New Annointing Christian Fellowship in Winnipeg’s North End.

(Mikaela MacKenzie)

(Mikaela MacKenzie)

The basement of the family’s Amber Trails home includes a small recording studio.

"We grew up basically in the church," says Tina. "Mom’s a pastor, dad’s an elder and my brothers played music in the church. My brothers are amazing musicians."

Sackey on the drum kit. (Supplied)

Sackey on the drum kit. (Supplied)

Tina is no slouch in that department either, lending her vocals and saxophone to a family band that includes Daniel, a drummer since elementary school, Clement (bass, piano, drums), Desmond (drums, guitar, bass) and sometimes Mercy (vocals) and David (congas) to play at various church events.

"It’s great because they play weddings," says Stephen Tackie, David Sackey's cousin. "They’re good."

The music?

"We play a lot of genres — a little bit of contemporary, gospel, reggae," she says. "It’s primarily a Jamaican church, so tons of reggae and soca."

THE BEAT OF THE GAME

There’s a rhythm that connects the game Daniel loves and the music he plays.

You can see the musician at work on the court — changing tempos, improvising, fooling a defence with misdirection to make a no-look pass and generally making his teammates better from his point guard position. When he talks about his music, he might as well be describing his approach to basketball, too.

HIGH-FLYER FROM THE ‘PEG

Daniel won the dunk competition at the 2018 Bio-Steel All-Canadian prospects game. (Supplied)

Daniel won the dunk competition at the 2018 Bio-Steel All-Canadian prospects game. (Supplied)

With nicknames like the Human Blur and the Winnipeg Jet, Daniel Sackey has a well-earned reputation for speed on the basketball court.

The five-foot-nine point guard may have also shocked a few folks earlier this year when he came away as winner of the dunk competition at the 2018 Bio-Steel All-Canadian prospects game.

With nicknames like the Human Blur and the Winnipeg Jet, Daniel Sackey has a well-earned reputation for speed on the basketball court.

The five-foot-nine point guard may have also shocked a few folks earlier this year when he came away as winner of the dunk competition at the 2018 Bio-Steel All-Canadian prospects game.

He warmed up the competition with a dunk after a pass to himself off the gym wall and clinched the event title with an inventive throw-down after a bounce pass from an assistant making a long toss from a court-side window.

“I wasn’t going to do the dunk contest as first,” he says. “I’d rolled my ankle a couple weeks before and I didn’t think I’d get high enough. The first dunk off the wall is my signature dunk, I can do that whenever.

“The organizer told me to do that one (out the window). He threw it and it happened to be perfect. I just went up and dunked.”

Chiranjit Goswami, who coached Daniel for two years in the Wolves club program and once cut the then-11-year-old from the provincial 14-and-under team he was overseeing, says the kid’s intensity was — and is — off the charts.

“I cut him from the 14U team and he still came back the next year,” Goswami recalls with a chuckle. “He said he was so angry.”

The too-short-for-the-game critique is a familiar, if inaccurate, complaint about Daniel.

“To me, that’s all motivation,” he says. “I’ve heard that all my life. If somebody says that to me, I’m just like, ‘Watch what I do.’ I love proving people wrong. I don’t know what it is, but there’s always been satisfaction of proving people wrong. Where I’ve been for the past two years, size has never been (an issue).”

Valparaiso head coach Matt Lottich believes Daniel’s offence will come while his ball-hawking defensive game is already well-suited for the college game.

“He may be five-nine but he’s also probably got a 40-inch vertical,” says Lottich. “And so, I don’t think we notice he’s small. But he’s been small his whole life and he’s been able to find ways to be successful when he’s been the smallest guy on the floor. I don’t think it’s going to be much different in college.”

Lottich expects an adjustment period but Daniel’s ability to shred defences should win out over time.

“What was probably a good shot in high school is not a great shot in college because before you were shooting a layup over a six-foot-five guy,” says Lottich. “Now there’s a seven-foot guy. So (he needs) to use his attributes to collapse the defence and make everyone around better.

"He can collapse a defence pretty quickly and as a result, he finds shooters and finds big guys for layups…. Once he gets everyone else involved, then his offence will come.

— Sawatzky

"To me, we play from our soul," he says. "What we play is all what we’re feeling. So, if we go jam out, some days it will be fast, some days it will be slow, but I feel it’s all from the soul."

Mercy expects her children, all born in Canada, to be good citizens.

In 2012, the entire family travelled to Ghana on a church mission to distribute food and school supplies to needy folks. A year later, the whole crew trekked to Jamaica on another charitable mission.

"We believe in adaptation," says Mercy. "We also believe in where you are is where you’re meant to be and you belong there.

"It’s good to have African culture and African values but we are Canadians now, so everything about what we do and how we raised them is part of what being a Canadian citizen looks like and how being African blend together. In the long run, we are Canadian."

SMALL MAN, BIG DREAMS

Daniel attended Kelvin in Grade 10 and played for the Clippers during the 2014-15 season, but he had already decided his future was going to involve becoming a basketball expeditionary.

That meant a foray into the murky, often seamy world of American basketball prep schools, where profit is often the main motive and unscrupulous operators prey on the dreams of aspiring college prospects.

Daniel left Missouri-based St. Louis Christian because although the basketball was good, the living conditions were "not so great." (Mikaela MacKenzie)

Daniel left Missouri-based St. Louis Christian because although the basketball was good, the living conditions were "not so great." (Mikaela MacKenzie)

Daniel's experience was truly eye-opening.

He accepted an offer to start his Grade 11 season at St. Louis Christian, a Missouri-based operation.

"Initially, I left Winnipeg so I could get more exposure and more competition," he says. "St. Louis Christian was a good wake-up call, a reality check, honestly, because we weren’t living that great but the education was good and the school was very, very small.

"If everything else was good, I would’ve stayed because basketball-wise it was good. Living conditions, food, facilities, it was not great so I had to leave."

In 2016-17, he responded to an offer to attend the 22ft Academy in Anderson, S.C., and would have returned last fall had federal authorities not shut down the program, charging the British founder Mike Rawson and his wife, Brenda, with visa fraud.

"We clicked so well together," says Daniel. "I definitely would’ve stayed and the plan was to stay, but it got shut down because Mike Rawson, the owner, he was doing illegal stuff.

"It was hard, going different places, meeting new people and getting closer to having to leave. I just wanted to focus on my goal, to make it to the NBA. I have that mindset."

Daniel on the court (Supplied)

Daniel on the court (Supplied)

With another season looming, he opted to return to Canada to play for coach Chris Skinner while polishing his game and academics at Thornlea Prep in the north-Toronto suburb of Thornhill.

All the while, he had the support of his family back home.

"Our only fear was, how many times is he going to have to go through these situations?" says Desmond. "It’s not easy for a guy to show up at a school, play hard and switch a coach and program. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind about what the outcome would be. I was more concerned with how the exposure would be."

At Thornlea, Daniel had a big year, averaging more than 25 points and eight assists a game and was  invited to play in the Bio-Steel All-Canadian prospects game in the spring.

By that time, the Division I scholarship offers from schools such as Evansville, Kent State, Western Kentucky and Valparaiso started to roll in.

Feeling he made a strong connection with associate head coach Luke Gore and with an eye to the program's graduating class, Daniel signed with Valpo, which is situated in the middle of Indiana’s hoops heartland.

DESTINATION VALPO

As an incoming freshman, Daniel will be expected to pay his dues at Valparaiso, but he has shown the coaching staff by way of some off-season workouts that he could be a factor in short order.

Daniel’s willingness to expend vast amounts of energy at both ends of the floor makes him a coach's favourite. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

Daniel’s willingness to expend vast amounts of energy at both ends of the floor makes him a coach's favourite. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

"He’s taken big strides very quickly," says Crusaders head coach Matt Lottich. "I think for a lot of freshmen coming into college there’s a transition period where you’re coming from being the best player on your team pretty much your entire life and then having to come to a place where you’re now on a team where people have been the best players on their teams their entire lives.

"Learning when to pick your spots and freshmen sometimes have a hard time doing that. Daniel’s had some adjustments and he’s taken them head on. Some days he was the best player on the floor."

The Crusaders, coming off a underwhelming 15-17 season and a 10th-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference, will be hoping to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014-15 and Daniel is planning ambitiously to be a big part of the resurgence. 

"I think I fit in great," he says. "For me personally, I’m a very fast-paced, strong type of point guard. I’ve always been a vocal person, so I can fit in.

"He’s very competitive and very athletic and you take that combination and you’ve got a guy that’s willing to guard and has the physical attributes to do it, you’re going to be a good defender," says Lottich. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

"He’s very competitive and very athletic and you take that combination and you’ve got a guy that’s willing to guard and has the physical attributes to do it, you’re going to be a good defender," says Lottich. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

"In college, if you’re not going to play defence you’re not going to play. I already know that. I’ve always taken defence personally."

Lottich and his staff started to actively scout the Winnipegger early in 2017 and admits Daniel's high school tour of North America was a red flag at first.

"It was a concern for us, there’s no doubt about it," says Lottich. "But when you talk to him and you hear the circumstances and why it happened, it’s something you can understand. For us, we asked the question of why it happened and we were confident the answer was sincere and reasonable and we were comfortable moving forward with it."

Daniel’s willingness to expend vast amounts of energy at both ends of the floor makes him a coach's favourite.

"He’s very competitive and very athletic and you take that combination and you’ve got a guy that’s willing to guard and has the physical attributes to do it, you’re going to be a good defender," says Lottich.

"Daniel is unique in that when he comes into a game or comes into a practice, you will play differently. He will hound the basketball, he will push the ball in transition, he is going to make everyone else faster because he’s so fast and so athletic.

"There’s a lot of things he does that lots of people can’t do. Now we’ve got to get him to do it within the context of what we’re doing but we also don’t want to over-coach him to the point where it takes away from what he does best."

RAISING THE BAR

Daniel is just the fourth Manitoban to earn a scholarship in Division 1 men's basketball since the NCAA reorganized into its current competitive format in 1973. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

Daniel is just the fourth Manitoban to earn a scholarship in Division 1 men's basketball since the NCAA reorganized into its current competitive format in 1973. (Mikaela MacKenzie)

Daniel is just the sixth Manitoban to earn a scholarship in Division 1 men's basketball since the NCAA reorganized into its current competitive format in 1973.

He was preceded by Fort Richmond’s Dan Becker in the early 1980s, Tuxedo alumnus Todd MacCulloch (University of Washington), Adam Dobriansky (Monmouth), Ian Milne (Binghamton) and his old Wolves and under-17 national squad teammate Emmanuel Akot, a Winnipegger who started his college career at Arizona last fall. 

Valpo and Arizona play in different conferences and are not scheduled to play each other this season.

"That’s my boy," Daniel says of Akot, a six-foot-eight guard/forward for the Wildcats and a potential NBA draft pick in 2019.

"The only way we’ll play each other is in the (March Madness) NCAA Tournament. If it comes, I would definitely want to guard him — I don’t care."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca  Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Friday, August 24, 2018 at 8:57 PM CDT: Adds Todd MacCulloch, who went to the University of Washington in 1995.

October 18, 2018 at 8:24 AM: Adds additional recipients of scholarship in Division 1 men's basketball

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.