Toronto tall tales of Zach Edey: On the ice, the diamond … and ‘What’s a Purdue?’

TORONTO – Head north out of downtown on Bayview Avenue and past the shops and bars in Leaside, plus four Tim Hortons. Cross a bridge and climb a hill and there’s Crescent School, a private all-boys institution opened in 1913. It’s closed for winter break, but a courtyard plaque points to reception. A groundskeeping vehicle is parked in front and a delivery guy walks out. Somewhere inside lies another story about how the impossibility of Zach Edey came to be. Another tall tale.

So it’s worth a knock on the door.

After an introduction to Sal the maintenance guy and an explanation for the visit, it’s a stroll down some stairs and into the Lower School. Pencil sketches and old team pictures hang in the hallway. Straight ahead? A basketball gym. Where an anomaly came into view.

Edey is, of course, currently the 7-foot-4, 300-pound All-American anchor for second-ranked Purdue. But he’s also the kid who dreamed of being a hockey defenseman. The preteen who stumbled into a stellar youth baseball career. The high school sophomore who learned basketball shooting form by balancing a water bottle on a clipboard. The quiet Toronto boy who left home for an academy in Florida, who ranked 436th in his recruiting class and who now likely will repeat as national player of the year. The star who should not be.

Here, in a space with green bleachers and the words RESPECT, RESPONSIBILITY and HONESTY ringing the floor, is where the last part started.

Edey’s local club team was practicing at Crescent School, right before a tryout for the high-profile Northern Kings AAU program. Vidal Massiah, the Kings’ director, had been tipped off by his sister about a giant roaming area courts, and Massiah came to see for himself. After Edey’s two ensuing workouts with the Kings, his mother asked for a verdict. Massiah was blunt.

He’s an NBA player. Get ready for this movie.

“His story is a Canadian story,” Massiah says, driving away from the school on a sunny but wind-whipped winter morning. “It only happens here.”

Chapter 1: On the ice

Chesswood Arena sits in an industrial park in North York, abutting train tracks and sharing a parking lot with a garage door company and luggage wholesalers, among others. It was built in the 1950s. Still looks like it, too, and gloriously so. Weather and time have stripped away most of the color on a tower sign next to the entrance. The building marquee itself features three rows of hand-set letters.


This is the home of the top-level, triple-A Toronto Red Wings youth hockey program – “A tradition since 1955,” according to a banner – but it contains four NHL-sized rinks with ads for Dr. Flea’s Flea Market and Little Pearls pediatric dentistry. Golden Glide Hockey operates from a modest space tucked next to a synthetic ice surface on the second floor. Sometime in 2010, word arrived about a massive 8-year-old kid playing house league hockey in Leaside. He was raw, but no one could get around him. Al Rourke, a former NHL defenseman coaching the Toronto Penguins team via Golden Glide, said to bring the kid out for a look.

In walked Zach Edey, a shade under 6 feet at the time. “I said right away, ‘You’re on the team,’” Rourke says, sitting at a desk with a wall of Post-it notes to his left. “I also told his parents, ‘You should put a basketball in his hands.’”

Not a directive young Toronto boys follow easily. Coach, he loves hockey, is all Rourke heard from Julia and Glen Edey. He shrugged. The kid was polite. Always on time. And while he probably wasn’t quick enough for triple-A competition, Zach Edey was plenty good at double-A, if only because a very long arm held a very long stick and could stop a rush with one poke.

So he was a hockey player. Who scared everyone.

Zach Edey was taller than his coaches even as a preteen. (Courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

By Edey’s third year, he was taller than his 30-something coach, and that was before lacing up skates. “They see him walk in, and other teams would be like, ‘What is happening? We gotta play against this guy?’” Rourke says. Size, though, became more of a source of humor or frustration than an asset. Early on, Glen Edey asked Rourke, who was listed as a 6-2, 215-pound blueliner during his playing days, if he had any old skates he could pass down, since Zach was already in men’s sizes. Rourke brought in a top-end pair, and the next day, Glen returned them.

“Al, he can’t wear these,” Zach’s father told the coach.

“Glen, these are professional skates,” Rourke replied. “These are good f—— skates.”

That wasn’t it, Glen assured him. “They don’t fit.”

Likewise, Edey’s elbows weren’t where most people’s elbows were. So while Rourke coached Edey to keep his arms tight and ride an offensive player off the puck – checking wasn’t permitted yet when Edey started with the Penguins – the slightest flinch meant connecting with an opponent’s head and a trip to the penalty box. “Even if a kid runs into him, he’d get a penalty for elbowing or interference or something stupid when it’s not his fault,” Rourke says. “He’s just way bigger.”

But if you’re looking for reasons Edey has uncommon skill and so swiftly picked up the pace on the court, maybe start on the ice. “You got all this stuff going on and you have guys trying to knock your head off at the same time,” says Steve Taylor, one of Edey’s close friends’ father, who coached both boys in middle-school club hockey. “Comparatively speaking, hockey feels way more frenzied. … And, physically, the lower-body strength along with the coordination – I don’t think there’s anything you could do that’s better (training).”

Baseball soon became the next dominant passion, and though Edey continued to play some hockey, he mostly outgrew it – though not before one memorable shift.

One night, the Penguins’ starting goalie was sick. So Rourke dispatched Zach Edey into the net against the best double-A team in the area. He gave up six or seven scores, as his coach recalls, though watching Edey drop into a butterfly, with pucks careening off him, still gives Rourke a chuckle.

He notes, in fact, that NHL rules permit goalies of a certain size to wear larger and bulkier gear. “Imagine him in a net right now?” Rourke says. “Wouldn’t be a bad play.”

Chapter 2: On the diamond

The Edeys arrived for a youth soccer event to find 80 or 90 baseball players scattered about Oriole Park, a small collection of tennis courts and playgrounds with one dirt diamond. This was a tryout for North Toronto travel baseball, looking to fill three new entry-level teams. To bide time, the family sat at a picnic table in deep right field. They were out of the way but not enough to go unnoticed. Soon, one of the baseball parent-coaches running the workout jogged over and inquired about the boy who looked a foot taller than everyone else.

Zach Edey was, in fact, 8.

“Your kid is playing baseball,” Jeff Wolburg declared.

No, no, Julia Edey insisted. They were there for soccer.

Wolburg was unmoved. He coaxed Zach into joining his group, handed him a glove and ran Edey through drills for the next two or three hours. It was the first time Edey played the sport. Wolburg put him on the 8U roster anyway. The Edeys once again protested. After three or four days of phone calls, Wolburg’s buying the kid a jersey with his name on it and promising Glen Edey an assistant coaching spot, the family relented. North Toronto had a new first baseman. Who showed up at tryouts planning to play soccer. “And five years later, (Julia) always came back to that one story,” Wolburg recalls. “‘You brought me into this life!’”

Zach Edey showed up for a soccer tryout but found himself on a baseball team. (Courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

A limited future on the ice made hockey fairly easy to leave behind. But Zach Edey was good at baseball. Really good. By the time he was competing for the Leaside Leafs as a 13- and 14-year-old, he was throwing 70 to 75 miles per hour and occasionally launching balls over the left field fence at Talbot Park and onto bustling Eglinton Avenue. Playing college baseball in the United States wasn’t a wild fantasy.

When Edey stopped at the 15U level, Wolburg thought it was a mistake. “He was a very shy, introverted kid, and baseball brought out a different side of him,” Wolburg says. “It was like a different life. Going to school, nobody would talk to him, he’d be reading in the corner somewhere. But playing sports? In baseball, he was on just a crazy upward scale of getting better and better. He loved that feeling of hitting. This giant kid, just smashing the s— out of the ball.”

He also admits he hadn’t been paying attention to the other sport entering Edey’s life.

The boy, it turns out, had another foot to grow. And someone finally put a basketball in his hands.

Baseball, then, was a dress rehearsal for what came after on the court: Rudimentary instruction and a growth curve accelerated by Edey’s underrated athleticism and unrelenting curiosity.

He was planted at first base due to his preposterous wing span and an easy task: Catch everything. At the plate, his instructions were similarly plain: Crush the ball. There was plenty of swing-and-miss, particularly with a bat path that was more like taking an ax to a tree stump. But woe to those on the field when Edey connected.

“He probably injured, I’d say, 15 kids along the way,” Wolburg says. “Not on purpose, obviously. They just got in the way. If they didn’t catch the ball cleanly, it would hit them in the knee or the chest or sometimes the head. And it would hurt.”

Refinement came with age and an inquisitive mind. “His baseball IQ was top of the charts,” Wolburg says. On the mound, that meant less reliance strictly on fastballs and exploring how to get more spin on pitches and how to throw a proper changeup. Edey took hitting lessons from a premier local instructor. He was devoted to a future on the diamond. His size, essentially, detoured him again. But not before everyone could see who Zach Edey might be. While he plays college basketball with a mercilessness– and while it serves him and Purdue well – there’s a gentility at his core, too.

During one 12U baseball game, Edey drilled a batter in the arm. The kid dropped to the dirt in agony. Coaches and parents rushed to his aid.

After 10 minutes or so, the umpire approached Wolburg.

“Coach,” he said, “you had better go look at the mound.”

Wolburg turned. Zach Edey was sitting in the dirt, crying his eyes out.

“He was upset for days after that,” Wolburg says.

Chapter 3: On the court

Before ninth grade, Magnus Taylor decided he wanted to play basketball. Steve Taylor, who played some university-level hoops himself, was thrilled by his son’s news. Thus the North Toronto Huskies were breathed into life. There was one imperative, though: They had to get Magnus’ good friend Zach.

For about 30 or 40 minutes one afternoon, Steve Taylor sat with his son and the extremely large human they’d known since preschool and explained the plan. He asked Zach Edey if he’d like to join his team.

Edey said no.

The next fall, with another season approaching, and with Edey having dabbled in high school hoops, Taylor revisited the conversation. The pitch lasted about an hour. He invited Edey. Again.

Edey said no. Again.

This time? Taylor had a backup idea. He suggested Edey join a Huskies practice, if only to get in shape for baseball. Edey agreed. Taylor told his wife to find the largest available jersey and order it. He picked up Edey and drove him to his first workout with the Huskies, on a Tuesday night at Crescent School. It happened to be a night the regular players were … not great. Taylor lost his patience. He ran his team. Hard. At one point, he looked over at the giant teenager galloping from end to end and gasping for air and it occurred to him: I blew it.

Halfway through the drive home, crammed into the passenger seat of an Audi, Edey delivered his review.

These basketball practices? Way more fun than baseball practices.

Two nights later, Edey stood on the Taylors’ porch, ready to go.

“We had to almost trick him into it, but once he got the bug, man, he never looked back,” Taylor says. “It says a lot about him, too – we ran the kids into the ground that Tuesday night. And he never complained. … He saw he had work to do, and he started doing the work.”

Edey had to learn proper basketball, all the way down to balancing that water bottle on a clipboard for 10 minutes before practices, to get his elbow cocked correctly. But there’s growth, and there are beanstalks shooting through clouds. Edey fixed a right-to-left swipe on his follow-through in one workout. He played in a country-wide All-Star game by December.

Moving Edey from a club hoops startup into a youth basketball flume required only a couple more twists: Vidal Massiah’s sister showed up for her son Elijah’s high school game. She saw a monstrous Leaside High center at the free-throw line. She snapped a picture and sent it to her brother. After the game, Massiah’s other nephew, Ethan, collected Edey’s contact info. “My uncle is going to help you a lot,” Ethan told him.

Last year’s national player of the year began playing organized basketball in high school. (Photo courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

Once the Edeys returned the calls, the assistant coaches headed out to scout. Their feedback was the same: They just weren’t sure.

“No one saw it,” Massiah says.

Then the Northern Stars director walked into the Crescent School gym. He sat with Glen Edey in the bleachers and probed a man-child’s athletic history. He watched a neophyte change ends well for his size. He saw a patient approach at the free-throw line and surprising touch for a kid whose experience could be measured in months. He thought about the time he guarded Yao Ming.

He asked himself: What will this look like in a couple years?

“All the positives were more in the vein of, he’s an athlete, at the end of the day,” Massiah says. “He doesn’t have these particular skills because he hasn’t trained in this sport. That was it. It was easy to understand. The skills can be taught.”

Edey split time with the two club teams – Taylor knew the Kings would provide exposure he couldn’t – and it was another beginning. Edey had to relearn things in the context of highly competitive basketball with highly skilled teammates.

The Kings coaches started with passing, because they knew defenders would be flying at Edey and he had to be confident in his decisions. His offensive repertoire was limited to working from the left block and going to his right hand; if he was on the right block, he wasn’t getting the ball.

To understand defensive timing, Edey analogized it to the angles he’d take as a hockey defenseman, and Massiah nodded along. “That’s what this is,” the coach replied, emphasizing how Edey had to beat opponents to spots to recover without fouling. By Edey’s second year, he understood the offense thoroughly enough that the Kings ran sets through him. “His ability to process information and implement coaching was through the roof,” Massiah says. “Every question was a good question.”

Days before Canada Basketball convened a 2018 tryout for its world championship teams, Michael Meeks received a text message. Massiah had a really tall kid the organization had to see, which was truer than he knew: Meeks, an assistant general manager for sports performance, had been looking for Zach Edey for a while. He’d walk into a gym and miss the kid by an hour, or pick the wrong day to see a game. But now here the myth was, in the flesh, at last.

“I’m like, ‘It’s the unicorn,’” Meeks says.

Edey was far too raw to make a roster. But the first impression was a thunderbolt. “One thing I immediately saw, that put him way ahead of even tall kids his age, was his hands,” Meeks says. “He had the softest touch around the basket. His form looked great. He didn’t mind contact. I knew then he was going to be special. Like, special.”

Zach Edey wouldn’t be that hard to find, ever again.

He left the low ceiling of Leaside basketball behind and enrolled at IMG Academy in 2018. He went from the B team to consensus All-American and national college player of the year in five seasons. He might be a first-round NBA Draft pick after six, having backed up his breakout junior year by averaging 23.7 points and 11.8 rebounds and, as of Monday, leading the nation in Win Shares (7.2) on a Final Four contender. Given that Team Canada has qualified for the Summer Olympics,  Edey is a decent bet to be in Paris if whatever pro franchise drafts him is amenable. Everyone is running out of questions.

There’s just one more worth reliving, as he moves front and center for one more run at deliverance in March.

As Edey’s basketball future crystallized, his coaches discussed possible American college destinations. Massiah brought up a school in the Midwest with a long history of developing big men.

Purdue, Massiah suggested, could be an ideal fit.

As usual, Zach Edey wanted more info.

“What’s a Purdue?” he asked.

(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Jeffrey Brown / Icon Sportswire; courtesy of Julia Edey via Purdue)

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