In early April, the road between Montreal and Thetford Mines is going smoothly. However, the same cannot be said for the few deer whose carcasses lie along Route 165. Driving towards the multipurpose of Thetford Mines, our gaze is drawn to the impressive dumps, hills of crushed rock residue created by the exploitation of asbestos mines, still covered in snow at the start of spring.

It is 2:30 p.m. when we arrive at the high school. This is where the players of Atelier 803, formerly known as the Thetford Mines Basketball Academy, study and train. Around 4:00 p.m., once their school day is over, the academics settle in a classroom for a period of study before their second and last practice of the day. The room is dead calm; each young person concentrates on the notebook in front of him. Some left their cellphones on a desk at the entrance to the classroom.

Three people are there to supervise them: a tutor, Marie-Claude Laplante, the general manager of the Atelier, Lerebson Oscar, and the assistant coach, Kolia Konan.

The school is an integral part of Atelier 803. In short, it is the very heart of it: young people must respect school standards if they wish to remain in the program. In fact, the academy is to Quebec what prep schools are to the United States.

“The goal is to create citizens who will contribute to the community and to economic development. As they are always told, “if there is no basketball, you have to have another way”. The other way is school, learning a trade, having a passion other than basketball. »

Sébastien Fugère, who teaches history to some players, sees the impact that the Workshop has on them on a daily basis. “There are some who perform better, others who have more difficulty, but these are young people who are super polite, he notes. They are serious, even if they sometimes have to be brought back. »

The 31 young people of the Academy are 12 to 19 years old and come from all over Quebec, some from France. They are divided into three civilian teams under the Team Thetford label: the Greys, the Blacks and the Reds. The Reds are the most competitive team. Grays and Blacks are part of the process; they are, in a way, the future Reds. Each team plays approximately 35 games per year in various elite circuits in Quebec and the United States.

When Atelier 803 settled in Thetford Mines in 2014, after spending two years in Alma, the group was mostly made up of young Montrealers looking for a second chance. Two reasons explain the choice of the city: the distance from the American borders and the absence of distractions.

“Here, everything is framed,” says Mr. Oscar. [Young people] accept it, they are there for that. If you come to Thetford, it is because you have chosen this way of life. »

Over the years, the academy has helped put many young basketball players back on track through a strict routine. The best-known example is Chris Boucher, who now plays for the Toronto Raptors in the NBA. There’s also Quincy Guerrier, who spent five years at the Atelier and has been playing in the NCAA for four years.

To date, the group is mainly composed of young people who have been challenged by the history of those who preceded them. Head coach Armel Mampouya is responsible for recruiting; he is “not necessarily looking for a young person who is going to be good, but a young person who wants to work”, he explains.

While Chris Boucher and Quincy Guerrier are great ambassadors for the Academy, Mr. Mampouya never mentions their names in his interactions with the players.

“They’re so rare that I can’t use them as an example. I prefer to establish a foundation at the level of the young person and make him grow than to use this example, where the young person could say to himself: “OK, is he the example?” […] He will try to identify with that, and it is so difficult. »

The young people are at the Atelier from September to July. Once the year is over, Mr. Mampouya meets with them individually. “We say, ‘Did you enjoy your experience? Did we like how you worked? Can you go further?” If we both agree, we continue. »

Armel Mampouya has a full-time job in wealth management. He has a wife and two daughters. And he is the head coach at the Atelier. Free time, he has little. But his work with young people is precious to him.

“What I like is the impact I have on them,” he said with a smile. Charles Anthony [Koffi] is someone I saw growing up. That impact is worth a thousand times the NBA. This kid, at some point, he’s going to go to college and he’s going to remember all the lessons you taught him. These are sports lessons that he will be able to place in his life. »

Lerebson Oscar has much the same speech. “Seeing you help them, you get gratitude,” he says.

“It’s a family here. When you come to us, it’s for life. We keep in touch all the time, we hear from the young people. There are plenty who study [today] in finance, in other spheres of life, and we are always proud to see them. We encourage them. »

Once the study period is over, around 5:45 p.m., the players of Atelier 803 thank their tutor and go to get ready for their training. Their enthusiasm to trade notebooks for the ball is palpable.

In the men’s locker room, the academicians have their own room transformed into a small basketball locker room. On the wall at the entrance are posted the main lines of the culture of the Workshop: “Active in every game”, “Be an excellent teammate”, “Be elite in your role”…

As this training is the second of the day – the first takes place in the morning at 7 a.m. – it lasts only 45 minutes. Once the session is over, the young people head to a small kitchen set up near the gymnasium, where a trainer has cooked them a large quantity of rice.

Once satisfied, the players jump into the small black bus which serves as a shuttle. At the wheel, General Manager Lerebson Oscar leads the group to the hostel where most of the players live during the school year. This is located in the neighboring village, Saint-Joseph-de-Coleraine, about fifteen minutes’ drive from the high school. This is also the official address of the Atelier.

“Young people can’t leave the hostel without us” because it’s located far from the city, explains head coach Armel Mampouya, who himself grew up in a structure similar to that of the Workshop in France. “If you leave, we know a car picked you up and we have the license plate, because there are cameras. »

On the bus, people chatter, bicker and laugh, even after a busy day. Upon arrival at the hostel, around 8 p.m., the young people disperse. One of them settles in the living room with his school books, others jump on the leftover rice. The youngest should be in bed by 9:30 p.m., the oldest around 10 p.m.

In the entrance, dozens of pairs of basketball shoes are lined up. The building, which has eight rooms, is clean and tidy; you have to, it’s part of the regulations.

“There are a lot of us! exclaims 17-year-old Yannis Tchouameni from Lyon, France. Lots of boys, so lots of strong characters. There are a few times when it blows up. It’s normal. But there is atmosphere! We all help each other. »

“There is a system for food and housekeeping. Everyone gets along well,” adds the young man, who looks great in his white sports ensemble.

Assistant coach Kolia Konan and general manager Lerebson Oscar both live at the hostel with the youngsters. The first was part of the cohort that moved from Alma – the Academy’s first home – to Thetford Mines. The Montrealer evolved in the program for six years. He knows exactly what young people go through, how demanding the routine is.

Today, he is an assistant coach, but also a big brother for the 31 youngsters. “My job is to make them a little stronger mentally so they’re ready to face life. »

Charles Anthony Koffi, 18, is in his fourth year at Atelier 803. He decided to stay after finishing high school, along with his twin brother, Hermann. The brothers study at Cégep de Thetford. After classes, they go to the polyvalente to train with the group.

When he arrived at the Atelier four years ago, Charles Anthony was suffering from a serious knee injury sustained the previous year.

“It’s them [the Workshop speakers] who saved me, in a way,” he suggests. I really had a good follow-up here, they really framed me so that I could do rehabilitation and so that I could resume the performances I had before, and even exceed them. »

Since his arrival in Thetford Mines, the native of Quebec considers to have developed a great discipline and a sense of responsibility. And he found a family.

On the basketball side, precisely, “everything is in place” for young people to improve, believes Yannis Tchouameni. “We have two practices a day. So, it’s a lot, it’s restrictive, but it’s our dream. We are really motivated. »

The young man does not regret his decision to leave the family home in France for Quebec. He draws a “positive balance” from his first year at the Atelier, “whether on the academic, sporting or extra-sporting level”, he says.

“We’re away from our families, there’s the weather, the change, the practices, the coaches who are hard on us… But that’s good, because they really want us to become the best version of us- same. »