Towering teen takes on Toronto

High school basketball

Life isn’t always easy for the big man.

For six-foot-six Hayden Lejeune, it means crossing the border to get his size-15 sneakers at Ross in Bellingham.

Finding pants his size?

A struggle.

Looking down at just about everything in his world.

Neck pain.

And the tall jokes?

“How’s the weather up there?” he says of the most commonly heard crack. “I haven’t heard much that’s new lately.”

Yep.

Being Jolly Green Giant tall can be challenging.

But for all the downside, there is also upside for the recent graduate of Vedder middle school.

Standing 78 inches tall (79 in his shoes) puts him a lot closer to a regulation size basketball hoop that stands 10 feet. Stretching his arms to their full length, he needs only a little hop to slam the ball or block a shot.

Opponents have a tough task navigating past his long legs and enormous wingspan, and when the mood strikes he can be a dominant force in the paint.

He is the type of kid basketball coaches identify early and keep a close eye on, because it’s rare to find a big man with skills.

In early June, Lejeune attended an invite-only weekend tryout in North Vancouver for Team B.C.’s U-15 squad.

Against a field of 40 players, he was chosen to fill one of 12 spots on a provincial team that will represent B.C. at nationals in Toronto in August.

“There were 10 guys there ranging between six-foot-five and six-foot-eight,” Lejeune said. “Four of us ending up getting picked, and I have to say, in the tryouts I think I just sucked. But in the scrimmage I got out in transition and dunked a couple times. I have that athleticism and ability to run the floor and I think they liked that.”

Lejeune was told immediately after the final practice that he’d made the grade — a significant first step for the teenager, and proof that if he applies his physical gifts, this sport can take him places.

“I’ve always been into sports, and I’ve always been  coordinated enough to play a lot of them well,” Lejeune said. “But I realized in Grade 8 that hoops was my forte. It’s getting serious now where I’ve quit soccer to be a one sport guy, play basketball and see where it takes me.”

Lejeune figured out early that he’d have genetics on his side. His dad, John, stands six-foot-five and his mom, Tara, measures taller than six feet.

Able to stand eyeball to eyeball with John for the first time, Lejeune thinks maybe he isn’t done growing.

“I’m kind of hoping for six-foot-10 or 11,” he said.

But it takes more than height and when Lejeune talks about taking hoops seriously, he’s serious.

Most weeks he invests nearly 30 hours into practices, games and weight training. The U-15 process involves weeknight trips to Vancouver and weekend trips to places like Seattle and Las Vegas. Lejeune’s team went 4-0 at a July long-weekend tournament in Lynden (Washington).

“This week I’ve got a practice today, a game tomorrow, a practice after that,” he said. “Practice. Practice. Practice. They’re all two-and-a-half hours and you’ve got travel time and stuff.”

A social life is nearly impossible to maintain under the circumstances, making Lejeune thankful that he has very, very understanding friends.

“I can’t hang out with them a lot, but they say it’s OK and they push me to do this,” he said. “It means late nights and early mornings in the gym, working and concentrating more than I ever have in the past.”

Win or lose.

Start or come off the bench.

Whatever the results of the U-15 experience, Lejeune believes it can only benefit him in the long run.

“I hope Toronto will be an amazing experience and I hope it will open my eyes to the calibre of ball I need to play,” Lejeune said. “I hope it will show me where I’m at and where I need to go. I’m excited for it.”

Next season it is a certainty he will be playing high school ball, most likely with the Sardis secondary school Falcons.

He got a small taste of senior ball last year, coming up for some late season action. From the stands he looked like he belonged, and he had more than one observer asking, ‘Who is that kid?’

“It was a huge change from middle school, and it taught me a lot of stuff I need to work on. But it was also a really fun experience,” Lejeune said. “I definitely need to keep hitting the weights, but I also need to jump better, shoot more consistently and work on everything. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but I am better than I was even six months ago.”

Lejeune’s upside is tremendous.

If he continues to progress, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t, there’s no telling how far he may go.

“I want to go to college and then whatever happens, happens,” he said. “The NBA (National Basketball Association) has never been a big goal of mine, but I would love to play in Europe.”

If he accomplishes that, Lejeune could go down as one of the best to ever come out of Chilliwack.

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