When Junior Cadougan heard his teammate Olu Ashaolu's older brother Sam had been shot and gravely injured in Pittsburgh, he thought someone was playing a joke on him.
After all, Cadougan's own sibling, then four-year-old Shaquan, was severely wounded in a hail of gunfire in August 2005 in front of his family's Jane and Finch home.
"I couldn't believe it man," Cadougan said over the phone recently from the Humble (Tex.) Christian Life Center where he and Ashaolu, two of Canada's top teenaged basketball players, are developing their skills.
"It's kind of weird for it to happen to me and happen to my boy," the 16-year-old Cadougan said. "I just tell him to keep his head up and fight for the family. Try to be successful and don't worry about that. It already happened. You have to bypass it and do your thing."
Brampton's Sam Ashaolu has made a remarkable recovery since being shot Sep. 17 while leaving an on-campus party with a number of his Duquesne University teammates. Within three months, Ashaolu has gone from intensive care to taking jump shots. All the while, 17-year-old Olu, who talks to his brother nearly every day, has been keeping close tabs, while struggling to remain motivated in the classroom and on the hardwood.
"When I first heard about it, it was hard to focus on anything -- school, basketball, just living everyday life," Ashaolu said. "I know he'd want me to just continue on and keep doing what I've got to do, so I just tried to live every day like it was a normal day and go on like everything was all right. My brothers (John and Steve) and my family were up there, so it was comforting knowing he had somebody with him."
The connection between Cadougan and Ashaolu is evident on the court, where they often set each other up. "People are always, like, 'That's weird. How did he know he was going to that space,' " Cadougan said.
Although their brothers are recovering well (Shaquan has started playing youth basketball), dealing with shared family turmoil has strengthened their bond.
"It's fun and comfortable at times having someone you've known, who you've been around, just not being alone," Ashaolu said.
"It has helped him a lot," Cadougan said. "He talks to me. I'm there. It happened to me and I fought through it."
After Shaquan was shot, Cadougan, the youngest player ever to try out for Canada's national men's team, decided to leave Toronto and Eastern Commerce and joined Ashaolu, first at Community Christian School near Atlanta last year and then at Humble, just north of Houston, when Community Christian folded its program.
Cadougan, a 5-foot-11 point guard known for his vision and play-making ability and the superbly athletic Ashaolu, a 6-foot-7 forward, made immediate impacts in the Lone Star State.
"Everyone was trying to get them," Humble coach Russell Johnson said of the pair, who have led his school to a 12-3 record this season. "Junior is a born point guard and 99% of the time he will make the right decision with the ball. Olu is a slasher. He's hard to stop and will be (more so) once his shot is improved."
Despite having one and two more years of high school left respectively after this year, Ashaolu and Cadougan are being recruited by major U.S. universities.
"They're fantastic kids. They have great personalities and work extremely hard," Johnson said, adding he is equally proud of their 4.0 grade point averages. "There's no comparison against the people they play against and in the State of Texas."
Johnson maintains there is one swingman in Texas ranked higher than Ashaolu, but "there is not a better point guard than Junior in his class."
Last summer, the duo teamed up to help Canada's under-18 team qualify for this July's FIBA under-19 world championship tournament to be held in Vancouver.
"Toughness and God-given ability makes them big-time prospects," junior national team coach Greg Francis said.
Cadougan and Ashaolu will be in town Dec. 15-17 for a tournament named for Sam Ashaolu that will feature games between Humble, Vaughan Road, Toronto Prep (TAPS) and Henry Carr.