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Undrafted Montreal native Dort continues to smash "glass ceilings" in NBA

Nelson Osse sat with Luguentz Dort at the 2019 NBA draft at the Barclays Center in New York. The Montreal coach, who'd known Dort since he was 12, was there to share in the celebratory moment when Dort's name was called.

Nelson Osse sat with Luguentz Dort at the 2019 NBA draft at the Barclays Center in New York.

The Montreal coach, who'd known Dort since he was 12, was there to share in the celebratory moment when Dort's name was called.

Instead, the pair listened as 60 players' names were read out, but not Dort's.

"It was tough," Osse said. "We did our due diligence, everybody we talked to, his agent, everybody thought he was going to get drafted. If not first round, then early second round.

"It didn't happen. But listen, good things happen to good people, you know?"

Great things are happening. The 21-year-old swingman is known for a defensive doggedness that opponents both loathe and respect, but he's shining on the offensive end as well. Dort poured in a career-high 42 points, including 18 in the first quarter, in Oklahoma City's loss to Utah on Tuesday.

Dort shot 7-for-11 from three-point range and had seven rebounds, three assists and four steals.

He's the fifth Canadian to score 40-plus points in a game, joining Steve Nash, Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray and his Thunder teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Osse said Dort didn't dwell on the disappointment of going undrafted. It was just a challenge to hurdle.

"At every level where he's tried to break through, he always had these glass ceilings where people didn't believe in him," said Joey McKitterick, co-director with Osse of Brookwood Elite, the AAU program Dort grew up playing for. "The same thing happened when draft night came, I texted Nelson and said 'It's the same old, he's going to figure it out.'

"It doesn't matter what the barriers are that people put in front of him."

Dort and his five siblings were raised by their mom Erline Mortel, a Haitian immigrant, in Montreal North. The hardscrabble borough was once visited by French soccer great Zinedine Zidane, who came to speak with kids there a year after a police shooting in 2008 sparked a night of violence.

Dort played soccer as a kid, but he and his best friend Keeshawn Barthelemey (who went onto play in the national cadet program) decided to try out for the PX Knights, coached by Osse, when they were 12. Dort had the athleticism, but lacked the skills of more experienced kids. He was the last one picked to make the team.

"But he was eager to learn, you could see in his eyes, he wanted to learn, and was very competitive," Osse said.

Practices meant a 90-minute bus ride across town.

In one year, Dort -- whose first name is pronounced "loo-GHENZ" -- went from being one of the worst players on his team to one of the best.

Still, McKitterick said Dort was overlooked for Canada's national program until a couple of exhibition games with the senior men's team against China in 2019.

He hasn't played in an official FIBA competition yet, but he's sure to be on Canadian coach Nick Nurse's list of players for the Olympic qualifying tournament that begins June 29 in Victoria.

He was also initially overlooked for the Biosteel All-Canadian game, but earned back-to-back MVP honours in the high school showcase in 2017 and '18.

Dort played a year of college ball at Arizona State, and then signed a two-way deal with Oklahoma City, making his NBA debut in December of 2019.

He shone in the NBA bubble last summer in Florida, earning the respect of then Houston Rockets star James Harden with his smothering defence.

"He doesn't care about anything but playing hard," Harden said.

Dort shot just 3-for-16 in Game 5 of OKC's first-round series against Houston, but dropped 30 points in a Game 7 loss.

"People were probably making fun of him, telling him to stop shooting," Osse said. "But he's not concerned about what people think. He never took the easy route.

"The character he has is something he probably took from his mom. He's relentless in the sense where you could put him down, you could do whatever, but it never stopped his will."

Twitter blew up after he shut down LeBron James in overtime in a Feb. 10 one-point loss to Los Angeles. With a super-sized hand in James' face, the Lakers star threw up an air ball.

McKitterick and Osse said even as a kid, Dort -- who carries 215 pounds on his broad-shouldered six-foot-three frame and whose Twitter and Instagram handles are fittingly @luthebeast -- loved to guard the other team's best player.

"He was always just a fierce competitor when he was young," McKitterick said. "By any means necessary, he'd want to win. And that didn't matter if he'd just have to defend the whole game, or he'd have to score 30. For him, it was just about winning."

McKitterick believes his fearlessness against the league's top scorers can be traced back to Montreal North.

"Coming from that area, there's a lot of adversity," he said. "I think when you face those things in life, basketball is just a game, there's never going to be a basketball player in front of you that's going to intimidate you. When you've come from an area like that, there's a lot of scarier things that go on."

Dort isn't Montreal's only former underdog making noise in the NBA this season. Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher -- who signed a two-year extension this past off-season worth US$13.5 million, the richest NBA contract for an undrafted Canadian -- had a huge game last week, scoring 38 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in a loss to Chicago.

Montreal native Khem Birch had 13 points and seven rebounds on Tuesday against Atlanta, his second game since signing with the Raptors.

Boucher and Birch also went undrafted.

"I think it's kind of giving people that beacon, that light, where it is possible to come from Montreal and be an NBA player," McKitterick said. "Obviously, Toronto's had a lot of success. But we don't have an NBA team here, so we don't get that influence of everything NBA, we needed a couple of players to break through and be that model for kids."

Osse said Dort is happy to be that model. He talks to young Montreal players, and is great about replying to messages from kids on social media.

"I don't know how he has the time, but Lu is always happy to help," said Osse, who still talks to Dort on an almost-daily basis.

"(Boucher and Dort) just paved the way for the younger ones now that they understand that 'Whoa, Lu is just like us.' The road was not easy. It used to be mission impossible for kids from Montreal to make it in the NBA. Now kids don't see it like that. They see that the mission is possible."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press