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‘Bobby Orr of basketball’: Sudbury’s hoops legend Eli Pasquale passes away at 59

The 6-1 point guard played in two Olympic games, was drafted to the NBA and is a sports Hall of Famer. He also paved the way for Steve Nash

Long before the selection of Canadian basketball talent in the first round of the NBA became the norm, Sudbury native Eli Pasquale was carving out a reputation that would rank among the truly elite in the history of the hardcourt in Canada.

On Monday morning, the man whose inner competitive streak drove him to a pair of appearances at the Olympics, on the heels of a stellar career at the University of Victoria, succumbed to a year-long battle with cancer. 

Eli Pasquale passed away in Victoria, B.C. on Monday. He was 59.

His connections to this area remained strong, even after leaving home upon graduating from high school to follow former Laurentian Voyageurs head coach Ken Shields, as the pairing teamed to help lead UVIC to five straight CIAU championships.

While both his mother and father continued to reside in Sudbury — younger brother Vito actually followed in his footsteps, attending and playing basketball for Victoria — Pasquale would see his path cross with his hometown with more regularity roughly a generation later, as both of his sons (Isaiah and Manny) attended Laurentian University, starting for the Voyageurs roughly a decade or so ago.

It was there that the fifth-round draft pick of the Seattle Supersonics (1984) would connect with LU head coach Shawn Swords, the two sharing a bond that reached well beyond the fact both were one-time members of the Canadian national men's team.

"My first experience of knowing him would have been watching him on the national team and just seeing how good he was, aspiring to be the player that he was," said Swords. "I wasn't in that same era of him, playing, but from what I heard, he was in the gym all the time, always working on his game.

"He was putting himself through hours and hours of work to get better, and I don't think that was necessarily being done at the time in Canada with basketball," added Swords. "He really set the tone there."

Before long, Swords, himself a member of the 2000 Canadian Olympic men's basketball team (Sydney, Australia), would garner a first-hand knowledge of the drive Pasquale possessed, one that remained with him long after his playing days.

"His competitive spirit is something that we don't really see these days," said Swords. "He was trying to win, every single possession, every single game. I witnessed it when the boys came to visit (a recruitment visit) and the four of us played basketball together."

“It was such a battle, all four of us trying to win a two-on-two game in the middle of the summer. It was fun to play in, fun to witness. That was about 10 years ago and he was nearing his fifties, and there was definitely a competitive spirit."

This competitive streak did not come as any kind of earth-shattering news for long-time Sudburian and friend Antony Petrone, a Northern Life advertising rep. The Petrone and Pasquale families share a cross-connection from their days in the Italian neighbourhood of Gatchell. Antony is of an age with Vito Pasquale, Eli’s brother, while Eli is of an age with Louie Petrone, Antony’s brother. As if that weren’t enough, Antony’s sister Laura is of an age with Eli’s sister Luciana.

Long story short, the kids grew up together.

"We spent our youth together and there wasn't a day that would go by where we would see the backboard and the rim, where it all started, in an area of eight to 10 feet," said Antony. "That was the story of Eli and Vito. Vito was right there, too."

Inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame (2003) and the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame (2008), Pasquale was garnering words of praise right across the basketball world on Tuesday, the level of his talent not lost, in the least, on the friends from his youth.

"The impact that he would have had on basketball, if he were in his day, now, is beyond the Raptors fever," said Petrone. "He was that good. He was the Bobby Orr of Canadian basketball."

"Yet for as good as he was a basketball player, he was an even better human being."

Ironically, it was the arrival of both Isiah and Manny to the Voyageurs that rekindled many a memory for the two boys, the only two children of Eli and his wife, Karen.

"He played in two Olympics, losing a bronze medal game by a basket, stuff like that makes me realize just how good he was," said Manny Pasquale in an article published on back in 2011. 

"He had such an ability to watch and replicate," Isiah continued.

"That's why he always beat us at everything. He would just watch people that are good at a sport and mimic it. That's his gift."

One that he shared until his untimely and sad passing at the age of just 59 years old.