EDMONTON — At a towering 6-foot-10, Max Petryk is the tallest player to suit up for the Ross Sheppard T-Birds senior boys’ basketball team in at least 25 years, maybe ever.
And he won’t be 17 until September.
Before his birthday, he’ll play for Alberta’s U17 provincial team at a tournament in Kamloops, B.C., and for a rep team assembled by Greg Francis, Canada Basketball’s manager of high performance, for a series of games in China. Petryk also tried out for the U17 national team this year, but fell short.
Off the court, he’s an honour student in Grade 11, he bought the necessary parts online to assemble his own computer at home; and he has volunteered with Kids on Track, The Mustard Seed, The Edmonton Food Bank and his community league.
He also has Tourette Syndrome which, as you might now agree, is neither the most nor the least interesting thing about him.
“I have a pretty mild version of Tourette’s,” he said recently. “But it’s gone from blatantly noticeable to you’d have to look pretty hard and constantly to see it. However, in class sometimes I will roll my shoulder back or every half an hour I’ll make a small grunt in my throat.”
Rather than have an ill-timed noise become an issue at school, Petryk was proactive. Starting in junior high, he wrote letters to his new teachers each semester.
“A paragraph introducing himself, and a paragraph explaining what Tourette’s is for him, because there is a misconception,” said his mother, Kelly. “It doesn’t look the same for everyone.”
It doesn’t look like much of anything on the court, where hard work, attention to detail and coaching help has allowed Max grow into a starter’s role for the T-Birds. He is so focused on his next move, be it dribble, pass or shoot, defend or rebound, that there are no overt signs of his TS during games.
“However, prior to a competition, if I’m nervous I will break out in involuntary movements.”
He recalls being bullied during one year in elementary school, prompting a change of venue to a more enlightened student body. And, after a bumpy introduction to Ross Shep, he has grown comfortable there, too.
While still a Grade 9 kid, he showed up as an unskilled, inexperienced and uncomfortable player at a camp at Ross Sheppard two years ago. Dave Youngs said he and fellow boys’ basketball coach Steve Sir almost kicked Petryk out of the gym.
“I would say a lot of his behaviours were off task,” said Youngs, who was only advised later of Petryk’s diagnosis.
With continuing help from Youngs and Sir and other mentors, Petryk’s on-court progression since that camp has been nothing short of amazing.
“If somebody would have said 18 months ago that Max is going to be trying out for the national team, you would have wondered if the cannabis law had been passed earlier,” said Basketball Alberta executive director Paul Sir, who is Steve’s father. “Max wasn’t even close. It’s a testament to his hard work to get to this point.”
Big men typically struggle with body positioning, quickness and timing, even rebounding, as they develop. Petryk has improved all facets of his game, and the court is a comfortable place for him now.
“When I was in Grade 10 I didn’t know the correct decision to make on the floor. I was always second-guessing myself. Now that I’ve had a lot more time, I feel that has completely gone away. I enjoy it a lot more than I used to now that I know what I’m doing on the floor and can make an impact with my team.”
The T-Birds lost the city title to rival Harry Ainlay, then finished fifth in the provincials. Petryk will be looked upon as a team leader next season.
“I’ve never seen a kid grow like this before; mentally, physically, emotionally, the whole thing,” said Youngs. “From barely playing in junior high to starting on a high school team, the jump has just been amazing, but there is still a long way to go.
“I definitely think he’s going to play at the next level. You get a lot of opportunities being 6-10 and also being an honours student. And he works so hard.”
Paul Sir believes Petryk will draw interest from American Division 1 schools.
“What I see with Max is a growing feel and sense for the game, which is what you hope a kid will develop, the basketball IQ component. If that keeps going on, could he be a Division 1 player? Yes. He’s 6-10, and there will be Division 1 programs looking for 6-10 kids to work with. And certainly he’d be a great (University of Alberta) Golden Bear.”
Petryk, who will study computer science wherever he lands, said he doesn’t have a preference yet.
“Honestly, whoever would take me. But I would really enjoy playing for the University of Alberta. I’ve always really liked that school. MacEwan University also looks pretty good. If I get an offer from an American school, I’d probably take it, regardless. That would be amazing.”