Transitioning from being on the court to on the sidelines is something that never comes easily. Only three years removed from being named National Player of the Year in 2016, Mike L'Africain has had to shift focuses from playing the sport he loves to coaching it.
L'Africain's path into coaching was not due to a professional career fizzling out, but rather a decision that needed to be made to maintain his future health. The former star point guard left his spot on the roster on BK Spišská Nová Ves in Slovakia mid-way through the 2017-18 season, returning home to Canada to get healthy.
Ahead of the 2018-19 season, L'Africain decided he would chase his next passion—molding the next generation of Gee-Gees talent.
L'Africain benefitted from good timing, the Lead Assistant Coach role became available in the pre-season, and he was able to step in to fill it. At 26 years old, he had a full-time coaching job at his alma mater.
"It's more than special to me," he said. "I really put my heart and soul into playing for this program. Even recruiting friends of mine out of high school, I was never lying to them about how special this program is. To be able to do it again is really amazing."
As with any new challenge, there was a learning curve in the first few months in his new role. A transitioning team, the 2018-19 Gee-Gees had ups and downs to put the first-year coach to the test.
"The most exciting thing is that it has been such a different challenge," he explained. "Every day I feel like I'm learning something new about something I thought I knew everything about. I came in confident, I thought I was so smart, but the beautiful thing about coaching that you really can get better every day."
After a mentality shift, L'Africain was learning more about what it took to help guide the program. Luckily for him, he was surrounded by support from head coach James Derouin, assistant coaches, and his players, some of which he used to call teammates.
"This year really took my mind off the fact that I'm not playing anymore," he explained. "I thought that being around the gym would make me jealous that I'm not out there. It helped me tap into the passion I've always had to develop players and help them as people. It was really fun to go through the season from a different angle and I'm looking forward to doing it again."
Amongst all of the accolades and records L'Africain accrued during his time in Garnet and Grey, the most important to him had little to do with play on the court and much to do with the people around him.
From 2011-16, he got to contribute to and experience the growth of the Gee-Gees program to a national powerhouse. He went to Nationals four of his five years, winning two National Silver Medals, one Bronze, and an instant classic Wilson Cup title. He was named National Player of the Year, OUA Player of the Year, an All-Star, All-Canadian, and set the program record for career assists. All of which is easily eclipsed by the culture he got to be a part of.
Nine years after first stepping foot on campus at the University of Ottawa, L'Africain still feels the same way he always has about the program. There's something about it that is still special.
Moving to Ottawa from his native Oakville, Ont., L'Africain gained a family that now spans almost a decade of time and touches various parts of the world, but in the end, it all ties back home to the Gee-Gees.
"I think it's the culture that we've created here and Coach Jimmy is a huge part of that," he said. "He let me be a part of creating it originally, and I think we're doing it again here. I can see the vision again and we're going to keep building. I know that's what me and Coach Jimmy can do together and it's special because it's a relationship that's hard to fake."
He never reached the top of the mountain while playing, however, now, after two professional seasons, and one full season coaching, never seeing the peak doesn't much matter. It's the next challenge that he has to cross off, and there's still plenty of time.
"Maybe we're not 14-time champions, but in terms of family, I feel like we're 10-time champions. We've stayed together and the guys all love each other—it's a credit to the family culture we have here."