Behind Brandon’s strong, silent sixth man

Ampofo enjoys relentless pursuit for basketball growth


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It’s 4:30 a.m. Rise and grind.

While the rest of U Sports men’s basketball enjoys summer slumber, Elisha Ampofo prepares to train. It’s not some ultra-disciplined, mind-over-matter mentality the Brandon University Bobcats’ guard has developed: It’s who he is.

Ampofo decided to pursue high-level basketball at age seven and realized the importance of training by 11. So he spent his free days outside by 8 a.m., running hills and shooting at a local court.

“I didn’t understand that was ‘working hard,’” Ampofo said, “because to me it was like ‘I love what I’m doing,’ and as a kid, you have all the energy in the world.”

The six-foot-two guard’s workouts evolved as he grew up, through a standout high school career at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Academy and a post-graduate year at the Toronto Basketball Academy.

What remained constant from the start, through his recruitment to Brandon in 2019 until now, is an effort level few can replicate.

He’s shooting by 5 o’clock each morning and lifting afterwards. He’s doing skill sessions with coaches and NBA G-League players, and he invented a drill that while he performs it willingly, might be more aptly employed as a torture tactic.

Ampofo calls it “Four Quarters.”

He measures the 28-metre length of a basketball court in the sand and begins the self-inflicted punishment. For the first 10 minutes, he sprints one length and jogs back, then pauses for 10 seconds and repeats. He affords himself a two-minute rest — the length of breaks between the quarters during a game.

In the second quarter, he sprints then back-pedals back before the 10-second breather. No 15-minute break for halftime, though, just two.

The third quarter is a sprint followed by a jog back. And the fourth is sprints both ways.

He started with four-minute quarters and built up to 10 over about eight weeks.

Ampofo admits he doesn’t love the conditioning part but realizes it’s necessary to play his way.


Ampofo has a unique skill set and style. His approach to the game and how his life has shaped him have strong parallels to some of basketball’s biggest stars.

The connections to his favourite player, Kobe Bryant go beyond that “Mamba mentality” work ethic.

While the ball’s in play, Ampofo is quick, intense and physical. Between whistles, he walks with the stiffness of a two-by-four. And if he gets fouled, he stays down long enough that athletic therapists nearly run on the floor to check on him.

He says it’s all about conserving energy to play as hard as he does.

Ampofo largely earned his rookie-year minutes through relentless on-ball defence. His job was to shut down the other team’s best scorer and leave the scoring to his teammates.

He has even less reason to score now than back then, with Anthony Tsegakele and Gardner dropping 20-plus ppg and Khari Ojeda-Harvey and Sultan Bhatti popping off for 25 or more a few times.

Ampofo likes it that way.

“A big stop … I feel better about that than scoring the ball. I always feel like I’m supposed to score. I work on this,” he said. “… If that guy works on something and I make you not able to do it, it makes me feel better about myself and lights the guys up too.”

While charges drawn aren’t officially tracked, there almost can’t be anyone in the country with more. Ampofo seems to take a shoulder to his chest and get the call every game and drew three in one contest this year.

Some say that’s all heart, and when a guy like six-foot-eight Brian Wallack of UBC drives down the lane, Ampofo agrees.

But he feels it’s a skill, one he learned by studying Bryant.

He heard the late Los Angeles Lakers legend once share about how he regularly read the rulebook and found ways to use rules to his advantage. Ampofo discovered the concept of “legal guarding position,” something every basketball player should know but few grasp fully.

Basically, you cannot draw an offensive foul if you’re moving toward the offensive player — only laterally or backwards. He’s able to anticipate ball handlers’ moves as they gain speed and lose control and plant his feet in their path, making game-changing plays look routine.


Ampofo, 22, was born to Ghanaian parents, Juliet and Seth, in Montreal and moved to the Greater Toronto Area a year later. They first settled in North Park, a rough neighbourhood in Brampton, a rough city just west of Pearson International Airport.

“North Park Secondary School, you could pass by and see bullets in the school doors,” Ampofo said.

His dad worked two jobs while his mom took night shifts and sought safer areas, eventually moving to Milton, a smaller city (pop. 94,000) 30 minutes south of Brampton.

Busy work schedules meant a lot of hours alone for Ampofo and his brother, Matthew.

When their dad wasn’t at work, he spent a lot of time at church. He also never met his grandparents, who stayed in Africa.

“It was tough, not having that family connection,” Ampofo said. “I had to grow up a lot faster than a lot of other people.”

The result is a quiet, introverted personality, seldom the first to speak but a careful observer of everyone around him.

Ampofo studies NBA players closely and takes lessons away from his favourites.

For one, LeBron James famously grew up homeless for a few years, with a single mother and thankfully impeccable genetics coupled with an unmatched drive to become a great basketball player.

St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio brought him in for his ability and he took that opportunity and ran straight to the first-overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft a few years later.

It was the summer of 2012, and LeBron won his first NBA title with the Miami Heat in June. Ampofo sat alone and had a profound thought about the hand he’d been dealt in life.

“I don’t want a different hand. How do I play my hand?” he said. “You have two options. Either you can just quit and be like ‘I don’t have the support system, this or that, I’m just going to chalk it, it’s a loss.

“Or you could be like, ‘This could make for a crazy story someday.’”


The part of training Ampofo can’t get enough of, naturally, is on the court.

His favourite day of the summer was a session at The Playground, a basketball facility in Burlington, where he worked with Kevin Kangu of the NBA G-League’s Oklahoma City Blue on one hoop. On the other one was Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Ampofo already knew professionals didn’t get where they are by luck, but watching one of Canada’s top players practise the types of shots he takes in games, at game speed, over and over, opened his eyes.

“Even a guy like Jahmaal (Gardner),” Ampofo said of his fourth-year teammate. “Jahmaal has crazy moves but I’ve worked out with Jahmaal a million times. I learn a lot from Jahmaal. It’s stuff he works on, he drills, those shots you see him hit and are like ‘How did he hit that?’ He works on it.”

Toronto Basketball Academy coach Mike Jackman sees the same qualities in Ampofo. Jackman continued coaching the Bobcat for a few summers after their 2018-19 campaign together. He emphasizes that coaches shouldn’t have to drag players out to training, reminding them to get their reps in.

Ampofo never hesitated.

“Having that mentality to not give up and every year trying to get better is what stood out to me to be honest, right away,” Jackman said.

“That’s a guy that truly trusted his process, took what other people achieved before him, took how they got it, made his own formula to make himself better.

“He’s an example of wanting to be resilient and continuing to strive for growth.”

Jackman saw Ampofo as a gritty defender, relentless hustler and fearless. The biggest change in a year at TBA was in reading the game, and understanding how to move without the basketball to create opportunities for his teammates and better looks for himself.

Ampofo wasn’t necessarily an offensive threat. Fast forward to this season, however, and he entered this weekend leading all guards in the country in field-goal percentage at 58.7. He’s sixth overall in three-point shooting at 48.1 per cent. Amazingly, that’s just third on his team as Sultan Bhatti is fourth at 50 per cent and Khari Ojeda-Harvey is fifth at 48.4.


To use a bow and arrow, one must first draw the arrow back, away from its target. That initial negative step is necessary for the arrow to launch forward.

There’s no more fitting analogy for Ampofo’s rise to near-peak offensive efficiency. After all, it’s the gesture he mimicked as a rookie in his first Canada West regular season weekend after hitting a three-pointer. He directed it at a Saskatchewan Huskies defender and immediately received a technical foul.

But the big setback came late in his rookie year, one that tested the young man’s entire foundation.

Ampofo arrived in Brandon ready for an immediate impact. He only had one true veteran to lean on in fifth-year guard Jaleel Webb. His cast of rookies, including Tsegakele, Dominique Dennis, Hans Befus and Americans Shun Williams and Haashim Wallace.

He was forced into a larger role when Jahmaal Gardner suffered a season-ending injury in an exhibition game. Ampofo averaged 7.8 points in just over 20 minutes through the first four Canada West games, making 11 of 18 shots. He stumbled back to more typical rookie numbers, however, and went through an 0-for-21 slump in the final four games.

That last six-game stretch was the highlight of the team’s season as it won five in a row to steal the final playoff spot after a 1-13 start.

“For the team, it was great. For me, it was horrible,” Ampofo said.

“On the way back we played Manitoba on the road … on the way back I was crying. ‘I suck. I went 0-for-10. The night before I was 0-for-5. I put so much work into this.’”

Ampofo will never forget the song that came through his headphones: Bethel Church’s “God I Look to You.” The opening lines ask for vision “to see things like you do.”

“I was crying like ‘God, is this for me? Is this what you want for me? Why can’t I perform?’ I felt like it was selfish of me to ask God for anything when I haven’t been giving any of my time,” Ampofo said.

“COVID happened and I realized I need to really get back to what matters in life, which is spending time with God and growing my relationship with Him. I thank God, honestly, for that moment.

“It took hitting rock bottom, getting to a place of humility where it’s like ‘I need him.”

Ampofo hit all three shots he took in BU’s narrow playoff loss at Victoria the following week.

“Now,” Tsegakele said, “it’s one of those moments we joke about.

“… We say this thing, ‘never too high, never too low,’ and I think he’s carried that on to the way he plays. He might go 1-for-4, that doesn’t happen much for Eli … but the next day he’ll go and have 20.”


Ampofo shot just 37.8 per cent in 2021-22 but came back this year a changed player.

He heard Portland Trailblazers superstar Damian Lillard emphasize focusing every rep and shooting at game speed. So Ampofo took a more intentional attitude to his shooting sessions.

He also realized that while knocking down open threes is important, doing nothing more handcuffs a player. So Ampofo focused on ball handling and quickness to beat defenders who manage to close out and contest the deep ball.

Now he’s making more than 40 per cent of his shots off the dribble and over 60 per cent when he gets to the rim according to Synergy statistics. He averages 8.9 ppg on just over 20 minutes off the bench.

To suggest he should have had those tools U Sports ready by Year 1 would be somewhat foolish. BU head coach Gil Cheung has no issue with his guard’s slow, steady growth.

“When he first got in, he was trying to do too much,” Cheung said.

“… We kept reminding him he’s an elite defender, he’s a very good catch-and-shoot three-point shooter and he’s shown this year he can create off the bounce.

“He’s such a valuable part of our team and he’s embraced that role. Our guys love him … he’s that pit bull that gets after the other team’s best wings.”

Ampofo cares less about personal stats now. He’ll take zero points in a win over a career-high in defeat. As Cheung puts it, he just wants to impact winning.

Sometimes that means scoring a bunch, other times it’s been taking care of his roommate, Tsegakele, when he was sick earlier this semester.

“If he really loves you,” Tsegakele said, “he’s willing to go above and beyond for you.”


Ampofo joined a young, struggling team back in 2019. It didn’t look pretty when Brandon went 1-13 to start the season. It was worse in 2021-22 when a more experienced group posted a 2-14 record in Canada West’s East Division. The Bobcats upset the University of Northern British Columbia Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs after qualifying only because everyone did.

But this season sheds light on the strides Ampofo and Brandon made. The team went into Friday’s game 8-6, seventh in the 17-team league. The teams they played all last year in the modified regional schedule include Manitoba (13-1) and Winnipeg (11-3), who are first and third, respectively, in the standings. Regina (5-9) and Saskatchewan (3-11) are rebuilding but both reached the conference final four last year, with the Huskies earning a national silver medal.

Ampofo admits he didn’t have the foresight to realize what his team was capable of at the start.

He still isn’t sure.

One thing he knows is the Bobcats aren’t close to where he’d like to get.

“People ask me all the time, do you ever take time to smell the roses? Do you take time to look at what you have accomplished?” Ampofo said. “I take a bit of time to acknowledge it but my belief is that if you’re not where you want to be yet, just keep going.

“… I know there’s somebody working to take my spot, there’s somebody that would kill to play 26 minutes a game on a top-15 team in the country. I’m not going to let up. I have to keep going.”

Ampofo brought his work ethic to the classroom last year, becoming the lone player on his team to earn academic all-Canadian status for an average of higher than 80 per cent.

No matter how busy his class and training schedule get, he’s committed to making 400 shots every non-game day.

The Bobcats intended to fly out of Kelowna, B.C., late on Sunday, Nov. 14 after two big victories over the UBC Okanagan Heat. But after a mess of delayed flights and a bus trip, they pulled into the Healthy Living Centre late Monday morning.

The players sauntered with bags under their eyes as they collected their bags from under the bus. Cheung gave the guys the day off.

Tsegakele still returned for a class a few hours later and glanced at the north court.

“Who’s shooting in the gym?” Tsegakele asks.



» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen

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