Joe’s Basketball Diaries: U of T video series focuses on the bigger stories behind our favourite sports

From left to right: Shireen Ahmed, Simon Darnell, Joseph Wong, Miranda Ayim and Bruce Kidd (image by Lisa Lightbourn)

From the moment you start watching Joe’s Basketball Diaries, you realize this is not your typical sports show. 

After a brief intro featuring the spoken word poetry of University of Toronto student Hannah Flores, host Professor Joseph Wong kicks off the first episode with a question to his four guests: What they were doing when the Raptors won the NBA championship on June 13, 2019? 

Within seconds, the discussion is no longer simply about that moment, or even basketball per se, but about us, our city and society more broadly – all through the lens of sport.

“I don’t do my sports without politics,” says Shireen Ahmed, a CBC sports journalist. “For racialized folks and people on the margins, that’s what the experience is.”

“I think we connect more in our struggles than we ever do in our strengths,” says Miranda Ayim, a three-time Olympian and certified wellness coach. 

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that sports are popular, but that popularity doesn’t equal inclusion – that popularity doesn’t equal equality,” says Simon Darnell, an associate professor of sport for development and peace in U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE). 

“The overarching narrative of the history of modern sports has been that of exclusion and the struggle for inclusion,” says Bruce Kidd, an Olympic runner, professor emeritus of sport and public policy at KPE and U of T’s ombudsperson.    

The provocative commentary is exactly what Wong, a big basketball fan, was looking for. He says sports provide an ideal vehicle to host frank discussions on race, inclusivity, leadership and global citizenship – discussions U of T is uniquely positioned to facilitate as a top public university where scholars are bringing forward bold, new ideas and tackling complex global problems.

“This series brings difficult issues to the fore and people who have intelligent, actionable things to say about them,” says Wong, U of T’s vice-president, international, a professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Roz and Ralph Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

“That's really one of the aims of the show. Through this conversation, we're not coming up with a lifesaving technology, but we are talking about the value of different lives and about how lives are lived in different ways in different communities.”

Joe’s Basketball Diaries officially launches Nov. 16 as a six-episode series, airing biweekly on U of T’s YouTube channel. Each 30-minute episode [see the episode guide below] features guests from inside and outside the university who weigh in on topical subjects such as racism and mental health to women in sport and globalization.

“This series really shows how interwoven U of T is with the city, its culture, and all the communities it represents – and Joe is so right for this series,” says Lisa Lightbourn, a creative producer at U of T Communications who worked with Wong and fellow co-producer Anna Weigt-Bienzle to create the series. “He’s a highly respected scholar in areas like democracy and international development, and he relates to everyone.

“This is not an interview, but a conversation like you’d have around a table at a dinner party – a conversation you wouldn’t want to miss.”

It’s already generating a buzz, with one of the show’s early guests giving the series a shoutout on the popular podcast The Raptors Show with Will Lou

Janelle Joseph, a guest on the “Model Minority” episode, says Joe’s Basketball Diaries makes scholars’ work and insights on sports and society available to a much broader audience. 

“So many researchers and people who are really interested in exploring the sociology of sport typically share our work through books and academic articles,” says Joseph, an assistant professor of critical studies of race and Indigeneity at KPE.

“But there are so many people who are really interested in sport, and they are not reading the academic literature. So, I think the real value of this series is that it’s a direct link to topics that people are really passionate about and creating conversations that are, in an accessible way, focusing on equity, diversity and anti-racism issues.”

Wesley Cheng, an online content creator at TSN and another guest on the episode, agrees.

“At that Raptors parade in 2019, there were a million people on the streets,” Cheng says. “What type of event could do something like that in Toronto? Sport is what brings us all together, and that's probably what I care the most about with this series.

“It's just to remind people that there's a way for a sport to bring all of us together and to remind us that, regardless of race, gender, social differences, we're not that different as people.” 

Joe’s Basketball Diaries episode guide:


Episode one: Does sport transcend borders and politics?

  • Shireen Ahmed, sports journalist; Bruce Kidd, professor emeritus, sport and public policy at KPE; Simon Darnell, associate professor, sport for development and peace at KPE; Miranda Ayim, three-time Olympian and certified wellness coach.
  • The inaugural episode explores the question of whether sport does transcend borders and politics. We examine the role of organizations like the IOC in supporting and advocating for peace and development, as well as the ways countries use sport and even athletes to build prestige. We also consider the role of media and political activism in sport and whether the industry can be a force for good moving forward.

Episode two: mental health

  • Sabrina Razack, educator and a former KPE PhD student; Jhanelle Peters, mental health clinician, Toronto Raptors; Madhav Trivedi, interim head coach men’s basketball, U of T; Miranda Ayim, three-time Olympian and certified wellness coach.
  • This episode dives into sports and mental health, including the unique challenges that can come with being an athlete. We touch on the pressures athletes face around public scrutiny, expectations, body image and more – and how they mirror what we, as non-athletes and students, go through in daily life. We also discuss what’s being done right and where society still needs to improve.

Episode three: model minority

  • Takashi Fujitani, director, Dr. David Chu Program in Asia-Pacific Studies; Clement Chu, president and founder, Chinese Canadian Youth Athletics Association; Wesley Cheng, content creator, TSN; Janelle Joseph, assistant professor, critical studies of race and Indigeneity at KPE.
  • In this episode we explore racism, xenophobia, and the lack of Asian and Indigenous representation in sport. We talk about the rise of anti-Asian racism since the start of the pandemic and how organizations like the Chinese Canadian Youth Athletics Association and Muslim Women’s Summer Basketball League are making a difference in the lives of athletes of all levels, students and community members.

Episode four: community

  • Alex Wong, NBA features writer and producer/co-host of the Raptors Show with Will Lou; Sami Hill, Team Canada Basketball; Kareem Griffin, co-founder Canletes Sports; Perry King, author and communications officer at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
  • The words “community” and “sport” are forever intertwined. In this episode we will bring together members of the sports community to discuss how things have changed in the way we grow and support athletes at a community, grassroot level. We will discuss the challenges around infrastructure in our city and what our collective responsibility is in both our local and international communities.

Episode five: globalization and sport. Who holds the power?

  • David Shoemaker, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee; Fitriya Mohamed, co-founder of the Muslim Women’s Summer Basketball League; Ansh Sanyal, senior director of brand and marketing at Canadian Elite Basketball League; Vivek Jacob, Raptors staff writer and U of T alumnus.
  • In this episode we go deep into the power of sport and who holds it – from the organizations and athletes to the government bodies and fans. We will touch on the cultural impact of sport and the importance of leadership and visibility, while also looking at the darker side of the industry, which is the economic value of the team and its athletes, and the challenges that often presents.

Episode six: women in sport

  • Tamara Tatham, Varsity Blues women’s head basketball coach; Amreen Kadwa, founder of Hijabi Ballers; Hannah Flores, U of T second year undergraduate student and spoken word poet; Nicole Kaniki, U of T’s director of equity, diversity and inclusion in research and innovation; Savanna Hamilton, Raptors reporter, Sportsnet.
  • For our final episode of the series, we will discuss the challenges that come with being a woman in sport, whether that’s an athlete on the court, a journalist in the field or a coach on the sidelines. The scrutiny women face goes beyond the wage gap. Female identifying athletes face undue pressure when it comes to their bodies, how they handle themselves on and off the court and the expectations we see put on racialized and LGBTQ+ women based on societal standards.