After achieving legend status in New Mexico, this Quebecer is helping grow basketball back home

A lot of Montreal hoop dreams were born in Park Ex.

As a teenager, Hernst Laroche would often spend his weekends going up against some of the city’s best at the William-Hingston sports complex in the north-central Montreal neighbourhood a few steps away from where he grew up.

Dozens of ballers from different age groups would crowd the centre’s courts, and Laroche knew he had to bring it.

“You had guys from the west side, you had guys from Montréal-Nord and Saint-Michel. There are no centres there, so everybody would just pull up to Park Ex,” said Laroche.

The William Hingston Centre, located in Montreal’s Parc Ex neighbourhood, has several courts and is well known by people in the city’s basketball community. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

Those showdowns in the early 2000s helped the Montrealer of Haitian descent develop his trademark tenacious defense and playmaking ability. They’re what catapulted him to years of basketball success. 

It also helped him secure basketball immortality in a small city called Las Cruces, N.M.

An overhead shot of people playing basketball on a college court.
The Pan American Center in Las Cruces, NM, which has a 12,000-seat capacity, has been the home to the New Mexico State University Aggies’ basketball team for decades. (Submitted by New Mexico State University Athletics)

In February, Laroche was one of four athletes inducted into the New Mexico State University Hall of Fame, his alma mater. It was the crowning achievement in a career that’s taken him around the world and given him the tools to be a basketball ambassador in his home province.

From Park Ex to New Mexico

After a standout career at Montreal’s Vanier College, Laroche got on NCAA recruiters’ radars through the Brookwood Elites program, where top Canadian players get a chance to square off against players south of the border.

He recalls going up against players like Isaiah Thomas, who would go on to become a two-time NBA all-star.

Laroche had several offers from U.S. universities on the table, but he said he was blown away by the New Mexico State University Aggies’s talent level and basketball facilities.

The school, located in Las Cruces, has a separate gym for practices and a tunnel that connects it to its 12,000-seat arena.

“I had never seen a gym like that one,” Laroche recalled. “The coach didn’t even need to convince me.”

Coach in centre speaking to players dressed in maroon and white jerseys on a basketball court.
Marvin Menzies is seen huddling with his players, including Laroche, during a timeout of a NCAA game on March 15, 2012. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Las Cruces is the second-largest city in the state of New Mexico, after Albuquerque, with a population of about 113,000 people. People there love their college basketball team.

“That’s the big show down there,” said Jack Nixon, who has been a play-by-play commentator for the Aggies for 44 years and remembers Laroche’s run with the team. 

“Basketball has consistently been the marquee thing that people have been excited about.”

Laroche put in countless hours of training to solidify his spot in the team’s starting lineup. His work ethic endeared him to coaches, teammates and fans.

He’s six feet one inch tall — short by NCAA and NBA standards — with a slender build, something his coach at the time still grins about.

WATCH | Laroche shows off defensive skills and hustle: 

“He wasn’t very physically intimidating, putting it nicely,” said Marvin Menzies, who coached the Aggies from 2007 to 2016. 

“But he had a desire to invest in himself. He was very much a team guy but when it came to the opportunity to improve as a basketball player, he never passed on it.”

He describes Laroche as a “very gifted defender” who set the tone for his squad.

“He’d pick up a guy full court and just do it naturally without fouling. He was very disciplined,” Menzies said. “He was one of the few guys in my career whose judgment I trusted.”

A poster featuring four athletes being inducted into the hall of fame.
Laroche was inducted into the the school’s Hall of Fame in February along with three other athletes. (New Mexico State University Athletics)

For Laroche, New Mexico made for a jarring change of scenery. But he loved everything about it: the people, the basketball, the weather and the New Mexican cuisine.

“Think about it: I spent four years there without eating Haitian food, and I was good,” he said, laughing.

The iron man

During those four seasons as an Aggie between 2008 and 2012, Laroche twice helped New Mexico State University win the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament.

But when the 35-year-old received the call for his Hall of Fame induction earlier this year, he was surprised. He even wondered if he deserved the honour.

Two people shaking hands at an indoor event.
During an event the day before the Hall of Fame induction, Laroche had a chance to catch up with Jack Nixon, the longtime play-by-play commentator for the Aggies. (Hernst Rock/Facebook)

He said one of his friends and former teammates told him to go look up his numbers.

Laroche’s 552 career assists and 216 steals put him second on the school’s all-time list. He played 135 games and started in all of them. Those 135 consecutive starts still stand as a program record.

“[That’s when I knew] ‘OK, I meant something to that team. Plus, we were winning. That’s the main thing. We were winning,” he said.

“I was dedicated to the game. I gave everything that I had.”

Laroche’s former coach said the decision to put him in the Hall of Fame was a no-brainer.

A person hugging another on the court.
In February, Laroche returned to New Mexico for the first time in more than a decade. He said the warm reception from fans and school staff made it feel like he had never left. (Hernst Rock/Facebook)

“At the end of the day, when the Hall of Fame committee had to make a decision, they remembered this consistent, dependable teammate that was always there to make the big shot, make the big defensive play,” Menzies said.

“You could always count on him when it was winning time.”

In 2010, the Montrealer hit the game-winning jump shot against Louisiana Tech with just one second left in the game. After the game, Nixon, the team’s play-by-play commentator, told the sophomore he had become “Mr. Aggies Basketball.”

“How do you say that in French?” he recalled asking Laroche. “I don’t know if this is correct French, but he said: ‘Just call me Monsieur ballon-panier.'”

Fourteen years later, when Laroche announced his Hall of Fame induction on social media, Nixon congratulated him by dusting off his French language skills.

A screengrab of Laroche's Facebook page.
A screengrab of Laroche’s Facebook page, where Jack Nixon, the play-by-play commentator for the Aggies’ basketball team, congratulated him for his Hall of Fame induction. (Hernst Rock/Facebook)

The Hall of Fame ceremony took place on Feb. 24 during halftime of an Aggies basketball game, with Laroche joined by a large group of friends and family.

The same arena that, while empty, drew him to the city of Las Cruces, was now filled with thousands of fans cheering and applauding his collegiate career  — a “surreal” moment for someone who spent the bulk of his childhood in Parc-Extension and Montréal-Nord.

“I was a prisoner of the moment when I was playing and I was prisoner of the moment then,” he said.

“When I went back, it was like I was a child that left and came back and the love was still there after 12 years.”

A group of people at centre court, standing, while the person being honoured holds up his jersey.
After the ceremony, the Montrealer celebrated with friends and family on the Pan American Center’s court. (Hernst Rock/Facebook)

Coming home

Since the end of his career with the Aggies, Laroche has played professionally for more than a decade in countries like Tunisia, Argentina, France and Ukraine. He’s also represented Haiti in international competition. 

In 2022, he suited up for his hometown Montreal Alliance for the team’s inaugural season in the Canadian Elite Basketball League.

After years of being away from family and friends and playing overseas, it was a dream come true.

It also marked the start of a new chapter in his life, where he uses the skills he developed abroad to give back to the game of basketball in his home province.

men in red basketball jerseys holding up their championship cup
In front of a sellout and loud crowd at the Amphitheatre Desjardins-Université Laval on the school’s campus, the Rouge et Or captured their first-ever U Sports men’s basketball national championship against the Queen’s Gaels. (Université Laval Rouge et Or)

In March, about two weeks after his Hall of Fame induction, the Université Laval men’s basketball in Quebec City went on an improbable run and won its first-ever U Sports title as the best team in Canada.

The Rouge et Or qualified for the tournament as hosts. Laroche, who is a master’s student at Université Laval, was an assistant coach on that team, having joined just a few months prior. 

“We joke with him a little bit because this guy just walks on in here and wins a championship in a few months,” said Nathan Grant, the team’s head coach, whose playing career at Vanier College ended in 2005, a year before Laroche began his.

Jokes aside, Grant says Laroche’s addition to the team was key. 

Two people on a basketball court posing for a photo after winning a championship.
Nathan Grant, the head coach of the Rouge et Or, left, celebrated with his assistant coach and friend after their team won the Canadian men’s basketball championship in March. (Hernst Rock/Facebook)

The 35-year-old related to the players, and his experience in New Mexico and Europe brought a different dimension to their training.

“Those guys are not known for having the big athletes. So, they developed the shooting, they developed the cuts, they developed the decision-making process of the game,” Grant said, referring to players in Europe.

A group photo of basketball players
Before making the jump to the NCAA, Laroche was a standout point guard at Vanier College in Montreal’s Saint-Laurent borough. (Hernst Rock/Facebook)

“Hernst, having played in those environments, understands that and that’s all something that I want to have and bring as much as possible to our culture.”

When he’s not coaching university players, Laroche is working with children as young as six at the École de Mini-Basketball de Québec, a program in Quebec City that teaches the game of basketball. 

“I want to give them all the tools that I didn’t have,” he said. “I want to teach them at the youngest age possible just to show them the love that I have for basketball.”

The 35-year-old says his time in New Mexico “made me the man I am now.”

His Hall of Fame induction, his career in Europe and South America, his work with the Rouge et Or and time spent with toddlers just learning how to dribble are all part of his growing impact on Quebec basketball.

“I’m somebody that gave it all. I never cheated the game, I really loved the game and I was one of the best players in the province of Quebec,” he said, when asked to reflect on his legacy.

“And I’m still living my story.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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