The Phaneuf brothers: A healthy dose of love and competition

Alec and Matt compete against each other for the first time this season

Matt (left) stands next to Alec (right) in uniform with their family on Nov. 11 after their game. Photo Alice Martin

While growing up, brothers Alec and Matt Phaneuf cherished friendly competition with each other on the basketball court in Gatineau, Que.

“We'd go play with friends and then we’d just guard each other the whole time,” Alec said.

“Sometimes we’d team up and we’d win every time,” Matt chuckled.

This year, they’ve been able to put this intricate knowledge of one another’s style of play to work while suiting up for crosstown rival universities McGill and Concordia.

Alec, who is three years Matt’s senior and a third-year veteran for the Stingers, joined the team during the 2021-22 season. 

“I was playing [at CEGEP de l’Outaouais] and we were losing a lot of games,” said Alec. “I was putting in good minutes and numbers, but no team really recruited me. It was down to the last game of the season and [Stingers head coach Rastko Popovic] came to my game. He really liked the way I played and basically made me an offer on the spot.”

But when it came time for Matt to choose a varsity team before the season started, the decision was more complicated. He had the opportunity to join both the Stingers and Redbirds, and  initially wanted to join Alec at Concordia.

“I chose McGill because of this guy,” Matt said, pointing to Alec. “Basically, because we play the same position, [it] would have been really hard. It's like putting two quarterbacks in at the same time. So, going to McGill was better for me because there was less competition at the point guard spot.”

Alec agreed that Matt made a smart decision and that he would have done the same were he in Matt’s shoes. “I was hoping he would come with me to Concordia, but I think for him, McGill was a better choice,” Alec said.

For Alec and Matt, playing against each other in a varsity league for the first time is strange. “It's like we're back playing in the park. That guy knows all my moves. I feel like he knows me so well, too. It's weird,” Alec said.

“At the same time, it's the person I guarded my whole life. It's weird environment-wise, because everybody's looking and we’re on a U Sports court,” added Matt. “But, basketball-wise, I'm so used to it. It's the most normal thing for me”

The Phaneuf brothers both started their basketball careers in high school. Their family encouraged them to pick up a sport, and once Alec settled on basketball, Matt followed suit.

Christian Phaneuf, Alec and Matt’s father, recalled how his sons both aspired to play basketball at a varsity level when they were growing up.

“I remember thinking that it would be hard because they were smaller,” he said. “But to see them both succeed today with their physique, it’s exceptional. It takes a lot of discipline and talent.”

Both brothers settled on being point guards not necessarily by choice, according to Matt, but it was best considering their height. Currently, at five-feet-nine inches, Alec and Matt are amongst the shortest players on their respective varsity teams.

Having a three-and-a-half-year age difference, Alec and Matt never played on the same teams and leagues in high school nor during their time at CEGEP de l’Outaouais. Instead, they’d cheer on the other from the sidelines, something they adore. However, while on different university teams this season, rooting for the other isn’t always easy or possible.

“It's hard because you want the other one to succeed, but at the same time, your success is detrimental to him, because we're guarding each other,” said Matt. “Yes, I want to steal the ball from him and go get a layup in transition, but I don't want this guy to end up with the turnover. We still do our best, but it's really tough to not cheer for him when I guard.”

“Yeah, but the last thing I’d want is to get scored on by him,” Alec laughed.

On the court, Matt and Alec are easily recognizable as they both sport the number four. 

“Oh God, it's kind of stupid,” said Matt when being asked about settling on the jersey number. “Our number would be nine because in French, you say ‘Pha-neuf’. But because we're small, the smallest jerseys are always one through five. Alec had four, so [when I came in] I was just like ‘Oh, Alec’s number. I'll wear it’ because I couldn't get nine, it was like a medium, I would look stupid in the jersey.”

When Alec and Matt play against each other, games become a huge family affair. Phaneuf family members fill up a major section of the stands in the John Dore Court at Concordia when they play McGill. 

“My parents, my sister, my brother-in-law, everyone is there. Clearly, I wouldn’t see them as often if the boys didn’t play basketball,” said Christian, who noted that on Jan. 11, the brothers’ last matchup at Concordia, 15 to 20 family members showed up.

I chose McGill because of [Alec]. Basically, because we play the same position, [it] would have been really hard. It’s like putting two quarterbacks in at the same time. So, going to McGill was better for me because there was less competition at the point guard spot. — Matt Phaneuf

For the brothers’ first game against each other, on Nov. 11, 2023 at Concordia, the Phaneuf family even came prepared with custom-made McGill and Concordia t-shirts.

“It was nice because it reminds [us] of why we do it,” added Matt. “This is why we play, to talk about it after with the people we love. If I'd been alone in this, it would suck sometimes, but we have so many supporters and it’s just so much love.”

Concordia’s latest home game against McGill on Jan. 11 was also extra special for the Phaneuf family, as both Alec and Matt were part of the starting lineup.

“It was a huge game,” beamed Christian. “Both of them were called on the starting team and they had great performances: Alec had 22 points, Matt had 11. It was also a very tight game.”

Concordia clinched the victory in that match, 89-86, and Alec was named player of the game for the Stingers. 

“It’s emotional because I’ve seen [Alec’s] whole process,” Christian said, adding Alec came a long way since high school. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t think he’d be this good and grow up to be such a dominant player.”

So far, Concordia has won all three of its games against McGill. In the Réseau des sports étudiants du Québec, Concordia is ranked second and McGill, fifth. 

Matt noted that the Redbirds have a young team this year.

“I really like the guys, the vibe, because we're really a young core and, you know, it'll be better in the next two, three years,” said Matt. “We're ten rookies, and we only have three or four veterans, it's really crazy. I think we're one of the youngest teams in U Sports and that is difficult for us on the court because we have less experience.”

This season, Alec and Matt will only play against each other one more time. Fans of brotherly competition can catch Concordia play against McGill on the road at the Love Competition Hall on Feb. 17 at 2 p.m.

This article originally appeared in Volume 44, Issue 8, published January 16, 2024.