LANGLEY, B.C. — As I recall, it was a pretty cold and rainy morning. The year was 1975, and our team was headed for its first game at the B.C. High School Boys Basketball Championships. It is almost politically incorrect to call it that now, I would imagine. I mean “boys”? Weren’t we young men? And doesn’t that place us in a bit of a gender box? But, that is a topic for another blog.
We were the Prince Rupert Rainmakers, representing a town of 15,000 people on an off-shore island that was situated about 100 miles south of Alaska. The team’s only success at the provincial championships came in 1964, when Canadian coaching legend Ken Shields and his high school mates had forayed south and taken the title. One of my oldest memories is seeing them come off the bus at the local civic centre with the trophy and wearing their green and gold jackets. But, again I digress.
On this day, we were a bunch of scared high school kids playing in the cold air of the Pacific Coliseum on a Thursday morning at 9. The Province newspaper had provided us a moral lift with their rankings of the teams that were in the tournament. There were 16 of them. We were ranked 16th. The only statement they made about us was “Welcome to Vancouver.” That stung a bit.
After all, we may not have been a known entity, but Prince Rupert was the perennial Northwest champion, and we had a decent team. That morning our foe was Vancouver Technical, which was ranked No. 1 in the Lower Mainland. So, it was a given that we would be quickly dispatched and the universe would unfold as it should, and we would have a few days in the big city and head back home.
There were about 20 people in the stands when we went out for warmups. The Coliseum, at the time, was a state of the art hockey arena, home to the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. We had never played in a place like this. The closest we came was the incredible high school gyms in Alaska. We played teams such as Sitka, Petersburg and Juneau by flying in seaplanes up the bumpy coast of the continent risking death in storms that had more than a few guys lose their lunch.
But, our main rivals were a pleasant five-hour ferry ride away in Ketchikan, Alaska. Their gym was a work of art. This cavernous facility had about 2,000 seats, had a floor that shone with layers of varnish that had never been soiled by an outdoor shoe and glass backboards that hung from a 50-foot ceiling, instead of being attached to the wall like they were in our gym. We rarely won a game against the Kayhi Kings, but they had a lot of trouble beating us in our little bandbox, too.
While the teams in B.C. were playing each other, we were playing the best teams from the 49th state. It was an advantage.
Having said that, we were massive underdogs. Thankfully, this is high school basketball. A game between 16- and 17 year-olds is the hardest thing to predict in the universe. Something about the hormones and the immaturity of the brain or the weird start time conspired against Van Tech. We smoked them. I still remember the dressing room after the game. Party time. Former Rupert players such as Jim Ciccone, who was playing at Simon Fraser University were as pumped as we were and thumping our backs.
While the fairytale ended with a loss to the Courtenay Towhees in the second round, I relive those memories every time I go to the tournament, as I did Friday. I went alone to the Langley Events Centre and wandered in around 2:30 in the afternoon. Unlike the Triple-A tournament that I played in, this is an entirely different setup. All of the schools that have qualified for provincial championships are together in one venue on the same weekend. Whether you are Single-A or Quadruple-A, the games are all in one place in four or five different gyms.
It is literally a high school basketball fan’s dream come true. You can wander from gym to gym and see two or three games at once if you like. Or, as I did, you can search for the gym your old hometown team is playing in and see who is there. As it turned out, I ran into a guy I played basketball with since we were about 8 years old. Neil Brown. He was the star of the high school team in Prince Rupert when I made my first trip to the provincials in 1973. Many now know him as the architect and coach of the strongest girls basketball program ever in the province of B.C. (maybe Canada) at Brookswood in Langley.
Neil and I spent about five hours together watching games and sharing stories. It was as comfortable as an old shoe. Both of us in our 60s. Both of us having had careers and kids and dogs and mortgages. We talked about it all, but mostly we talked hoops. How the game had come down to a lot of one-on-one and not enough ball movement for our liking. How the 3-pointer had become so dominant and how little defence they played. Just a couple of old hacks sniping from the cheap seats ($10 for an adult).
But, in the end, the bond was and still is basketball. And, when I looked out at the kids streaming up and down the court, so youthful, so vital, I couldn’t help but think of what they would be like in their 60s. Would they still have this connection to the tournament? Would these be memories they cherish? Sure, the game has changed, and there is a 3-point arc, and I saw more dunks in the games than I saw in my five years of university basketball, and there were players from Senegal and New Zealand. But, essentially, the tournament is about the coming together of a team, the striving for a common goal and every other tired cliché you can think of. And I love it.
As it turns out, we saw an upset. Oak Bay, which had been ranked No. 1 in Quadruple-A for most of the season, got beat 78-66 by the No. 8 seed Burnaby South. Despite the 22-0 run by Oak Bay in the third quarter, the Rebels remained poised and banished the favourites, as the Bays let down after their incredible comeback. Hormones.
Burnaby South went on to win the AAAA tournament.
— BC 4A Boys BBall (@BC4ABoysBBall) March 11, 2018
Chris Hebb, who played basketball at the University of Victoria, is a former broadcaster in Vancouver and Victoria and a former executive at Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.