VANCOUVER — I can still remember the day that the late, great Jim Taylor, the newspaper sports columnist of my youth and later a co-worker at The Province newspaper, invited me over to his Vancouver home so that I might conduct an interview for a feature story I wanted to write on him for my college newspaper, The Kwantlen Comment.
This was sometime in early 1983, and once through the front door, I pretty much can’t remember anything other than the fact that my writing idol actually owned one of those massive outdoor, pole-mounted C-Band satellite dishes.
Jim, I was soon very happy to learn, was just as insistent on telling me about how it enabled him to watch an endless amount of NCAA basketball games on any number of U.S. sports networks at a time when living in Vancouver with standard cable was akin to being stranded in a hoops hinterland.
Every basketball city has its own unique resume, its own unique DNA strand composed of a thousand different factors, and the Greater Vancouver region in which I have shuffled to and fro with notepad in hand for the greater part of the last 40 years, is no different.
It stretches from the North Shore to South Surrey, and from the western-most tip of UBC’s Point Grey campus to the eastern climes of Abbotsford and Chilliwack, and of course it includes all points in-between.
And because the pandemic has pretty much rendered it silent these days, I have taken pause to re-visit, in my mind, the myriad ways in which it has grown up before my very eyes.
Not too long ago, a trusted friend and sage had deftly pointed out how a basketball event from decades ago, one that over the years had fallen completely out of discussion, was rapidly approaching a significant anniversary.
The more I thought about it, the more I began to see it as a landmark, one of those events which through the lens of time has done nothing but gain significance.
I talked with a number of my trusted contacts, all B.C. basketball lifers with whom over the decades I have had the pleasure of delightfully dissecting our grand game.
And through it all has come the motivation to attempt to answer a question I freely admit has no definitive answer.
Today I ask, ‘Is there a day, above all other days, which best defines Vancouver’s coming-of-age as a basketball community?’
AN UNDERCARD FOR THE AGES
When I think of a basketball community, I think of the entire tree, from its roots to its top branches.
I envision an eco-system of sorts… a place where boys and girls players are developed with equal opportunity throughout the age spectrum, a place where coaches mentor coaches, and a place where a fan base is allowed to develop a sophistication and appreciation for the game through first-hand exposure to every level of the game.
It’s a laundry list to be sure, yet when I think back to what happened at B.C. Place Stadium on Dec. 1, 1990, at an event dubbed HoopFest ’90, I see not only every box being checked as part of a perfect basketball storm, but a menu of four games whose sum total, when analyzed in the figurative rearview mirror some 30 years later, represented a harbinger of things to come.
If you are any kind of B.C. basketball historian, especially of a more seasoned vintage, then you already know that on that day, what may well be the greatest college basketball team of the last half-century, at the height of its awesome powers, came to Vancouver and put on a show.
The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, the NCAA Div. 1 men’s defending champions, ranked No. 1 and boasting what in today’s day and age would be three future NBA lottery picks, steamrolled the Alabama-Birmingham Blazers 109-68.
Of course the 7,963 fans in attendance were focussed on the sizzle that was Nevada-Las Vegas basketball, led by its rebel commander/coach Jerry Tarkanian and stars Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and future Vancouver Grizzlies’ expansion pick Greg Anthony.
Yet a generation later, over which time Vancouver has emerged as a scarred but nonetheless resilient former NBA city, the significance of HoopFest ’90 has been preserved, as you will soon read, because of those locals who shared in the event’s all-important second-billing status. To them, the day was just as memorable because they were allowed to tread on the same stage as the headliners from Sin City.
In the main undercard contest, two of the top five-ranked university men’s teams in the country — the No. 5 UBC Thunderbirds and the No. 1 Victoria Vikes — faced each other in a Canada West league game, won 96-83 by the hometown Thunderbirds and their star J.D. Jackson.
As well, dual 16-team boys and girls high school tournaments had been staged in the run-up to HoopFest 90’s finale with the semifinalists all punching tickets to a Saturday under the dome. Centennial beat Lambrick Park 75-66 in the girls title game, while Burnaby Central beat West Vancouver 71-55 in the boys final.
Quite clearly, no one attending the event all those years ago left the building that night feeling as though they had just experienced something of historic significance. That was never the intention.
Yet here in 2020, through the 20/20 lens of hindsight, you can place Dec. 1, 1990 in a most telling position within the timeline of Vancouver’s growth as a basketball city.
After a bit of a dryspell, marquee basketball events were starting to come to Vancouver, even if the fan support at such events was not huge.
In the summer leading up to the UNLV weekend, the Canadian National Team coached by the legendary Ken Shields had played the star-studded Yugoslavian national team — featuring NBAers Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Vlade Divac and the late Drazen Petrovic — in an August exhibition at the PNE Agrodome.
Then in October, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls faced the Seattle SuperSonics at the Pacific Coliseum in an NBA preseason game.
Back in the late 1970’s, Lars Hansen, the 6-foot-10 centre from Coquitlam’s Centennial Secondary, had stood as the ultimate outlier, achieving the unthinkable of playing for the SuperSonics during their 1978-79 NBA championship season.
Now, Vancouver fans were getting a first-hand chance to see world-class talent much more frequently, and on a first-hand basis.
The Rebs’ stars they watched that night would go No. 1 (Larry Johnson), No. 9 (Stacey Augmon) and No. 12 (Greg Anthony) in that spring’s NBA draft.
And it was barely two years after the UNLV weekend that Vancouver Canucks’ owner Arthur Griffiths told me (in late-February of 1993), that he was pursuing an NBA franchise for the city.
Of course, one thing didn’t have anything directly to do with the other, yet taken as a whole, there was suddenly an actual basketball scene developing in the region, one which reached out and touched the game’s global community on more than a periodic basis.
However subtle it was, it can’t be ignored.
“We always saw ourselves as the backwaters of basketball,” explained Basketball B.C. Hall of Fame coach Bill Disbrow, who in his days at the helm of the Richmond Colts, may well have actually started the era’s event-basketball mentality when he cajoled U.S. high school powerhouse DeMatha Catholic to play his team in a December 1987 clash at UBC’s War Memorial Gym.
The game wound up being a loss for Richmond, but nonetheless went a long ways towards melting the long-standing inferiority complex B.C. high school teams had with U.S. competition.
“The one thing that American kids have over ours is that they see it in person all the time so they all know what it’s all about,” continued Disbrow. “They know someone from their neighbourhood who plays (Div. 1 basketball), where for us not as much. It’s still a little bit of a mystery.”
COULD J.D. HAVE RUN WITH THE REBELS?
The vaccine is coming, but the pandemic has yet to peak.
As it all pertains to the world of U.S. and Canadian university sports competition, that adds up to uncertainty any time the topic of the 2021-22 season is broached.
Yet if you’re laying odds, there seems a very real possibility that U.S.-based NCAA teams looking to take summer tours this coming August may look away from Europe and more than ever towards Canada.
And that could mean a steady diet of top Div. 1 teams lining up to play B.C.’s contingent of Canada West teams, including, of course, the UBC Thunderbirds.
“It’s all going to depend on the border rules, but we could be inundated with requests,” explained UBC head coach Kevin Hanson.
That, in and of itself, is a contrast worth examining as it pertains to Dec. 1, 1990.
Over the last 15 years-plus, UBC has entertained a steady diet of NCAA Div. 1 teams during the NCAA’s summer touring period, and although it’s no secret that it comes at an annual stage when those U.S. teams are just beginning the process of putting their teams together, there is still no question that the success enjoyed by U SPORTS teams against their American foes has shifted the paradigm.
Think of the gulf that existed 30 years ago between what was then CIAU basketball, and their NCAA counterparts. The two were considered worlds apart.
Hanson can truly appreciate the evolution in mindset.
In recent years, his teams have not only hosted collegiate powers like the Kansas and Oklahoma, they have beaten the likes of Georgia and Kansas State.
Yet before he even began a head coaching career in blue-and-gold, one which now sits at a program-record 21 seasons and counting, Hanson was an assistant coach on the 1990-91 team which was guided by Bruce Enns.
“I think that had to be one of the first times ever that (an NCAA Div. 1) team came up here to play, and I could remember that they had to play another NCAA team, they couldn’t play us, which is what we wanted,” Hanson reminisced last week.
“At the time, we were in awe of Div. 1 basketball, as players and coaches,” he added. “We just thought it was special to see it first hand. That was the first experience I had had with NCAA basketball. The pace, the intensity. I still remember how impressed I was to watch that game.”
It’s almost comical, in fact, to consider that when event organizers decided to create a basketball card for Vancouver, they happened to pick not just the No. 1-ranked team, but one of the greatest college teams ever assembled.
Back in 2012, Bleacher Report ranked its 50 greatest men’s college basketball teams of all-time and the UNLV team which played in Vancouver sat just shy of the peak.
The Runnin’ Rebels’ 1989-90 championship team, the one that beat Duke by 40 points in the national final, along with the 1990-91 team which had won 34 straight games before losing to the same Blue Devils in the 1991 Final Four, were picked No. 2 all time, trailing only John Wooden’s 1966-67 and 1967-68 national champion UCLA Bruins, led by Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Opinions have varied greatly in other polls on just where the Rebels sit all-time so the intent here is not to make anything resembling a definitive statement, yet there is no question they belong in any conversation you want to have on the topic of the best men’s NCAA teams to ever play.
“UNLV were the Dream Team of college basketball,” remembers Greg Meldrum who on that day 30 years ago under the dome suited up for the West Vancouver Highlanders in their 71-55 HoopFest ’90 high school final loss to the Burnaby Central Wildcats.
“It was before the internet, and TV wasn’t exactly high-def,” added Meldrum, now 47 and a teacher at West Vancouver’s Ridgeview Elementary, “so to see Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and company play in person, in our own hometown, was amazing. Interest in hoops in Vancouver was growing big time in 1990 and this event just fuelled the passion.”
Yet there was an even deeper viewing opportunity available that evening to those who chose to watch the UBC-Victoria, and UNLV-UAB games through a more broadly-focused lens: The chance to compare and contrast the skills of the UBC star who would go on to become the two-time national Player of the Year winner, against those of the UNLV players.
J.D. Jackson, along with the late Ron Thorsen, are generally considered the two greatest in program history, and Jackson, who starred at Vernon Secondary before coming to UBC, was the embodiment of the cerebral player.
“When you talk about J.D., the words that comes to mind is genius,” Enns said last week from his home in Washington of the southpaw Jackson. “There are various players I can mention with similar qualities, but J.D. had them all. He had an intuition about the game that was totally unique.”
Ross Tomlinson, who back on that day in in 1990 coached Burnaby Central to the boys high school title in HoopFest ’90, and who would later join Enns at UBC for an eight-year stint as his assistant coach, stuck around to watch the UBC-Victoria game and has an indelible remembrance of Jackson in action.
“I remember this one play against Victoria where he cut to the hoop in transition, and he got a lob for a potential dunk,” begins Tomlinson, 62, and these days the head coach of the girls senior varsity at Port Moody’s Heritage Woods Secondary.
“But then two Victoria players rotated towards him, and so you’re thinking ‘Oh, this is getting blocked,’” Tomlinson continued. “But then J.D. went up and blindly tipped the ball behind his head to the UBC post player who was making a rim run. He could never have seen that player. But that’s just the kind of player he was. He would do things so incredible that you just sat there and thought to yourself ‘How the heck did he get away with that?’”
Added Enns: “At the end of each season, J.D. would come to my office and we would talk about what he was going to work on in the offseason. He was very good going to his left, which of course is the creative side. But I remember he told me he wanted to go right in the exact ways that he went left. So he changed his footwork, he changed his ball-handling, and it changed the nature of his shot, his pass. He always made me extend my mind.”
Hanson had a very unique perspective on Jackson.
As a senior in 1986-87, Hanson played alongside the freshman from Vernon. Then in 1990-91, he had a chance to coach him as an assistant during Jackson’s fourth season as a UBC player.
Which begs the question: Could J.D. Jackson have found a role on that 1990-91 UNLV team?
“One of my all-time favourite pictures is the one where J.D. is guarding Michael Jordan,” Hanson relates of a photo which shows Jackson doing just that against His Airness while playing for Canada under Shields during the 1992 Tournament of the Americas in Portland.
“I got the chance to play with him in his rookie season, and his sense for the cognitive side of the game was just above so many athletes that I’ve either played or coached over the years,” Hanson continued. “I would love to have seen what he could have done down there (in the NCAA). Without a doubt I look back and say ‘Did he have the potential to do so, and I certainly believe so.”
Adds Tomlinson: “I think so. He was crafty enough that he absolutely could have.”
In the decades that have followed, B.C. high school products have followed in those footsteps, building on our province’s great tradition.
Victoria’s Eric Hinrichsen (Campbell River-Carihi) gripped the Moser twice over three seasons as the eighties gave way to the nineties. UBC’s Kyle Russell (Richmond, 2002-03), Simon Fraser’s Pasha Bains (Richmond, 2003-04) and Trinity Western’s Jacob Doerksen (Abbotsford-Rick Hansen, 2008-09) followed before, of course, Carleton’s Philip Scrubb (2011-12-to-2013-14, Vancouver College) won it an unprecedented three straight years.
Interestingly enough, Jackson took a redshirt season in 1988-89, and it was during that time that Enns said the University of Kentucky had inquired about his services.
“J.D.’s favourite player was Rex Chapman,” related Enns of the former Wildcats star guard. “J.D. always said to me ‘Bruce, I am going to come to UBC unless Kentucky calls.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR VANCOUVER’S BASKETBALL COMMUNITY?
Thirty years have come and gone, and every person interviewed for this story openly winced when reminded just how much time has passed since that magical Saturday in December back in 1990.
It’s so long ago that it warrants mentioning that a then-Grade 11 Steve Nash, fresh off earning MVP honours in leading his hometown Mt. Douglas Rams in the B.C. Triple A high school soccer championship final, had found his way over to B.C. Place that night from his home in Victoria.
By the next season, he would be crowned B.C. senior Triple-A basketball MVP after leading SMUS’ Blue Devils to the title, before embarking on a collegiate career at Santa Clara, and a two-time MVP career in the NBA which would, of course, later include enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
It’s been 25 years since the Grizzlies opened their 1995-96 expansion season at GM Place by beating Minnesota to go 2-0.
And since Nash, both Handsworth’s Robert Sacre and South Kamloops’ Kelly Olynyk have shone on the provincial championship tournament stage en route to NBA careers of their own.
At the university level, Trinity Western, Fraser Valley, Thompson Rivers, UBC Okanagan and UNBC have joined UBC and Victoria in U SPORTS’ Canada West conference, while Simon Fraser has morphed from the NAIA, to U SPORTS to NCAA Div. 2.
Our high school sports model is feeling the pangs of anxiety at present, its caretakers wondering how its basketball culture will emerge post-pandemic amidst the proliferation of club basketball.
Yet for the many involved with HoopFest ’90, there are enduring memories, so many of the larger-than-life variety.
“It was super-exciting to be playing in that venue, and for the girls to be included, I thought that was something that was really important,” remembers Steve Pettifer, who enjoyed a long and successful run as Centennial’s senior girls head coach. “I had really been fighting for the girls up to that point.”
Pettifer remembers that not too long afterwards, the B.C. Secondary Schools Girls Basketball Association secured a permanent site for the championships at Capilano College, its home before relocating to the Langley Events Centre and joining the boys.
It’s the same for B.C. high school coaching lifers like Tomlinson and Meldrum who have continued to stay involved in the high school game.
Each, in fact, would be coaching their own children this season if it had not been for the pandemic, Meldrum his Grade 11 daughter Libby, and Tomlinson his Grade 12 daughter Lauren.
“When our team walked into B.C. Place that day, it was cavernous,” remembers Tomlinson, who two years prior had coached in the same building as an assistant with the World Basketball League’s Vancouver Nighthawks. “But our kids thought it was the greatest thing ever to go in there and play.
“To think that we were playing on the same floor as the preeminent NCAA team of the time, they were so jacked up. It was such a fun atmosphere. You had your own change room. It was like you were a professional team, playing in a professional arena.”
Meldrum adds that the appreciation and perspective he has for that day had gotten deeper each year.
“We were all a little nervous playing on the big stage,” remembers Meldrum, who the next season would begin a five-year playing career with the Victoria Vikes.“But the idea of playing a game in B.C. Place as a 17-year-old high school kid was incredible. All of the organizing that went on behind-the-scenes for a spectacle like that… it’s lost on you at the time as a high-schooler, but reflecting back on it 30 years later… it was crazy to think it all happened.”
Hey Vancouver, how about the next 30 years?
Post-pandemic, will that include an NBA franchise? And what will be the state of our high school and university system?
And will there still be VHS tape players around, so I can finally get down to the task of watching all of those games I taped back in the 1990s but have yet to even watch?
Wow, 2050 seems a long ways away!
Yours in Basketball
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