Burnaby South forward Eric Li (left) was one of several Rebels seniors denied a Grade 12 season due to the pandemic. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of Varsity Letters 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Boys Basketball

A season without high school sports: Says Burnaby South AD Robbie Puni: “…when you don’t have it, you gain the valuable element of what you are missing out on”

BURNABY — Finding a way to most accurately describe the loss of the entire 2020-21 high school sports season in B.C. is at once an impossible challenge.

Instead, Robbie Puni offered his observations.

“We’re seeing a lot of kids without a team walking through the hallways, and some are carrying a basketball or a volleyball,” the longtime athletic director at Burnaby South Secondary told Varsity Letters last week of the pandemic’s most immediate grassroots impact at high schools around the province. “They don’t have a home in varsity sports and that’s tough for kids to adapt to.”

High school sports may be an extracurricular activity coached by volunteers from both the educational system and the community at-large.

Yet as our unprecedented 2020-21 school year winds its way down to its final few months, those like Puni who are heavily invested in the wellness of their school communities through sport, express a deep hope that what has been lost can grow back even stronger.

“It takes a village to raise a child and you see that in the gym,” Puni explains, reflecting back to the pre-COVID days when a rousing throng of students and others would gather for basketball games at Burnaby South.

“You see the whole community come together,” Puni continued. “That is one of the downsides of not having high school sports. But when you don’t have it, you gain the valuable element of what you are missing out on.”

Burnaby South athletic director Robbie Puni is flanked by Rebels’ student-athletes (left to right) Taya Batiste, Aidan Rand and Reya Sandhu. (Photo property of Burnaby South athletics 2020. All Rights Reserved)


It’s not the way Eric Li envisioned spending the final few months of his high school career.

The 6-foot-1 senior forward with Burnaby South’s defending B.C. senior boys Quad-A basketball champions had done everything he could safely do to prepare for a 2020-21 season which was to have begun with his preseason Quad-A No. 1-ranked Rebels situated as the team to beat.

Not only that, after playing what was largely an understudy role over his Grade 11 year, he had worked hard towards joining a number of his teammates, all fellow rising seniors, as key contributors to the B.C. title cause.

Alas, nothing came true.

“It was frustrating that when I got to go to the gym, I just didn’t feel energetic,” said Li, 18. “Sometimes it just felt hopeless. But in the end, I just realized that I had to do my best, so I shifted my attention from sports to academics and that really ended up helping me a lot.”

Li is a high academic achiever who says he is contemplating a potential university double major in computer science and business, yet it seems clear he would have much rather still crunched his hours if it meant being able to share in the kind of team journey that basketball had come to provide for him.

“It is hard to balance sports and academics, especially last year when there was a heavy course load, and we practiced almost every day,” Li said. “But I’ve been playing basketball for the last nine years, and it has always helped me stay focused in class. It’s also given me consistency, and to never give up in anything I do because I learned in sports that even if it’s the last minute, nothing is ever impossible.”

Li admits he will forever cherish his 2020 championship ring, yet it was clear to all that the February ceremony at which he and his teammates received them was bittersweet.

The ceremony took place in an empty gymnasium.

Burnaby South head senior boys basketball coach Mike Bell. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of Varsity Letters 2021. All Rights Reserved)


Mike Bell thinks back almost two full decades, to the turn of the century and his own Grade 12 year at Burnaby South.

And those memories, all of which centre around the connection he shared with his fellow members of the Class of 2002, give the Burnaby South boys basketball head coach the perspective to speak about what the Class of 2021 was sadly unable to experience.

“The memories taken away from their Grade 12 year, those are some of the greatest memories you have in life and in sport,” said Bell, who as a community-based coach was not able to be in the gym with his players when opportunities presented themselves to do so this past season.

“Parents all said we’d all grow apart, but I have the same friends and we have remained socially active,” he added.

Which brings us full circle to the sentiment Puni shared earlier in this story when he spoke of what a year spent without high school sports has ultimately meant.

“When you don’t have it, you gain the valuable element of what you are missing out on,” he said.

As we enter the final eight weeks of the 2020-21 season, it’s a feeling that is likely near-universal.

For once, it seems, something so intangible can actually be put into words.

“I think they lost the connection with each other,” Puni continued of student-athletes. “That is the magical thing about varsity sports. Kids connect with each other, with their student body, with our alums. It’s such a unique sporting atmosphere. It’s different than any club and it can’t be replicated by any club.

“It’s one thing to compete for a club and win a title,” he continued. “It’s something else entirely to see your peers, your classmates, the younger kids, all in a full gym with alumni and community support all coming in.”

Looking forward with hope, perhaps the other side of the pandemic will come to represent a re-birth of vitality within B.C. high school sports, a place where more volunteer coaches than ever decide to step forward from both inside and outside of the educational system to join hands and make things the best they’ve ever been.

“What is the role of high school sports?” asks Puni. “Without it this year, you can see it. There is a massive role that high school sports plays in the development of a child. That is what we need more than ever now, coming out of the pandemic. On a broader scale, the sports community needs to come together. That unity and teamwork, and that bond will be something we can learn from and take into our everyday lives. That we care for each other and we respect each other, and we show it in the hallways, out on the street.”

Still, unfortunately, none of this comes in time to help our graduating student-athletes.

“I have had a difficult time with it, just seeing the kids faces,” said Puni. “You want to try and provide for the kids, and I know every other high school does for their kids. But it’s been a gut punch not to have it. You tell the kids to try and stay positive, to be role models, to take lemons and make lemonade. Let’s use this time to reflect internally.”


If you are a senior varsity high school coach in any sport, or a high school athletic director, I’d love to hear from you.

Do you have an inspiring story to tell of a Class of 2021 senior who has done their best to inspire others and maintain their standing as a graduating student-athlete?

We can’t promise a story, but we’d still love to hear from you. E-mail me at howardtsumura@gmail.com

If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at howardtsumura@gmail.com.

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