LANGLEY — All around him, in the frenzied aftermath of victory, as the delirious North Delta fans stormed the Langley Events Centre Court, the old ball coach was standing off to the side, soaking in a feeling he hadn’t experienced in very nearly three decades.
“Twenty-nine years,” Bill Edwards said looking over at his questioner and making a fist with his left hand to reveal the championship ring he had won in 1990 as the head coach of the Huskies. “I haven’t worn it in 29 years, but today I wore it for luck.”
The ring of course, is an enduring symbol of the last time North Delta had won a B.C. senior boys varsity basketball title, a season in which Edwards was the team’s head coach.
Now, just as ‘We Are The Champions’ blared, likely just as it did on that championship day more than a generation ago, the drought was over.
The North Delta Huskies had just defeated the Vernon Panthers 46-44 in the B.C. Triple A title game, and although Edwards, 69, is no longer the team’s head coach, he has been no less invested as an assistant in the daily routine of helping to prepare a high school basketball team to claim our province’s ultimate annual prize.
“Even if we had all been healthy this year, it would have been amazing,” he continued of a team which could seemingly never stay that way and whose biggest star, tourney MVP Suraj Gahir, was at times over the past few weeks, struggling to be able to walk. “But with the injuries we’ve had, it was simply outstanding. I couldn’t be prouder.”
No. 9 seeded North Delta’s title run was not for the faint of heart.
On Friday, it took Gahir’s deep three-point dagger with under three seconds remaining to pull out a semifinal win over the No. 4 Duchess Park Condors of Prince George.
On Saturday, in one of the lowest scoring finals since the 1970s (over the combined Quad- and Triple-A tiers), it took an Arun Atker three-pointer with 1:03 remaining to pull North Delta within 44-43, and then a driving Gahir lay-in with 11.9 seconds left to make it 45-44 Huskies.
The Panthers turned the ball over with 6.7 seconds remaining, before Gahir hit a free throw to make the 46-44 final complete.
Afterwards, as the team prepared to cut down the nets inside the LEC’s cavernous Arena Court facility, B.C.’s freshly-minted tournament MVP was asked a simple question: Before the game, did coach Edwards tell you about his ring?
“He showed it to us,” smiled Gahir, who over the past few seasons has truly come to appreciate the the history of one of the province’s most prideful and tradition-laden programs.
“The thing he said to us was ‘Take a look at this ring because the next one you’re going to see is your own,” Gahir said.
“…GREAT GAMES ARE WON BY BIG SHOTS”
It was a title game whose swings were glacial in speed and whose spread never veered more than four points in Vernon’s favour or eight points in North Delta’s.
As just the sixth B.C. Triple A final since B.C. became a four-tier boys province in 2014, the best way compare just how low-scoring and defensive minded the game actually was, you have to contrast it against the entire history of the top-tier (currently Quad A).
With that in mind, the winning team in a B.C. senior boys basketball championship game hasn’t scored fewer than the 46 points North Delta scored on Saturday, since the 1971 North Delta Huskies, who won their first-ever B.C. title by beating the Vancouver College Fighting Irish 43-38.
This season’s title game was so defensive minded that at one stage late in the contest, Vernon’s Liam Reid swatted three consecutive caroms off the glass to his teammates to recycle offensive possessions.
On the third time, after the Panthers had kept the ball in North Delta’s half-court for about two minutes, they finally scored when senior forward Thomas Hyett drove into the paint for a lay-in to make it 44-40 Vernon with 1:14 remaining.
Yet after all of that sweat and all of that toil, North Delta called a time-out, and then within about 10 seconds after the Hyett basket, they got a three-point strike from Atker to pull within one at 44-43.
Although Gahir would later score the winning basket on a lay-in, the extreme contrast between the amount of energy Vernon expended just to score two points versus how swiftly North Delta could score three of their own in such a low scoring game seemed to cast the Huskies as a team of destiny.
“We took a time out (after the Hyett basket) and the first thing coach says is we’re going to run a play for Arun, and it’s going to be for three,” Gahir later related. “We were all thinking the same thing.”
Head coach Jesse Hundal loved the way his assistants rose to the occasion in that moment.
“Bill is the one who said we needed to get Arun a shot,” said Hundal of Edwards. “Manvir (Gahir) drew up the play. Arun is a lights-out three-point shooter. There is no one who has more confidence than him, and he made the shot.”
Added Atker: “That was supposed to be my shot and I shoot that all day in practice.”
Vernon head coach Malcolm Reid, classy in defeat, was satisfied that his team left everything on the LEC court.
“There is nothing else we could have done,” said Reid whose team was led by the 13 points of Isaiah Ondrik, the 12 points and 18 rebounds of Kevin Morgan and the 11 points of Hyett. “We did everything we were supposed to do, but great games are won by big shots. Kudos to North Delta. They came up with the big shots when it counted.”
IT’S WHAT RINGS TRUE
Saturday’s championship capped a five-year journey for the Huskies.
Hundal had begun to coach the senior group as Grade 8s, and although it has traditionally been a league which has never produced anything resembling a bumper crop of provincial-contending teams, this group was always a special outlier.
“Since Grade 8, we have wanted this,” said Atker who finished with 11 points, “but we just haven’t had the chance (in a championship game).”
Added Gahir who scored a game-high 18 Saturday in his final high school game after year’s of being branded the group’s prodigy: “This season taught me to trust all of my guys, that I don’t have to do everything by myself and that I don’t have to take all the biggest shots. Like today, Arun hit the biggest shot.”
Yet as Hundal prepared for his final sleep before Saturday’s game, he actually became concerned with how restful his sleep was actually going to be.
Turns out he had a good reason.
“I haven’t even told the guys yet,” prefaced Hundal as he and his team prepared to cut down the nets, “but every time we have been in the provincials, whether it was at juniors (in 2017) or last year at seniors (2018), I’ve had a dream that we lost.”
History shows those dreams became reality because the Huskies lost at the Final Four stage in both of those years.
“This year I had no dream,” continued Hundal, who also got great efforts from the likes of Ryan Cabico, Vik Hayer, Jag Johal and Bhavraj Thiara: “It kind of made me feel like things would go our way. But I didn’t want to jinx myself. Even last night, I was thinking myself ‘Oh my God, is that dream going to happen again?’ but it never did.”
Instead, the only dream to unfold was the one that actually came true.
And so as Bill Edwards took his place with the rest of his fellow North Delta coaches during the trophy presentations, there was that 1990 championship ring again.
For almost three decades it stayed in its box, fading from memory.
Yet on Saturday morning, he felt it important enough that it should finally be worn. This was the day he realized, to have its story and its meaning shared in the minutes before his team would play the game of their lives.
It’s like he said: “I haven’t worn it in 29 years, but today I wore it for luck.”
Moments like these can’t be rehearsed or pre-planned.
They happen because through the good and the bad of our lives, we cherish the best of our past.
And if we’re lucky, we arrive at the spur of great moments, when something inside tells us it’s time to inspire.
So when the old ball coach clenched his fist on Saturday, you couldn’t help but feel the power.
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