VANCOUVER — His competitive nature is not only unmistakable, it’s unshakeable.
It’s what develops when you start your basketball career back in the eighth grade as the proverbial runt of the provincial litter.
Barely five feet tall. Light as a feather.
You know the drill: Just survive.
Somewhere along the line, however, Jerric Palma realized that it was all within his power to flip the script.
Yet even five years later, despite both the accumulated wisdom that comes with being a high school senior and the basketball blessing that comes with 13 inches of added height, the St. George’s Saints’ 6-foot-1 point guard has lost absolutely none of his competitive zeal.
“Phil Scrubb, Ron Putzi, Brian Tait, Andrew Mavis,” begins Saints head coach Bill Disbrow, offering just a partial list of some of the all-time greats he has coached over a career which began 52 years ago at Burnaby Central, and went on to include an extended stay at Richmond and later Vancouver College.
“And Jerric? He is amazing. He dazzles me every day,” Disbrow continues of Palma, who on Wednesday (8 p.m.) leads his No. 7-ranked Saints (14-3) against the No. 4-ranked Kitsilano Blue Demons (21-14) in a Lower Mainland Quad A semifinal clash at the Richmond Olympic Oval. It’s a which doubles, for its winner, as an automatic qualifier to the B.C. tournament.
“In fact,” continues Disbrow of Palma, this season averaging 30 points, seven assists and eight rebounds per game, “I let him coach more than probably any player that I’ve had before. I have always tried to empower my guys.”
WHEN BASKETBALL REALLY IS LIKE LIFE
There is a fitting compatibility in the ways in which Jerric Palma has grown up learning to survive and ultimately thrive on the basketball court, and the ways in which Bill Disbrow has authored a coaching dictum based on in-game, real-time read-and-react scenarios.
You’ve no doubt heard the old proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Welcome to B.C. high school basketball’s version of the same: A team which really doesn’t run any kind of set offence, but does strive to embed in its players the fundamental skills and the psychological wherewithal to win the battle of the moment.
“He believes that players should play,” begins Palma, whose deep-seeded competitive edge has found a perfect home in a belief system Disbrow has employed for a half-century. “He has given me the basic tools, some basic sets to run, and so it’s my job to go out and run it and to do my thing.
“It’s up to me to use the knowledge that he’s given me to be myself,” continues Palma of being coached to his strengths. “So really, it’s kind of similar to the life lessons I have been taught by my parents.”
Yet if the idea is simple, its execution is not.
“We don’t have an offence,” says Disbrow. “We have some quick-hitters. But the kids are just allowed to play and it’s my job to get them to just play. Not to look here, or pivot there. They learn how to handle situations from a generalist’s point of view.
“I am a practice coach,” he continued. “And if I have done the best job coaching I could ever do, then the ultimate for me would be to just sit and watch the game without saying a word.”
PALMA…A LITTLE BIT LIKE PAYTON
Snow hit the Lower Mainland hard a couple of Mondays ago, forcing the closure of many schools including St. George’s.
Disbrow discovered, however, that the gymnasium was open, and thus the chance arose for some added practice time.
“But even though I called them early, by 9:30 a.m., most of them had already booked tutors for the day,” Disbrow said. “St. George’s kids are just different. The focus on academics and how important it is to those kids, they get a snow day and the first thing they do is get tutors.”
And if you were ever able to come up with a formula that somehow computes basketball skill and academic smarts, Palma just might top that list.
“I’d say most of the 11’s and some of the 12’s go to see tutors twice a week, and we’re always trying to fit that stuff in around basketball,” says Palma, who wants to chase a degree in business management and who has a GPA that is “90 per cent on the dot.”
Palma’s package of classroom and on-court smarts has clearly made him a recruitable commodity, and while he’s not showing his cards, several of the nation’s top academic/basketball schools have done their best to make him feel like a welcome part of their futures.
Yet in the limited number of practices he still has at St. George’s under the watchful eye of Disbrow, Palma is determined to not waste a single second.
And if you ask either the coach or the player, the healthiest thing about their relationship is that in their own unique way, they’ve never stopped butting heads.
“Sometimes, if we have a game coming up over the next few days, he feels he needs to make practice time a lighter in terms of physicality,” begins Palma. “I still feel like it kills the competitive nature, but I understand it. But I still disagree because I love bringing competitive fire, and every practice matters.”
Disbrow has shared some memorable moments on various courts with coaches he has gotten to know over the decades.
And as he’s asked to speak more about Palma’ competitive nature, a story comes to mind.
“I went to Sonics’ practice years ago with Rick Majerus,” he begins of the late, great Utah Utes’ head coach, “and he, and I and (Sonics head coach) George Karl sat on chairs at mid-court.
“(Seattle) would scrimmage, and I’d say maybe half time, if there was fast break, (Karl) would call for the ball, then get them to run a half-court play. Every time that happened, (former Sonics’ point guard) Gary Payton would lose his marbles. He had no concept of why you would ever stop a play when you had a chance to beat someone and score.
“Jerric is like that,” said Disbrow. “He is ultra-competitive and I know I drive him crazy at times. I know who he is, and he just wants to compete.”
Palma doesn’t even have to think about why.
“It’s like I said, in Grade 8, I was five feet all, I couldn’t box anyone out, and I couldn’t jump,” he begins. “Now I’ve got a six-foot body and at least 150 pounds. I just feel more confident in my stature.”
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