KELOWNA — Kanani Coon never thought about just how heavily the odds were stacked against her.
They were, after all, based solely on numbers, and any basketball player worth their jumper knows that numbers never reveal entire truths.
Still, these were the kinds of facts and figures so definitive in nature that they seemed to be telling Coon, an immensely-talented high school basketball player of First Nations ethnicity, that she stood virtually no chance of ever achieving her dream of playing the game she loved at the NCAA Div. 1 level.
After all, in the most recent NCAA student-athlete demographics released for 2022, only 18 U.S.-based indigenous student-athletes from an overall pool of 5,239 were playing at Div. 1, the highest tier of women’s basketball within the North American-based university/college delivery system.
That’s a whopping .3 per cent, making it the most under-represented demographic in all of NCAA women’s basketball.
With the basketball calendar soon set to turn to our annual month of March Madness, take a second to think about that.
Just getting to the world of NCAA Div. 1 basketball, no matter where you happen to be from, is a major achievement.
In the U.S., it has been reported that 1.2 per cent of its annual base of 400,000-plus girls high school players are accepted into Div. 1 programs. But coming from Canada, it’s even tougher.
And so when Kanani Coon joins her new Gauchos teammates this coming fall at Div. 1 UC Santa Barbara to begin her odds-defying next chapter, she will be that rarest of student-athletes… the 1% of the 1%.
Before that, however, she has some pressing business.
Coon and her teammates are busy preparing to lead their No. 7-ranked team on what she hopes can be a long and healthy run into the B.C. Quad-A championships beginning March 1 at the Langley Events Centre, following a second-place finish at the Okanagan championships which wrapped up Saturday.
Never before have her past, present and future intersected in such a pronounced way.
On an Okanagan Mission team which graduated a whopping eight seniors from last season’s Final Four squad, she and teammate Maya Sandhu are this season’s only Huskies seniors.
And within her indigenous community, one which continues to cope with the reverberations of generational trauma, she is the spark that lights an even greater truth… that an unwavering belief in one’s self can trump a .3 per cent chance every time.
“I am indigenous and I feel like it comes with a lot of social responsibility,” Coon, 17, begins. “It’s something my parents have always talked to me about, and all of that has helped me to become who I am today.
“I am extremely humbled,” continues Coon, “that a large part of our community looks to me as a positive role model for young and old, especially regarding sport.”
LITTLE BIT OF MOM, LITTLE BIT OF DAD
The 2021-22 B.C. high school basketball season was a season-long celebration of the game’s joyous return following a season lost to the pandemic.
And on the girls side, there could have been no greater capper to it all than a ‘for-the-ages classic’ in which crosstown rivals from Port Coquitlam met head-to-head in the Quad-A title game.
Yes, Terry Fox’s 77-75 win over Riverside was a contest at a different level than anything else contested at the province’s largest tier a season ago.
Yet if you’re looking for a deserving runner-up, you could take yourself back one day to the Friday semifinal in which the soon-to-be-champion Ravens got all they could handle in the Final Four from the Okanagan Mission Huskies.
To jog your memory, you might recall that it took a Top 10 all-time single game tourney scoring mark — the 45 points of Terry Fox’s Lauren Clements — to negate all of the runs that the Huskies threw at the Ravens that night en route to an 83-76 win.
Trailing by as many as 14 points (54-40) in the third quarter, OKM got to within three points on four different occasions before lapsing down the stretch.
And helping lead the way that night, on a team with its aforementioned eight seniors, was a then-Grade 11 Coon who finished with a team-high 19 points.
“In that game against Fox, I got to see a real glimpse of the kind of passionate player she has become for us this season,” OKM head coach Meghan Faust said earlier this week of the next-level effort and skill Coon has brought to the line-up this season, along the way averaging 21.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 2.4 assists while shooting 36.2 per cent from beyond the three-point arc. “She has just brought so much more to the table this season.”
Said her soon-to-be college head coach Bonnie Henrickson of her efficiency at every part of the court and her passion to play the game: “Kanani is an athletic guard who is a three-level scorer. She will bring playmaking and scoring to the guard position. We love the energy she plays with on both ends of the floor.”
Born to basketball-playing parents who have continued to love and to play the game into their late-40’s, Coon’s inherited strands of hoops DNA seemingly reflect the distinct skill sets of both her mom and her dad.
“My mom was a post, and my dad was a dominant point guard,” she says of her parents Melanie and Fred Coon, each 5-foot-10. “So I got the best of both worlds from the two of them.”
The former Melanie Batoche played in the front court at New Westminster Secondary as part of a Hyacks team, under the late, great coach Bob Gair. While the Hyacks lost to the Steveston Packers in the 1993 top-tiered B.C. Triple-A championship final 58-53, she later played collegiately at the CCAA level with both Douglas College and Okanagan University College.
Fred Coon was an explosive player throughout his high school career while playing out of the provincial spotlight at Single-A Keremeos, part of a Sparks team which finished fifth at its B.C. championship tournament in 1994. He was recognized for his skill with invitations to both provincial and Western Canadian selection camps but elected not to beyond the post-secondary level.
With all of that in mind, when you watch Kanani Coon’s play facing the basket, you’ll see a 6-foot-1 player with the ability to get to the rim and shoot it from distance like her dad, but also take charge with a physical brand of play inside, just like her mom.
“Kanani, she has the ability to hit shots in pressure situations, and she has the ability to get to the rim where she has such a soft touch,” explained Faust in an homage to Fred Koon.
“But when she rebounds, it’s this ‘one-hand rip into both hands with a slap’, and when she does that she looks like the most powerful being in the universe,” her coach continued. “She takes after her mom that way. (Melanie) plays in the women’s league with me and she is a force with her rebounding. She passed that on to Kanani.”
BORN INTO THE GAME
In a chance meeting befitting a basketball family, Kanani Coon describes the way her parents met as “…something you see in the movies.”
Says Fred Coon, providing the specifics: “We met each other at centre court playing intramural basketball at Okanagan College, and that was 27 years ago.”
Both are indigenous. Melanie is Cree and Fred of the Dzawada’eenuxw First Nation.
And both, through the course of their professional careers in policing, have passed on the spirit of justice to their daughter.
Kanani, who early on in high school was interested in becoming a doctor, has now shifted her academic goals towards eventually pursuing a degree in law.
“I really want to go into Indigenous law,” said Coon. “I want to help our people.”
Question her on the specifics, and there is no question that the talks she had with her late grandfather Robert regarding the struggles he faced and the trauma he absorbed growing up in the residential school system have impacted the course of her own life.
“I feel like it really put a lot of things into perspective,” Coon begins. “I mean, knowing what he went through… I keep a picture of him in my backpack in my basketball bag, and I have a tattoo of one of the last things he said to me, along with his date of birth and the date he passed away.
“He is a huge part of my life still, and to know everything he went through and how resilient he was… he is someone that I aspire to be like.”
It’s there in the ways in which Coon stands as an inspiration to Grade 11 Okanagan Mission teammate Presley Hopf, who is also indigenous.
And it’s there in the style of leadership she brings to her team, like the way she helped lead the Huskies all the way back from a 13-point deficit late in the third quarter to an eventual overtime win against West Vancouver’s Mulgrave Titans on Dec. 17 in the bronze final of the 2022 Tsumura Basketball Invitational at the Langley Events Centre.
“What I learned that day was that even though a lot of us had not been through a high-intensity game like that before, we still knew that we were all going to fight for each other,” said Coon. “I noticed it. We all hit a second gear that I didn’t even know we had.”
It’s with that very same spirit that she is now finishing her high school basketball career, and with the wisdom she’s gained along the way, she has become a student-athlete who embraces the growth potential that every new challenge brings.
“(Her grandfather’s) attitude was always ‘Kanani, you have an opportunity. Your mom and dad worked so hard so you wouldn’t have to experience what I went through as a kid,’” related Fred Coon. “He said to her ‘Let’s take advantage of that and be the difference maker for your kids.’”
In basketball and in life, it’s that attitude which Kanani Coon has most tightly embraced.
She is the 1% of the 1% and she’s not going to waste a second of a mission she was meant to take
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