SURREY — Earlier this month, he pulled on a jersey, laced up his sneakers and made his entrance onto the court at UBC’s War Memorial Gymnasium, running with the Thunderbirds’ veterans in what was his first post-secondary basketball experience.
Based on the events of his life the past six or seven weeks, just such an unannounced scrimmage could be construed by others as a decidedly non-glamourous moment for 18-year-old Arjun Samra.
After all, you need only return to the night of March 6, when his Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers’ teammates, in the immediate aftermath of the school’s first-ever B.C. senior varsity provincial basketball title, hoisted the 6-foot-2 combo guard onto their collective shoulders and paraded him around the court at the Langley Events Centre.
Moments later, to no one’s surprise, Samra was named the top-tiered B.C. Quad-A championship tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Yet for Samra, that anonymous first step into the world of university hoops was as substantial as any experience he’s had in the game.
Well, when you boil it down to its essence, Arjun Samra is attempting to do something that perhaps no other top-tiered senior boys B.C. tournament MVP has ever tried to do, and that’s to make his university decision based exclusively on his educational goals, even it means, potentially, the end of his basketball career.
Samra had a number of other options, schools he could enter as a student-athlete, where the understanding was that he would both take classes and play for the basketball team.
Yet for the kid who has maintained a 94 per cent academic average in a sciences-based curriculum this season at Lord Tweedsmuir, while also showing himself to be one of the most dedicated athletes in Panthers’ program history, basketball was only going to continue in his life if he could find a way to make it fit in concert with a UBC education.
And thus for Samra, whose dream is to one day study medicine and become a doctor, that meant putting his basketball career second, with no guarantee that he would ever play another meaningful game again. And if all of that seems clear, the only mistake you might make is underestimating how much the game continues to mean to him.
“I just think that I am going in there to do the best that I can,” Samra said Monday of trying to make an impression on the UBC coaching staff, despite facing a stacked roster of 12 returning players.
“I am just going to be confident and play as well as I possibly can, and if they don’t take me, I can say ‘OK, I put my best effort in,’” he continued. “I don’t want to someday say to my own kids that I could have played, but that I didn’t try. I want them to know that I gave it my best shot.”
THE SHOT DOCTOR
UBC head coach Kevin Hanson has a team heavy on experience set to return to the Canada West wars this coming season.
From veteran stars Jadon Cohee, Manroop Clair and Mason Bourcier, through rising stalwarts Isaiah Familia and Taylor Browne, through promising youngsters Brian Wallack and Jack Cruz-Dumont, it is one of the toughest times in Hanson’s 20-plus seasons for an incoming guard to come in and try to make a dint in the box score.
Yet Samra, an intangibles-filled scorer with a forte for jump shooting, still seemed to make an impression on Hanson in that first open session.
“His academics speak for themselves,” Hanson said. “He is brilliant in the classroom and he has made it clear that it’s his focal point.
“But when he came out here for a run, he showed that he could really shoot,” the coach continued. “It took him a while to find his groove but once he got his confidence up, you could see that there is a special drive within him that is catching our attention more and more.”
For the purist, Samra is a joy to watch.
He may not bring immediate physical presence as a rising university freshman, and he is presently more of a scorer than he is any kind of a defined positional backcourt player.
Yet for someone who brings a plus-plus work ethic, his greatest strength is his feel for the game: When to cut, when to pass, when to shoot, when to drive.
And that shooting part is truly special.
In the B.C. All-Star Weekend’s three-point shooting contest staged two Saturdays ago, he emerged the champion with a ridiculous display of marksmanship. In the semifinals, he beat St. George’s Jerric Palma by hitting on 20-of-25 treys, then he took down Sir Charles Tupper’s Norben Bulosan in the finals by hitting 18-of-25 shots.
Taking a wide-angle view of his senior season at Lord Tweedsmuir, it is clear to see that he loved his hoops as much or more than his academics.
Still, it’s a little comical to him now that when he first arrived at the Surrey school as an eighth grader back in the fall of the 2014-15 season, he was actually quite timid of his skills from distance.
“I started going into the gym in the mornings in about Grade 9,” Samra says. “Grade 8? I was too scared to go in there. There were a lot of seniors in there.”
Once he caught the bug, he never let up and that meant putting up a ton of shots every day when the gym opened at 7 a.m.
“I’ve always said that if someone can shoot, there is a place for them on our team,” said Hanson. “With the FIBA game centred so much around the three ball, he has an attribute, and it’s a special one that not too many possess.”
FOCUSED ON THE BIG PICTURE
Samra has plenty more stories about falling in love with basketball at a young age, and of growing up in the ranks with both his Tweedsmuir peers and those from his AAU world with Drive Basketball.
Yet it’s ditto for all that stuff about someday entering the world of medicine as well.
“When I was little, I would always pretend to be a doctor,” Samra admits. “My dad (Sukhjit) would always pretend to have a disease and I would have to try to figure it out. He always gave me easy ones like the flu.”
He adds that while there has not been any kind of parental pressure, there has been a lot of positive encouragement to excel in both the classroom and on the court.
“My dad has always told me that I am smart enough to be a doctor and personally, I love the sciences,” he begins. “I also love helping people and so it is something that really combines my interests.”
Ask proud Lord Tweedsmuir head coach Drew Gallacher about Samra, and before he even gets to his senior’s skill set and drive, he talks about other things like the 380 hours and counting he has volunteered to service throughout his high school life.
Taken as a whole, Drive Basketball co-founder and coach Pasha Bains, himself a top-tiered B.C. high school MVP (1998), celebrates the maturity with which Samra is taking into the next chapter of his life.
“It’s refreshing to see,” said Bains. “Here’s a guy who is one of the best shooters we have ever had at Drive, and who was also the B.C. (high school) MVP when they won it all in Grade 9.
“He could get attention from a lot of junior colleges and (NCAA) D-2’s. He’s got so many other options. So it’s cool to see that a kid who has accomplished so much can be so level-headed. So many other kids in his position search for stuff, but he is showing by trying out (at UBC) that you can still accomplish a lot and begin to focus on your professional career.”
Hanson doesn’t know what will happen with Samra in relation to his team, and he is offering no guarantees.
Yet what seems certain is that the more he sees of Samra, the more he is going to like him.
“We’ve given opportunities to guys in the past, and sometimes it’s hard to say ‘No’ to someone who brings all of his attributes,” Hanson adds. “We have not said ‘No’ to anything yet. He’s already been accepted into UBC on his own merit. Globally, as a person, he is a success story, and if we have room, we will look at him closely.”
Samra isn’t without his worries.
“I sometimes second-guess things, and I get nervous thinking about my future in general,” he says. “I guess you never know exactly where you will end up but I try my best to stay positive and focus on my goals.”
And in the big picture, he knows he is going to be making a big difference.
“My parents have done a lot to take care of me and one of the things my mom (Kulwinder) always asks me is whether our generation is going to care about theirs,” says Samra. “One of the reasons I want to be a doctor is so that when they are older, I can give back to them.”
Arjun Samra’s basketball dreams will not go down without a fight, yet in the end, he’s already aiming to win at a much bigger game.
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