NORTH DELTA — He was a basketball coach who wanted the world for his players.
And in the end, Bill Stebbings helped them find it by showing them that their commitment to the game was redeemable in later life in the form of wisdom and a deeper appreciation for the value of family and friends.
On Tuesday, the longtime former head coach of the senior boys basketball team at North Delta’s Seaquam Secondary, and a part of one of the richest coaching trees in B.C. basketball history, passed away after a long battle with Corticobasal syndrome, a progressive neurodegenerative condition. He was 71.
Stebbings, also a decorated baseball coach, is survived by his wife Barb, his sons Jeff, Kevin and Bryan, as well as seven grandchildren.
“My family had moved down from Kelowna when I was starting Grade 8, and so I had him for my full five years as a phys-ed teacher,” said UBC Thunderbirds’ head coach and 1982 Seaquam grad Kevin Hanson, whose path to becoming the winningest coach in Canada West men’s basketball history began after being coached for three years on the senior varsity by Stebbings.
“He became a mentor and a friend,” continued Hanson, whose arrival at Seaquam in the fall of 1977 coincided with the opening of the school in North Delta’s Sunshine Hills neighbourhood. “The countless days and hours just spent hanging out in the phys-ed office… those are vivid images in my mind, talking about life and basketball.”
Born in 1949, Stebbings epitomized the multi-sport athlete of the early 1960s in B.C.
On the basketball court, Stebbings was a starter on the 1967-68 David Thompson Trojans basketball team which lost 58-46 to Victoria’s Oak Bay Bays in that season’s B.C. championship final.
Baseball was the other love of his sporting life, and Stebbings played it collegiately at Chico State University in northern California.
In the fall of 1977, Seaquam opened as the newest high school in Delta, at the time, the only Grade 8-12 institution in North Delta.
Quite amazingly, Stebbings grew the Seahawks from expansion scratch into a B.C. boys basketball powerhouse within a decade, and by 1988 they had advanced all the way to the provincial top-tiered Double A title game, losing to a Richmond Colts squad which was voted the province’s No. 1 team of all time in 2005 as part of B.C.High School Basketball’s 60th anniversary celebration.
“I think as a young kid, in Grade 8, 9 and 10, you grow up watching the senior team and I was just so excited when my chance came to play for him,” said Bob Hoy, a member of the 1987-88 Seahawks’ team.
“Bill just gave off this energy that made you want to play for him,” continued Hoy. “He was a player’s coach for sure. He kept things fun, but he knew how to be tough at the same time.”
Paul Pederson, who arrived with Stebbings at Seaquam in 1977, then proceeded to work and coach alongside him for the greater part of 30 years, described his childhood friend as one whose leadership skills were the perfect balance of toughness and compassion.
“He was demanding, but always in a fair way,” remembered Pederson. “I will always remember Bill saying to me that if you were particularly hard-nosed on an athlete, that it might turn him away, and that dealing with athletes based on their individual personalities was very important.”
Pederson met Stebbings, to the best of his knowledge, when the pair were fourth-graders at Vancouver’s Sir James Douglas Elementary in 1958.
The pair went on to be basketball teammates at David Thompson Secondary, and it was there that Stebbings was coached by his first mentor in the sport, the late Mike Potkonjak Sr., the former UBC captain who in turn had spent his time on the Point Grey campus learning his craft under the late ‘Birds coaching great Dr. Peter Mullins.
That, in and of itself, makes Stebbings a vital part of a coaching tree which now has Hanson set to begin his 21st season at the helm of the Thunderbirds.
Consider that Mullins would go on to a Hall of Fame coaching career at UBC in which he established a new program high for wins upon retirement in 1982-83 with 337 overall victories.
Mullins passed on his knowledge to Potkonjak, who at David Thompson in the late 1960s did the same to Stebbings and his teammates.
And when Stebbings moved on to Seaquam, he immediately noticed the promise in a young underclassman, whom he would eventually energize for a lifetime career in the game.
“He gave me that first opportunity, when I was in Grade 10, to join the senior team,” said Hanson of Stebbings. “He didn’t want to rush me, but he thought I was ready, and so he started me the first game, and then he started me for every game I played. It was pretty special.”
Special enough that if you had attended ‘Birds games over the majority of Hanson’s career as the team’s head coach, you could have spotted a proud Stebbings along with a number of other coaches dating back to the old Seaquam fraternity, in the stands at War Memorial to watch Hanson and then later to dissect the game with him at a local watering hole.
“We would go out to Mahony & Sons all the time,” added Hanson, who this past January notched his record-setting 314th Canada West conference victory and has gone 490-184 overall in 20 seasons. “He made it a part of his social calendar.”
And it was that half of the coaching equation which Stebbings felt just as important as the on-court process.
He loved his basketball community, and he celebrated that kinship.
“There probably isn’t a place from North Vancouver to Chilliwack where Stebbs hadn’t taken out a referee or a coach after a game,” said James Johnston, a 1992 Seaquam grad who played for Stebbings, coached Seahawks’ senior teams from 2003-04 through 2009-10, and had a chance to coach all three of Stebbings’ sons.
“The things I learned about coaching from him were obviously the on-court things,” continues Johnston, a former president of the B.C. High School Boys Basketball Association and currently the principal at Surrey’s Clayton Heights Secondary.
“But he taught me about so much else,” continued Johnston. “To him it wasn’t just about playing the best teams. He scheduled exhibition games against the coaches that were his friends, he wanted to go to the tournaments where his kids would get the best experiences. He told me he played against (former Centennial and Terry Fox senior varsity coach) Richie Chambers every year because they had gotten to know each other over the years and he was a guy Bill really liked. He even took the referees out after games because he thought they had a cool perspective on the game as well.”
Added Pederson of a coach who was in many ways holistic before the word became all the rage: “He really believed in the importance of the social side of life.”
For his part, Hanson also saw the family side of Stebbings when his Seahawks faced the crosstown rival South Delta Sun Devils, who at the time, were coached by Bill’s older brother Bob Stebbings.
“I can remember one time, we were down by 20 to South Delta heading into the fourth quarter and after we wound up winning, Bill’s mom came down from the stands,” remembered Hanson. “She gave him a hug, and then she went right over to Bob and gave him a hug, too. I saw how big the rivalry was, but I also saw that they were brothers. To (Bill), family was always No. 1.”
That love of basketball ran in the family.
Stebbings’ oldest son Jeff was an assistant coach on the 2000 Seaquam team which qualified for the provincials under head coach Doug MacKenzie, then later the head coach himself with the 2003 Seaquam team which lost 80-62 to White Rock Christian Academy in that season’s top-tiered B.C. Triple A championship final.
Hoy’s enduring memory of his head coach?
“It was his smile,” he said. “He just had this positive energy about him all the time. Whether you were up by 20 or down by 20, he could always flash that grin. It’s something I will never forget.”
And from this corner, there is something your faithful reporter will also never forget about Bill Stebbings.
It was around 1989, and at the time I was publishing a B.C. Super 25 weekly boys basketball ranking in the Coquitlam, Burnaby, Surrey-North Delta, and New Westminster editions of The NOW Newspapers, of which I was at that time, the sports editor.
One day, I picked up the phone to hear coach Stebbings’ voice on the other end of the line.
“Those rankings that you’re doing, you should send them to The Province newspaper,” he told a timid-and-unsure young reporter. “I’d bet they would publish them and hire you.”
I can remember faxing them not to soon after to The Province, and not a half-hour later getting a call from then-sports editor Kent Gilchrist, asking me if I was interested in continuing to send them each week.
It was my foot in the door.
By later the next year, in 1990, I was pulling weekend shifts on the sports desk, getting the odd assignment to cover UBC basketball, and eventually getting hired full time at a place I wound up staying for some 27 years.
So Bill, once again, thanks are in order.
You not only gave your players the world, you helped give me mine, too.
And of course, when Seaquam Secondary decided to begin a Wall of Honour, there was just one choice for its first inductee.
This past Dec. 6, on the same night it was playing its crosstown rivals, the North Delta Huskies, Bill Stebbings was smiling as the centre of attention. And by all accounts, the number of former players who made it a point to honour their former coach was testament to impact of his life’s work.
That kind of connection meant the world to him, especially in his final days when an old friend and former player, whom he had first met as a wide-eyed eighth grader back in 1977, picked up the phone to check in on Coach.
“Last week I called to see how Barb, his wife, was doing,” Hanson related Wednesday. “I wasn’t quite sure how Bill was feeling, but she said ‘Do you want to talk to him?’ and then she handed over the phone to him. He certainly recognized my voice and we shared a few laughs. He was in good spirits.
“I told him to make sure he was being good to his nurse, because (Barb) has put up with all of his nonsense as a coach over the last many decades,” Hanson relayed of the playful line he delivered to his coach in the most loving way possible. “It was a short conversation, but it was pretty special to be able to do that.”
Agreed. In our world, there are two words that never grow old: Thanks, coach.
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