LANGLEY — It had been a long while since Calvin Westbrook had anything to do with a B.C. senior boys provincial basketball championship tournament.
In fact you’d have to go back 13 years to find the last time.
It was in the round of Sweet 16 at the 2006 top-tiered B.C. Triple A tournament, at the old PNE Agrodome, when the former star guard with Courtenay’s G.P. Vanier Towhees poured home 52 points in a 102-95 triple overtime loss to White Rock Christian Academy.
No one, before or since, has scored points more in a single game on the championship side of the draw at B.C.’s top-tiered senior boys tournament.
Yet if mention of that effort elicited a chuckle from the now 31-year-old Westbrook, it’s perhaps because the personal significance of his return to the championships this past March at the Langley Events Centre centred around the fact that his hardcourt journey had, in many respects, come full circle.
Westbrook, now five seasons into his coaching career, had brought Gudangaay Tlaatis’gaa Nay (pronounced Goo-Dung-Ay-Clots-Ga-Nay), located in Masset at the north end of Haida Gwaii, to the provincial Single-A championships for the first time, as the Northwest Zone champions.
At the same time, his old Towhees team, still led by his former coach Larry Street, had arrived at the proceedings as the Triple-A Vancouver Island champions.
One of the best things about our high school sports world are the ways in which its true landmark moments, all seemingly celebrated in near-total anonymity, somehow find a way to form the basis of a kind of self-sustaining eco-system.
And as we say goodbye to the 2018-19 season, that’s the best way to describe what took place when Westbrook brought his Thunder to the pre-tournament banquet.
“Larry has been the most influential person in my basketball career as a player and a coach, but I had never met one of his teams before,” said Westbrook of the dozen or so editions of the Towhees which have competed since his own graduation in 2006.
That’s because after he left Vanier, Westbrook’s own playing career took him to both Cal State Stanislaus and Trinity Western, the latter which included, under head coach Scott Allen, a run to the 2011 U Sports title game. Westbrook would then embark on the path to become a teacher.
“At the banquet, I met the (Vanier) team, and I got to let them know just how much I appreciated everything he did for me,” continued Westbrook of Street, who this past season completed his 42nd season of coaching.
“He taught me a lot about basketball and he helped to give me a lot of opportunities, but the biggest thing he did was that he tried to build character in me.
“I still call him coach to this day.”
BASKETBALL IN PARADISE
Masset might be the most travel-challenged location in all of B.C. from which to play a high school sport.
Especially this past season when its southern Haida Gwaii rivals at Gidgalang Kuuyas Naay (formerly Queen Charlotte Secondary) did not field a team.
What that meant for the Thunder was a 90-minute drive, followed by an eight-hour ferry ride, followed by a further two-hour drive just to arrive at its nearest zone foe, Terrace’s Centennial Christian School.
Yet for Westbrook, the campus’ remote location seemed only to magnify the pure love his players show for the game and for being teammates.
“I’ll call a two-hour practice and there will be nobody practising after us,” he begins. “Pretty soon, three hours have gone by and nobody even knows it.
“It’s pretty neat to be in Masset,” continues Westbrook who first came to Haida Gwaii as part of his teaching practicum at Simon Fraser University. “It’s a little community of about 800 people, and our gym sort of overlooks the ocean. It’s the most beautiful place in the world, and it’s fun to walk out of that gym after a three-hour session in what most of British Columbia would consider to be the middle of nowhere, knowing we are accomplishing something great.”
Gudangaay Tlaatis’gaa Nay was s0 “in the middle of nowhere” that last season, prior to the provincials, the Thunder were only able to play six games (4-2).
Yet after fashioning a 2-2 record over their four days in Langley, the Thunder had met a pre-season goal of a Top 10 finish by placing 10th.
“We start four Grade 10s and a Grade 11, so this is a huge deal for us,” Westbrook said. “Now we can go back home, work all year in the middle of nowhere and create a new expectation in our community of what we can accomplish in the future.”
Rising senior guard Devan Boyko will lead that charge.
The 6-foot-1 Grade 11 averaged over 30 points per game at provincials, following MVP honours at the Northwest Zone tournament, where he averaged 45 ppg.
The rising Grade 11 core will be led by guard Desmond Setso, who averaged 20 ppg at the Northwest Zone tournament.
LESSONS IN CHARACTER
In a story of full circle, Calvin Westbrook can’t speak about the coaching life for very long without espousing the lessons learned from the mentors and caretakers of his playing career.
“I like the idea of a team being a family, and the relationships you get to build through all of that,” says Westbrook, “so first and foremost it’s important who we are with our character, who we are with how we play on the floor and how that character shows on the floor. I think the best reflection of a coach is how hard your players play and how well they communicate. For us, all of that has been the basis of getting the feeling of what it means to be a team.”
And after that?
“It’s just spending hours in the gym,” he says.
“I think no matter how many Xs and Os I run, and no matter how many plays I take from Larry Street or Scott Allen, guys that have been really influential in my life, we’ve still got to be good basketball players, and that is something I was passionate about when I was young. I spent hours and hours in the gym just because I love basketball, and I think I have a group of kids who feel the same way.”
Enough so, that when asked at the provincials what the next chapter was for him, Westbrook was quick to answer.
“I love where I am,” he said. “I loved playing, but the next journey for me is to become a better coach and I think I am just at the beginning of that.
“We have such a strong basketball community through the All-Native tournament that if I can assist everyone in town in continuing to develop our young players, then not only will we have success as a team which means a lot to our community, but maybe some of our kids will start to have some success playing at post-secondary.”
That’s the kind of back story which lends even more relevance to a simple meet-and-greet with the players from his old high school team back at the provincial tournament in March.
It is, in fact, one of those tangible moments when the chain of life which sustains a delicate, volunteer-based coaching eco system shows the strength of its links.
And every time I ask a coach why they do what they do, the answer never fails to inspire.
“I will never forget one day going to him and sharing with him an accomplishment in my life that he wasn’t there for,” Westbrook says, remembering back to his childhood of a conversation he had with Street.
“Larry said to me ‘Cal, I am so proud of you, but I wished that I had heard that from someone else because I want you to be the kind of person who achieves things not for your personal gain, but because as a driven individual, you want to do it for the success of your teammates around you. That message has stuck with me for the rest of my life.”
Even through a basketball journey, which to many, might seem to be unfolding in ‘the middle of nowhere.’
(Later this week: Your author’s look at some of his other most memorable moments of 2018-19)
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