When UBC head coach Deb Huband cut down the nets back in 2004, she was bringing the Bronze baby back to Point Grey for the first time in 30 years. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Women's Basketball

From Debbie to Deb: How UBC’s iconic women’s hoop coach Huband has found balance on her journey towards a signature milestone

VANCOUVER — If playing and coaching represent the two sides of the basketball brain, then a life well-lived in both is a life which has achieved a rare level of balance… in some cases as spherically-perfect as the ball itself.

Back in 1994, at a time in which she stood at a true crossroads in her professional life, Debbie Huband got the call for induction into the Canada Basketball Hall of Fame for her brilliance as a player.

At that point in her life, however, what came next was the great unknown.

Yet if you subconsciously subscribe to the Zen proverb which says: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” then perhaps what did happen next makes nothing but sense.

One year later, in 1995, after deciding to abandon a career in speech language pathology, Deb Huband accepted an offer to become the new head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds’ women’s basketball team.

A quarter of a century later, perhaps as soon as this coming Saturday, in what has symmetrically unfolded as a true, two-sides of the basketball brain journey, Huband could well become the winningest coach in Canada West women’s conference history.

Learning all about the complexities of team dynamics has been one of the areas UBC head coach Deb Huband has embraced over her 25 years leading the blue and gold. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

Heading into a two-game homestand beginning Friday (6 p.m.) within the friendly confines of War Memorial Gymnasium, UBC (8-4) plays the first of back-to-back games against Langley’s visiting Trinity Western Spartans (3-7). Saturday’s rematch tips off at 5 p.m.

With a split in the series, Huband would move into a tie with the legendary Kathy Shields, the former Victoria Vikes coach whose 337 wins are the most in Canada West history.

With a sweep, Huband would take sole ownership of the record, so neatly binding and balancing totally autonomous hardcourt careers in which she first captained the Canadian national team for eight seasons (1979-86) and played in the 1984 Summer Olympics, then became a head coach and since led UBC to three U Sports national championship Bronze Baby titles.

UBC head coach Deb Huband with former star and current assistant coach Carrie Watts, who helped lead the ‘Birds to the 2003-04 Bronze Baby national title. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

Canada’s most enduring basketball citizens each have their own unique and amazing stories, and in that regard, Huband more than holds her own.

“I hadn’t even considered coaching as a profession at that point,” Huband, 63, said Wednesday afternoon when asked where her head space was at regarding her future back in 1994.

“Everything happened a year later,” she continued. “It wasn’t something that I anticipated at the time and I was extremely fortunate to be hired. I was young. I was unproven. I had a track record as a player, but I was green as a coach and what I would bring to a program. Still, I remember at my interview with (UBC athletic department officials) Kim Gordon and Bob Philip that they wanted to take a chance on a younger coach. They gave me the opportunity, and what a place to start.”

And that, perhaps, is the most amazing part.

While Huband shone over her university career at Bishop’s, one which included a U Sports all-time single-game record 50-point performance, which she both owned or co-owned for 37 seasons before it finally fell in 2018-19, the old adage of the best players struggling to make the transition into coaching wasn’t completely lost on her.

“One thing that has been very obvious to me, is that it’s easier to do than it is to teach,” Huband admitted. “Being a player and being responsible for yourself was simple. But then seeing it from the perspective of a coach, who has to have the full team approach, be program-minded and always multi-dimensional was far more challenging and demanding than my experiences as an athlete.”

UBC head coach Deb Huband has spent 25 years coaching the Thunderbirds. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

And so in effect, she started from scratch in 1995, and by 2003-04, with a team that featured superstar-to-be Erica McGuinness, then a freshman, Huband and a baby-faced crew of ‘Birds hoisted the Bronze Baby for the first time in 30 years.

Along the way, her teams became stamped by Huband’s own selfless DNA. Her players may have taken to the spotlight with more ease than their coach, yet a figurative team portrait would have their collective stare trained on a grindstone.

“My first thought was ‘They want to pay me to coach,’” Huband says in reflection of her hiring, a comment that seems ludicrous these days with the proliferation of basketball academies, training centres and traveling youth squads.

“But I didn’t know at the time that (coaching) would be so all-encompassing and that it is a 24/7, 52-weeks-a-year mental commitment,” she continued. “It can be hard to separate the person from the program, and the demands of the profession.”

And yet there is no mistaking the intensity of her daily passion for what is her life’s calling.

Last Saturday in Abbotsford, as your author sat courtside watching UBC face the host Fraser Valley Cascades, Huband was accidentally body-slammed by one of the referees, literally achieving a horizontal flight pattern before crashing to the floor.

Likely in shock, Huband picked herself up off the court and went right into the huddle during a timeout to chalkboard and encourage her players.

Huband said Wednesday that although she had missed a couple of days of practice due to the effects of the fall, that her plans were to be coaching her team Friday and Saturday.

As is her nature, she preferred to talk about other things.

“It’s not the story,” she said.

Yet in a broader sense, it is the story.

Deb Huband won her first U Sports national title with a roster that included 10 first- and second-year players in 2003-04. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2019. All Rights Reserved)

In a different country, in a different basketball culture, like the one just south of the line, someone with Deb Huband’s curriculum vitae would have a lot harder time evading the spotlight.

Ask her a simple question, like ‘How does it feel in hindsight to have had the kinds of careers as both a player and coach that you have enjoyed?’ and the answer defines her persona.

“I don’t think about those things too much,” she begins. “I’m proud I have a had a long and successful career and been able to work with so many great athletes and staff. Doing it together is what thrills me, keeps me coming back year after year.

“As a player I didn’t like the attention or the glory,” she adds. I’ve just always believed that if you put your nose down and work hard and do the right things, then good things will happen. After the fact, you might get some acknowledgement, but that’s never been my focus.”

Her love affair with the game has been a story which long-ago became well-versed and dog-eared, yet it’s just only now that she has even hinted at her final coaching chapter.

Yet even with that, she catches herself and attempts to recant mid-sentence, wanting the ending to remain as yet unwritten.

“I know I won’t coach into my 70s,” she says before countering: “That’s lighthearted. But I know there will come a time when I will shift my energy elsewhere, and that is closer than the last time we spoke.”

Then, Huband comes as close as she can come to defining her eventual retirement by referencing UBC’s legendary field hockey coach, who retired after 19 seasons with 10 national titles.

“My good friend Hash Kanjee said ‘You will know when you know,” she said.

A quarter-century ago, trusting her own intuition, she must have subconsciously known that the student was ready to become the teacher.

From Debbie to Deb.

From player to coach.

Looks like there is still more to this story about the two sides of a basketball brain, and a life well-lived.

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