WEST VANCOUVER — He was bold enough as a high school senior back in the earliest days of the 1980s to step forward, take his own team and declare his major for life: Basketball coach.
And this past fall, when the opportunity arose to attend the NBA training camp of the Sacramento Kings as a guest coach, of course Paul Eberhardt, a lifetime learner, jumped at the chance.
“It was an amazing experience,” Eberhardt said over the phone Monday.
“It was so amazing, I didn’t want to come home,” he added.
If you’ve followed the story of the West Vancouver Secondary senior boys basketball team, the one Eberhardt is the first-year head coach of, then what you know is that he did indeed return, leading the tartan plaid on what can only be described as a Hoosiers-like ascent to the B.C. championship tournament, which itself begins a four-day run Wednesday at the Langley Events Centre.
What you may not know?
There is a direct connection between the time Eberhardt spent observing the habits and schematics of the most improved team in the NBA this season to the way the Highlanders senior varsity has also improved, rising from a 5-13 overall record a season ago, to 29-6 under their new head coach, including a 6-1 playoff run which featured three sudden-elimination victories.
By this Sunday past, West Vancouver had gone coast to coast from virtual unknown at season’s start to the ninth seed in the 16-team Quad-A draw.
And what is shaping up as the opening round’s match-up du jour, it’s going to be Coach Ebe’s West Van squad against coach Rich Chambers’ No. 8-seeded Terry Fox Ravens of PoCo in a high noon clash between a pair of coaching legends at the LEC’s Arena Bowl.
Chief within a storyline which just oozes basketball karma is the tale of how Eberhardt, as of tomorrow the only coach to have ever taken four different top-tiered high schools (Magee, McNair, R.C. Palmer, West Vancouver) to the senior boys provincials, has affected such a massive turnaround by implementing the Sacramento Kings’ Push 4 offence with his high school team.
It’s an offence based on spacing and playing off the ball, and it hums when it has high-percentage perimetre shooting and a big man with vision and passing ability.
And as Eberhardt studied the intricacies of the offence at Kings’ camp while under the tutelage Sacramento assistant coach Jay Triano, the former Simon Fraser star player and coach, the more he began to realize the fit it could potentially be with the young West Vancouver team, one which he had moved through the pre-varsity ranks with and was now set to usher onto the senior boys stage this season.
“I had the opportunity to hang with Jay,” said Eberhardt, who was a national team assistant under Triano from 2000-04 and just generally interacted with the legendary former Simon Fraser player during his head coaching days atop Burnaby Mountain and his subsequent stint as colour analyst on Vancouver Grizzlies broadcasts.
“He showed me the different sets that (Kings head coach) Mike Brown put in. It’s very different from what I would normally run, but I said that it was perfect because I have a centre that can really pass the ball.
“And… it’s good to steal stuff that works.”
PUSHING THEIR LIMITS
Paul Eberhardt’s basketball utopia probably looked a lot like what he actually saw over his time at Sacramento Kings training camp this past fall.
“It was just complete immersion in hoops,” said Eberhardt, these days loving his off-court role as VP for West Vancouver School District’s Premier Academies.
“I was able to work with Jay with the national team, he helped set me up to be able to observe camp. I was so impressed with what I saw… the most organized practices I’d ever seen.
“For Mike Brown, it was all about changing culture,” Eberhardt continued, touching on one of the reasons the Kings currently sit third in the Western Conference after 64 games (38-26), versus their woebegone 23-41 mark at the same juncture last season.
“He didn’t spend as much time on the X’s and O’s… what a great leader, and so Jay spent a lot of time looking after the offence that they run.”
At the heart of its Push offence?
The 7-foot, 240 pound centre Domantas Sabonis, who like his father Arvydas Sabonis, is a guard-skilled wonder in a big man’s body.
The numbers alone (team-leading seven assists and 12.4 rebounds per game, 37 per cent from three) paint the picture of the offence’s perfect pivot man.
Along with the dynamic point guard De’Aaron Fox, for so long looking for the right cast and environment for his skills to shine within a team context, shooting guard Kevin Huerter, forwards Harrison Barnes and Keegan Murray and sixth man Malik Monk, the group has jelled with perfect chemistry.
Eberhardt, himself a true basketball MacGyver, found himself thinking about all of the parts he had back home in West Vancouver, and before long he realized that he already had his own Sabonis, one who in a less traditional way was also an excellent passer.
Mathieu Thiel spent the early part of the fall breaking the huddle for the football Highlanders as the team’s starting quarterback, and in four league games passed for 776 yards and six touchdowns against just one pick.
That arm strength, along with his ability to adapt his throwing mechanics from the gridiron to the hardcourt was suddenly even more enticing.
“It just made sense to put in the same offence as the Kings were running,” Eberhardt said. “The key to the offence is having a guy that can play in the high post and be able to pass and screen out of that. Mathieu only averages about seven points a game but the difference he makes in how we run our stuff, and of course his presence with blocked shots, is a real benefit in running this offence.”
Yet there was even more to recommend it.
“I had a feeling this might work because we also have a great point guard,” Eberhardt added of the 6-foot-1 Grade 10 Calvin Kuzyk, who averages 17 points and four assists per game.
On top of that add three Grade 11’s in guard/swing types Max Ndolvu-Fraser (19 ppg), Zeyad Ahmed (14 ppg) and Finn Chapman (14 ppg) and the final key ingredient is added to the mix: All three have shot 40 per cent or better from beyond the three-point line this season.
When asked if he had ever coached a high school team with a trio matching that 40-plus percentage from distance, the coach stated simply: “Nope. Never had that.
“It doesn’t work every game, I can tell you that,” the good-natured Eberhardt laughed of the adventures the Highlanders have had along the way this season. “But with personnel that we have, everyone has bought in.”
One of the initial challenges?
“It was a matter of making the guys believe in it,” the coach continued. “A lot of players these days are used to playing a lot of pick-and-roll.. it’s trendy, and there is not a lot of that in this offence. There’s a bit of it. So it’s been getting guys to have movement off of the ball. That was the tough part. But when you have success, when guys get open shots, they start to think ‘Oh yeah, maybe this does work.’”
MORE MAGIC IN A YEAR OF MAGICAL MOMENTS
When the genesis of this story first began to percolate last week, just as the Highlanders completed their three-step trio of sudden-elimination victories over Carson Graham, Kitsilano and then defending B.C. champion Burnaby South to punch their Big Dance tickets, its first-round opponent at the Quad-A B.C.’s was as yet unknown.
That mystery first-round foe, of course, was revealed Sunday afternoon as none other than the Terry Fox Ravens, thus pitting a pair of coaches in Eberhart and Fox’s Rich Chambers who have somewhere in the neighbourhood of 90-plus years of combined B.C. boys high school coaching experience.
“Prior to the tournament draw coming out, I was looking at where the seedings might fall and what the committee might do, and every time I did it, I went ‘Shoot, I’m going to play Chambers,’” laughed Eberhardt of his friend, but also a foe in both the opening round of the 1986 B.C.’s, and the Final Four in 2011.
The pair chatted by phone on Sunday night.
“It’s a real challenge as a coach,” he continued of facing Chambers, who has split his time between both the Centennial Centaurs and the Terry Fox Ravens.
“You have some coaches who are very consistent in what they do in that they will always play man-to-man, but one of Richie’s strengths, besides always getting his guys to play hard, is he pulls out all different things. I know I am going to see his zone, some of his 1-3-1, and there’s this defence that he calls RATT. That’s one I stole from him during provincial team. You have to be ready for anything.”
Eberhardt’s initial meeting with Chambers came in the opening round of the 1986 provincials at the PNE Agrodome when his Magee Lions, a school he had only graduated from some four years earlier, beat Chambers’ Centennial Centaurs 70-63 in a battle of Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley zone championship second-place finishers.
Something happened that day which 37 years later, Eberhardt recalls at the snap of a finger.
“Here I was, 22 years old, and my first year of (senior boys) coaching, and after the game we went up the stairs to our change room in the Agrodome.
“I’d just played against a guy who even back then was already a legendary coach, and here he comes into our change room. He congratulated all of my players and then he congratulated me. Here I am this young lunk, and he comes to congratulate me. It has always stuck out with me. I just thought that he was such a classy guy.”
Years later, in the first-ever B.C. high school boys championship contested at the Langley Events Centre, the pair met again, this time in the Final Four, with Eberhardt’s team coming away 77-66 winners en route to beating Vancouver College 71-63 in the title game.
Now, it’s time for the rubber match, and from Eberhardt’s perspective, it’s just another incredible layer of magic within a season that has taken on a life of its own.
From watching, learning and growing as a coach in an NBA setting with the Sacramento Kings, to later importing and imparting some of the lessons he learned there on a group of young athletes just looking to be led… to an incredible season which included an 18-game win streak and an absolutely unexpected provincial tournament berth.
“Truthfully, I knew the kids coming up were good,” says the guy who has been Coach Ebe with senior boys teams now from age 22 to age 58. “I thought we would be competitive. But all of this has just been unbelievable to me.”
It’s further proof that our game, and our B.C. championship tournament remains larger than life, its voluminous pages each holding the ability to recall the interconnected stories that define its timeless beauty.
Welcome to March Madness where anything can happen.
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