VANCOUVER — In the time reserved for preparation, those quiet pre-game moments where each player is left to his own devices, Jerric Palma finds a place where he can bring his heart and mind together in a single, perfect sphere.
“I need about 15 minutes,” the lithe, light and limber Grade 11 guard with Vancouver’s St. George’s Saints says. “I like to find a hallway, take a ball, and just start to dribble.”
For Palma, who discovered early on that the success of the mental side of his game would hinge on a huge amount of self-belief, that time to find focus has been nothing shy of sacred.
“To get into my zone, my hands need to be warm, almost sweating,” he begins of sticky palms, the ones which help regulate the metronomic beat of a basketball being put through its paces.
“Then my shirt,” he continues. “It needs to be a little damp from preparing in the hallways. My philosophy has always been that I must get into a zone, my zone, before a game. I always have to think about it, about my potential and about how I have to be myself out there. When I work on the mental game, it all translates on the court.”
Like on Jan. 9 when, in a 113-101 overtime loss to No. 5-ranked Walnut Grove and its reigning B.C. Quad-A MVP James Woods, Palma exploded for 44 points, going 11-of-15 from beyond the three-point arc.
On Wednesday (6:30 p.m.), before the deafening crowd at its own Dragons’ Lair, the Saints will play host to their arch rivals, the Vancouver College Fighting Irish, in the first game of a home-and-away Vancouver Independent League series.
Shy of playing at the provincial tournament, these games are zenith moments for the players and coaches from both teams, and if St. George’s is to ultimately make a return to the Telus AAAA B.C. championships this March at the Langley Events Centre, then Jerric Palma is going to have to keep up his end of the bargain.
That is, the tiny kid with the huge heart, is going to have to be in his zone, the place from which he can best be described as a basketball David in a land of giants.
BY HIS OWN MEASURE, A GIANT
OK, OK, Palma isn’t as vertically-challenged as he has been in past seasons, but only because the basketball gods finally decided that the unflappable kid with the unrelenting urge to get better would never take for granted the gift of a little more height.
“I went through a bit of a spurt,” he laughs, of sprouting some three inches over the last 10 months. “I was 5-7 heading into provincials (last March). But I am still really light.”
We are all products of our environment, and in the case of Palma, who would disappear in a huddle and was barely able to tip a scale when he started his high school career in Grade 8, his humble origins not only shaped his skill set, but more importantly, the work ethic is took to master his dribble and his jump shot.
“At the start of the basketball season in Grade 8, I was 5-foot-1 and I weighed 95 pounds,” Palma says without hesitation.
“I grew up as the little kid playing hockey,” he continues. “I was always the smaller guy, and growing up in the hockey world, which is even more physical, my size just never fazed me. If it did anything, it motivated me. People doubt me because of my size so I’ve always had to go out there and prove myself.”
And so it started, from a very young age, that Palma would work on his game under the watchful eye of his father Enrico, 47, who back in his high school days at Richmond Secondary played volleyball and badminton, but could not ignore the Colts’ basketball dynasty which had exploded on Lulu Island with greats like Ron Putzi, Brian Tait and Joey deWit seemingly larger than life.
GETTING INTO THE ZONE
A full generation removed from the Super Colts’ era, where the familiar refrain was ‘Bill’s Boys Are Back’, ex-Richmond head coach Bill Disbrow, for the past few seasons at St. George’s, has continued to field teams that sit in contention for B.C.’s highest-tiered senior varsity title.
Disbrow, of course, has a history with the greatest small player in B.C. history, 5-foot-2 point guard Karlo Villanueva, who at the 2000 B.C. championships was selected the Top Defensive Player.
Palma, by any stretch, is no longer considered a short player, but despite his recent spike in height, he is still small in terms of the total physical package he is able to bring to the floor where he starts with seniors Sam Sirlin, Will Lin, Alex Ference and Louis Sujir.
Villanueva was short, yet from a strength-and-stability standpoint, he was so teeter-proof and fireplug-strong that his career continued at the highest Canadian university levels with the UBC Thunderbirds.
They contrast each other in key ways, but to the man who has coached them both, their similarities are far more greater than their differences.
“Karlo was a brick,” remembers Disbrow. “He was so strong and he outweighed what Jerric is now, when he was in Grade 7. But they’re both incredibly skilled and smart.
“I think the greatest compliment you can give a player is to say that he is smart,” Disbrow continues, “and like Karlo, Jerric is a smart player. The kid gets it and he has every skill in the world. You can’t be that good without putting in the time.”
Which brings us back to Dragons’ Lair on Jan. 9.
On this night, the kid was red hot.
But again, there is nothing ever random about his actions, nothing being wasted in that 11-of-15 three-point shooting performance.
“During a game, my first couple of shots dictate the outcome of my shooting performance,” Palma says, providing a non-typical 16-year-old response to his game. “Someone once told me that if I shot 17 three’s in a game, all I’d have to do is hit six (35 per cent) for it to be a good game. If I miss three in a row, I still have seven to take before the percentage catches up to me. So basically if I am hitting one of every three (33 per cent) that’s enough for me to keep shooting.”
And on those nights that the numbers do fail him, he has his other lifeline available, his dribble-drive game.
“Being a smaller player growing up, the only thing I could develop was my shooting and my dribbling,” he begins. “Early on, when nothing else for there for me, my dribbling was there. It had to be the thing that separated me.”
And that’s why, in those moments when he is left to his own devices, when he remembers just 36 months ago being 5-foot-1 and 95 pounds, he finds a ball and starts the bounce.
First, his hands get warm, almost sweaty. Then his shirt starts to get a little damp.
Jerric Palma has found his happy place, the place where to him, all things seem possible.
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