NORTH DELTA — Basketball’s centre-court circle.
Within the dimensions of the sport’s time-honoured schematic, it’s always been the place where the narrative begins… that perfectly circular gathering point measuring a regulation 12 feet in diametre which never fails to welcome its two combatants to Act 1, Scene 1.
And just like theatre’s most well-trodden stages, the passing of generations has a way of blessing its surface with the kind of character that no applied preservative ever could.
This is the story of just such a circle, and how after a most circuitous journey — from being saved, to being forgotten to being re-discovered — it has managed a full-circle finish to arrive at a most distinguished final resting spot: Framed and mounted above the entranceway to the gymnasium at North Delta Secondary School, the home of the Huskies.
“It was covered in two-to-three inches of sawdust,” recalled senior boys basketball coach Gary Sandhu of the maple planks which comprised the original 1957-vintage centre court jump circle, all of which had found a most inauspicious home, tucked away on a set of rafters above the school’s woodwork shop. “I couldn’t believe the condition it was in. It just looked like a bunch of scrap wood.”
Like the contents of a forgotten box placed in an attic and rediscovered years later through a new lens, this time as a trove of collectibles, Sandhu, fellow coach Jesse Hundal and then-vice principal James Johnston realized very quickly the significance of the discovery.
In his 1996 book Lucky Me: My Life In Basketball, the late North Delta boys basketball coach Stan Stewardson, while reminiscing about his arrival at the school in the fall of 1964, admitted that he was hired to bring a winning culture to a program which over its early years of existence simply lacked the proper infrastructure to compete.
“Its basketball claim to fame occurred in 1962,” wrote Stewardson. “(That’s) when North Surrey and Queen Elizabeth each defeated North Delta’s senior boys team by over 100 points on succeeding weekends.”
If that was the low ebb, the man who would later go on to write the remainder of his coaching legacy atop Burnaby Mountain at the helm of the Simon Fraser men’s team, very quickly reversed the tide.
Stewardson took his first Huskies’ senior varsity boys team in 1965-66, and five seasons later in the spring of 1971, after giving that North Delta gym floor its first coat of character-induced blood, sweat and tears, he led the school to its first-ever B.C. championship title.
An additional three decades of jump balls, wind sprints, pivots and jump stops under a number of other coaches, served as a further test to the resiliency of that No. 2 grade maple, shipped out west from Ontario and installed in time for the school’s 1957 opening.
“It’s amazing we found it when we did,” adds Sandhu, “because if anyone had needed that space up there, then it would have been gone.”
Instead, after its rescue, rehab and subsequent re-appreciation, it’s here today to tell, through the voices of those who have cherished its meaning, a story of true empowerment.
KNEE-DEEP IN THE HOOPLA
By the summer of 2002, plans had been finalized for the mass renovation of North Delta Secondary, plans which included the demolition and relocation of its original, 45-year-old gymnasium from one side of the school to the other.
The bandbox which occupied the campus corner of 83rd Avenue and 114th Street may have been the furthest thing from an architectural marvel, yet none of that cushioned the trauma for its former players, many of whom had come to look at the old barn as something more akin to a second childhood home.
“You’re going to get me to start crying because it was a very emotional time,” says John Buis, a member of the North Delta 1971 B.C. title team and one of the most established caretakers of high school basketball in this province.
Buis, along with Bill Edwards, the latter who played on Stewardson’s first two Huskies’ boys teams (1965-67) and later, as its head coach, led the team to two B.C. titles (1975, ’90), each found themselves in the midst of the wrecking ball’s fray in that August of 2002, reacting instinctively in an effort to both preserve and honour the gymasium’s memory.
“Bill and I, we picked up 300-plus pieces… we pried them off the floor,” Buis says of the slotted planking.
Adds Edwards: “We wanted to take the centre circle out and save it as a remembrance of the old gym for all of the people who had played there. But we never got around to doing anything with it.”
The work was demanding.
“I think it was 312 boards for the centre circle and probably close to 1,000 nails,” says Buis of the recovery work he and Edwards completed in order to preserve the entire 12-foot circumference of the jump circle.
“You had to take the nails out of each board and they were spiral nails,” he added. “In the end, it was a five-gallon bucket of two-inch spiral nails.”
Yet it wasn’t just the old guard who were busy at work preserving Huskies history that summer.
Ted Murray, a former NDSS team manager in the early 1990s, had spent the three seasons prior to the gymnasium’s demolition as the team’s lead assistant coach under Tyler Kushnir whose own family tree is rooted in the deepest soil of Delta high school sports history.
Kushnir had stepped down following the 2001-02 season, and Murray, just beginning his teaching career at North Delta, was set to become Huskies’ head coach in what would be the first season in the freshly-renovated school’s brand-new gymnasium.
Yet before that happened, Murray and three of his players — James Anderson, Mike McKay and Buis’ son Jamie — found themselves hard at work within the basketball rubble.
“I remember getting handed a crowbar,” laughs Murray, who these days, is an assistant coach with the men’s team at Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers University, the same place where he also happens to be a sessional instructor in the school’s Faculty of Law, and the executive director of the TRU Community Legal Clinic.
“I think that John Buis had it arranged with the demolition company that if you volunteered to help them pull up the floor boards, then you could sort of take what you wanted,” continued Murray. “So I remember the four of us spending a day or two in there with our crowbars.”
Yet while a North Delta basketball romantic could stand knee-deep in the salvage and still find reason wax rhapsodically about the hoops karma still hanging in the air, the wrecking ball-authoured autopsy revealed a deeper truth.
“It was a cinder-block box,” said John Buis. “When they tore it apart, there was nothing in the walls. Just the grout between the bricks.”
Added Edwards, now in his third incarnation as Huskies coach: “There were gaps in the brick that were a half-inch wide by the time they took them down. If there was an earthquake, the entire thing would have just come down. They had to do the reconstruction.”
And thus the summer of 2002 was the closing of a chapter in North Delta Huskies basketball history.
Yet before that final page was written, Murray made sure that nothing of historical significance was going to be left behind.
“The first thing we did, just before the demolition, was to make sure that we got all of the stuff out of the basketball lock-up, and then had it moved over to the new gymnasium,” he said.
What that entailed was a soup-to-nuts housecleaning, one which turned over a trove of Huskies hoop memorabilia, all of it entombed over the years by layer, the best of which dated back to the early years of the Stewardson era.
“I found a 1967-or-so team blazer,” said Murray. “There was stuff that no one had seen in over 30 years. I also found a jersey from around that era, and then I found a warm-up from the 1990 B.C. championship team (coached by Edwards and starring the likes of Mitch Berger and Chad Johnston).”
These days, all of the spotlight at North Delta Secondary sits at the other end of its 114th Street campus, off 82nd Avenue.
Adjacent to the new gymnasium is the brand-new eight-lane 400m rubberized track and field facility, coming in a cost of $8.5 million.
Stroll down a block to the other side of the school, however, and the old gym which housed the original Huskies hardcourt, has been replaced by a court yard.
Close your eyes and re-imagine, however, and rumour has it that the sneaker-squeaking sound of a jump stop-and-pivot, followed by the roar of the crowd, can still be heard.
At least that’s what all the Huskies’ greybeards will tell you.
HOW BASKETBALL HELPED HUSKY NATION FIND ITS IDENTITY
As is so often the case, perfect endings require perfect storms, and that most definitely describes the story of the original North Delta jump circle.
As the team of North Delta students who had helped move the 300-plus pieces of centre court to a classroom for further organization soon discovered, each of the pieces had been hand-numbered, something John Buis had wisely thought to do some 14 years prior during that summer of 2002.
“I didn’t even know that was his hand-writing,” Sandhu admitted this week. “He did a really good job.”
Buis and Edwards, in fact, upon saving and numbering the planks, were also the ones responsible for packing them all safely away in those rafters above the woodwork shop.
Yet even though the pair knew all along of not only the floor’s existence but also its location, the timing of their historical preservation efforts just happened to coincide with one of the most unsettled periods in the school’s history.
To refine that thought, it’s hard to imagine there was anyone outside of Buis, Edwards and Murray during that summer of 2002 who had even entertained the thought of preserving any part of the school’s athletic heritage for posterity.
With all the changes that were set to unfold, however, it’s understandable.
At the turn of this century, North Delta Senior Secondary was not only preparing for and going through what was a massive renovation of its entire campus, it very soon after transitioned from that of a Grade 11 and 12-only senior secondary to becoming one of five Grade 8-12 secondary schools in the city’s north end.
“At North Delta, the school had changed so much from reconfiguration,” says Johnston, himself a former longtime high school basketball coach who had arrived at the school to begin a three-plus-year run as vice-principal in 2014.
“It was a school looking for an identity, but at the same time had so much history,” continued Johnston, who these days is the principal at Surrey’s Clayton Heights Secondary. “We talked about it at multiple staff meetings… about the fact that we just couldn’t recreate that history, but that we needed to find symbols of it to help connect our current students to it. We eventually found it through basketball.”
By 2016, empowered by the environment Johnston had helped foster, young coaches Hundal and Sandhu had begun to coach up a talented class of players led by the likes of Suraj Gahir, Arun Atker and the late Brandon Bassi.
In the spirit of connecting its basketball past to its present, Hundal and Sandhu reached out to Edwards and ever since the 2016-17 season, the triumvirate has been a tangible representation of the connection between the program’s old guard and its new wave.
“I think every school has their culture, their artifacts, and the traditions that hold so much value,” explains Hundal. “With Gary and myself, we place value in our players understanding how vibrant and rich North Delta’s tradition really is. James was big in explaining this to us. You can’t move forward without embracing the past, because a tree is only as strong as its deepest roots.”
That partnership enjoyed a peak in 2019 when North Delta won its fourth B.C. senior varsity boys title at the provincial AAA tournament.
Yet ask Buis, Edwards, Johnston, Hundal and Sandhu about precisely how discussion turned towards a shared acknowledgement of the original centre-court’s existence and the idea to use it to honour the traditions of Huskies basketball, and it’s impossible to get a consensus.
In the end, however, none of that matters.
What does is the fact that Johnston was able to secure the financing to have the jump circle mounted and hung through Buis’ association with North Delta Secondary School’s 50th anniversary celebration fund.
The two talked about just such matters after bumping into each other in March of 2016 at the B.C. high school championship tournament.
Both men, over the course of the years, had been suitably impressed by similar projects. Buis appreciated the significance of the display at New Westminster’s Queen’s Park Arena where the Western Lacrosse Association’s New Westminster Salmonbellies had created a display with a large portion of its old flooring.
And Johnston was likewise impressed with what he saw at the new Richmond Secondary gym, where a section of the floor from the old Colts’ gymnasium had been displayed as a proud link to its championship past.
And even though the actual circle which surrounds the Husky logo was too large to be included as part of the final display, it goes without saying that, in terms of uniting the team’s past with its present, the centre court jump circle remains unbroken.
THE HOUSE THAT STAN BUILT
From Richmond High and Abby Senior, to Vancouver’s St. Patricks and Oak Bay in Victoria, B.C.’s best high school basketball gymnasiums all have their own unique character, and with that, a bevy of great stories to tell.
North Delta’s old gymnasium, of course, will always have a place in that mix.
“When you got a good crowd, you were right on top of the other team,” remembers Ted Murray, who while serving as team manager after being unable to crack the roster of the senior varsity, nonetheless never backed down from an opportunity to get on the floor during open summer gym sessions, thus getting a first-hand look at how tightly packed the old maple floor was within its band-box confines.
“The walls were right there,” laughs Murray. “I got introduced to those concrete walls in the summer of 1990 when Kush (coach Tyler Kushnir) would open the gym so we could play some three-on-three, and (outgoing Grade 12’s) players like Kelly Gordon and David Houston would explain to the (incoming) Grade 11’s that ‘There’s no such thing as an uncontested lay-up in this gym.’ They didn’t care if I was the 100-pound water boy, they were putting me off the wall if I got to the basket. It was a terrible place for practice, but awesome for games.”
In fact it was in January of 1990, Murray’s Grade 10 year at neighbouring Sands Junior Secondary, that he saw his first in-person game at North Delta.
While historians have every right to offer debate, the game Murray is referencing might well be the most atmosphere-laden game in the barn’s 45-year history.
In March of that year, at the historic PNE Agrodome, the Edwards-coached Huskies defeated the Richmond Colts 75-66 in the top-tiered provincial AAA final.
Yet the prelude to that contest carries an extra-special place in the heart of North Delta fans.
On Jan. 31 of that season, in a match-up of the province’s top two teams, the Huskies beat the visiting Colts 90-80 before as electric a crowd as the old gym had ever seen, all of them undeterred by the heavy snows which had fallen in the lead-up to the game.
“When (North Delta Secondary) won the B.C.’s in 1990, I was in Grade 10, and me and all of my friends at Sands, we knew it was a big deal, but I didn’t full understand the North Delta legacy until I was at Simon Fraser,” explains Murray, who later managed the team there for four seasons, under both the legendary Jay Triano (1992-95), as well as Scott Clark (1995-96), his current head coach at TRU.
“What all of this goes back to is Stan Stewardson,” Murray adds of the pioneering coach whose test-kitchen ideals developed at North Delta later provided his base at SFU where he coached former Huskies like Dave Coutu, current Basketball B.C. president Stu Graham, and ex-Oregon Ducks and Canadian women’s national team assistant Mike McNeill, the latter a former Simon Fraser men’s head coach himself, with Graham as his assistant. Add Bill Edwards’ head coaching stint at UBC to that mix, and North Delta has amongst the deepest coaching trees of any school in B.C. boys history.
“If you look at that Graham-Buis-McNeill trifecta, and all of the things they have done in basketball over the last 50 years it is incredible,” Murray added. “You can even look at Stan’s very first team with Edwards and Ron McNeill and everything they have done in their community. Stan was just not a leader, but a guy who had the true ability to develop leadership.”
Every school that takes pride in roots, has at varying levels, the same kinds of stories to tell.
And this little bit of Huskies History 101 is brought to your attention as a reminder of just how many layers of history the old centre-court jump circle is capable of telling.
HOME FLOOR ADVANTAGE
To John Buis, who played for North Delta from 1970-73, the home floor truly is the home floor.
While he was busy helping Edwards save the centre-court portions of the old maple court almost 20 years ago, the retiring RCMP officer was also entertaining plans of re-purposing much of the rest of the court for use in his own home.
It has thus become the court of his life, one he has shared with wife Kellie.
“I met my wife at high school, she saw me play on that floor,” says Buis, who adds that both son Jamie and daughter Alena each played for and managed Huskies teams over their time at the school.
Buis even bought the oak flooring from the school’s old weight room/storage room, and it, too, has been laid throughout the residence.
Ted Murray, if you’ll remember, also wielded a crowbar during the summer of 2002.
And his father Gavin, a woodworker of note, also appreciated the quality of North Delta’s hardcourt enough to purchase some of the remaining pieces, many of which, some 64 years after first being installed at the high school, still await a new life.
“With the boards that I had, my dad made me a medicine cabinet,” says Murray. “I love it because you can tell it’s a gym floor. There’s a volleyball line here, and a badminton line there. And it’s such good wood.”
Of course, the jump circle never fails to show that good wood’s best side.
Bill Edwards, who turns 72 this summer, couldn’t agree more.
And while the old centre court hangs in such a position atop the entrance to the new gymnasium that it isn’t readily spotted by everyone who enters the school’s spacious foyer, that’s OK with him.
“If I am headed over there for practice, or I am waiting on someone outside the gym, I take a seat on one of the benches, and I sit there and appreciate it,” says Edwards, who hopes to continue coaching the team next season once a safer environment can be created through the new vaccines.
Mounted by a mechanical lift and a team of workers on Feb. 16, 2018, it sits about 25 feet away from those foyer seats, filling Edwards’ field of vision in much the same way an art aficionado might appreciate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Sandhu admits he has observed Edwards from afar, appreciating how transfixed the old coach’s eyes are when focused on the symbolic power of the jump circle.
“It took such a long time before we were finally able to hang it up there,” Sandhu explains. “When Bill looks at it, it’s cool to see it from his eyes. He will sit on one of the adjacent seats and just stare at it.
“I think I know what he’s thinking about when he does,” Sandhu adds. “He’s thinking about, how over all of this time, all of the relationships he’s been able to build.”
Thank goodness the circle remains unbroken.
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