VANCOUVER — Jeff Gourley, like so many of our province’s veteran high school basketball coaches, is often asked the question that centres around the ‘R’ word.
“I get asked just how much longer I want to coach, when I might retire from it,” begins the longtime bench boss of the senior boys varsity at East Vancouver’s Sir Charles Tupper Secondary.
“I always say ‘At least until Gaurab graduates,’” Gourley continues, referencing his compact Grade 11 guard Gaurab Acharya. “He has been around our program since he was five and that’s how long we’ve been talking about him.”
So while Acharya is only now playing his first full season of varsity basketball, he has been a senior Tiger in waiting for over a decade, a period which spans the entire rise of the program from complete obscurity to producing the likes of players like Cameron Smythe (Carleton) and Warren Liang (Dalhousie) whose respective university teams currently sit at Nos. 1 and 7 in the latest U Sports national rankings.
Tonight (Feb. 14, 7:30 p.m.), at a stage of the season when self-belief becomes the most important ingredient in any team’s post-season recipe, Tupper plays host to rival St. Thomas More in the quarterfinal stage of the Lower Mainland Triple A championship tournament.
For a Tupper team which sat as high as No. 3 in the provincial rankings at one stage of the campaign, but has since been rocked by a slew of injuries, Acharya has been a rock-steady constant, despite the physical pounding his 5-foot-6 frame has taken from opposition defences intent on slowing his penetration and ridding him of the opportunity to get his three-point shooting game into a rhythm.
“It’s been normal to me, to always be the smallest player,” says Acharya, who in making his stature work for him, has averaged a team-leading 16.8 points, while shooting 46 per cent (101-of-221) from three-point range, and 95 per cent (70-of-74) from the free throw line.
“But really, the only time I see that is when I watch myself on film,” continues the straight-A student. “I get beat up a lot, but when I play, I don’t feel small.”
On a day dedicated to the heart, you couldn’t say it any better.
What to do with the little brother?
Gourley pondered that very question back in the summer of 2007 as he held a basketball camp attended by a future player of his, then-sixth grader Saurav Acharya.
It was finally decided that a DVD of Finding Nemo would keep pre-schooler Gaurab busy while his older brother worked out with the rest of the players.
“But what Gaurab did was he stole one of the basketballs that were all over the floor, watched what was going on, then snuck back to the office and worked on it all from there,” says Gourley.
The confirmation came one evening shortly thereafter when former Tupper player Harpeet Manhas, walking home from school through a back alley, spied a young Gaurab replicating all of the Tigers’ drills in the back yard of the family home.
“He was five years old,” repeats Gourley.
From that point forward, the head coach felt comfortable setting his earliest possible date for retirement, one which he admits is now very fluid, due in large part to an even younger class of players that Acharya and the rest of the Tigers have no doubt inspired.
And there has been plenty to be inspired by.
Last season, Acharya, and teammates like Norben Bulosan, Simon Crossfield and Jovan Dhillon, helped lead Sir Charles Tupper all the way to the championship final of the B.C. junior varsity tournament at the LEC, where they lost to the Burnaby South Rebels.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, a wave of injuries swept through the team shortly after the winter break, and although the snow has not fallen too heavily in these parts, Tupper has endured nothing but tough sledding on the hardwood.
In fact when the Tigers lost to city foe King George 80-47 on Jan. 31, it was the first game that the Tigers’ Grade 11 class had ever lost in city play since beginning their high school careers in the eighth grade.
“It was a crushing defeat for the boys but we were so broken heading in,” Gourley said, noting that his current 11s won Vancouver City titles as Grade 8s, 9s and JVs.
There is hope that the Tigers can get some of their walking wounded back, because after tonight, the dreaded sphere of sudden-elimination will be in place for many teams.
And thus Acharya’s presence, a year ahead of his senior season, has been huge.
“With him bearing the weight of carrying the team all year, that is a load for any kid to carry, let alone a kid his size,” says Gourley, who has appreciated the smarts and the accountability Acharya has brought to the point guard position.
“(Assistant) coach Pat (Cumaual) and I have noticed that every time (Acharya) makes a mistake, he looks down at the floor first, and then over to the bench,” says Gourley. “You can see the gears going in his head. He’s telling himself ‘I’ve got to be a man’ and he looks over at us. He doesn’t ever hide from it.”
THE BRIDGE TO SUCCESS
There is so much that is significant and so much that is symbolic when you look at the daily example that Gaurab Acharya has set for himself as a dedicated member of Tupper’s Class of 2019.
Heavily involved in both student council and mentorship programs, Acharya is also an academic whiz who is expected to potentially pursue a career in either engineering or computer programming.
His is a work ethic shaped and influenced by his parents, who were both born in Nepal and eventually came to Canada in 1999, ahead of Acharya’s birth in 2001.
“My dad came from a small farm in Nepal and he worked really hard to get to the city (Katmandu) where he met my mom,” Acharya says, adding that his parents later moved to London where his father learned how to become a computer programmer, setting the stage for a life in Canada. “My parents have done a lot of work to get here and for them to work so hard to do all these things for us, that is something I cherish.”
Acharya’s older brother Saurav, a 2014 Tupper grad, is studying sciences in his fourth year at UBC, and he has found time to volunteer building hospitals and schools back in Nepal.
“I would like to play basketball after high school,” the younger Acharya says, “but I have academic goals as well.”
That said, he has not cheated himself for a second in his quest to be the best player he can be.
“Coach Pat (Cumaual) has really taken me under his wing and been a mentor,” begins Acharya. “At the start of the season we talked about how because I am short, I really had to take care of my assist-to-turnover ratio. He told me to watch Steve Nash and Jason Kidd videos, to focus in on how they passed and how they finished. He told me not to body anybody but to snake through the defence. He told me to stay true to my size and make it my advantage.”
Of course he has.
And as a season filled with team adversity gets down to its stretch drive, how significant is it, that one of its smallest players has had to hold down the fort, keep the faith and perhaps most significantly, bridge the gap?
“Gaurab has always talked about going into engineering and every year at school, there is a project in physics called the ‘spaghetti bridge,’” says Gourley of the self-described structure which students build with the competitive goal of bearing the greatest amount of weight.
“Gaurab’s is the highest-tested bridge they have ever had,” laughed Gourley. “I think it took 45 pounds before it broke.”
From the classroom to the court, Gaurab Acharya might not be the biggest guy around, but when it comes to finding strength, he is his team’s answer.
And at Tupper, it seems like they’ve known it for a long, long time.
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