NORTH DELTA — B.C.’s tight-knit basketball community lost one of its true pioneers Thursday with the passing of Stan Stewardson one day before his 79th birthday.
From his first year of coaching in Rossland in 1963 through career-defining runs as the head coach of the North Delta Huskies and later the Simon Fraser Clan, Stewardson not only won games and built character players, he introduced innovations to his sport, which in hindsight were years ahead of their time.
And to so many of the players he touched, the ultimate compliment was being paid simply by virtue of the fact that they dedicated the rest of their lives to spreading his message within the game.
One of those men is 68-year-old Bill Edwards, the former North Delta head coach who after playing under Stewardson at the school in the early 1960s, led the team to top-tier B.C. titles in both 1975 and 1990 and has never wandered far from the program.
“I am here at the school at practice right now,” said Edwards on Thursday night where he serving is currently serving as the Huskies lead assistant coach. “First of all, from the point of view of this school, the reason we are even practicing and everything (basketball-related) that has happened here, none of it would have happened if Stan hadn’t gotten it all going in the first place. So he has been huge.”
“I know what he meant to me, and he was my coach, my mentor and my friend,” added former North Delta standout John Buis, who played for Stewardson for three seasons, from 1970-73, including the school’s 1970-71 B.C, championship team.
“He used a lot of things from other sports, particularly lacrosse, and he was able to incorporate them into basketball,” continued Buis. “He could take a group of young men who weren’t necessarily great players, but good people, and take them to the point where they became a championship team.”
Stewardson was not the first coach in B.C. high school basketball history to make blazers, dress shirts and ties a part of the game-day kit back in the 1960s, but his reasons for making the demand of his players spoke to the deep-rooted thinking he gave to the importance of unity and team culture.
“He did it to an extent that it took over our presence,” says Buis. “It wasn’t just about wearing the jacket, shirt and tie. It was about being prepared on game days because in his mind, everything led to the game. It was the way you acted, the way you prepared.”
Stu Graham, who not only played under Stewardson through the 1970s at both North Delta and Simon Fraser, but later coached on his staff with the Clan, remembers even more why the coach placed a priority on their appearance.
“People would see us coming into the Pacific Coliseum back in the day and I would hear ‘Here comes North Delta,’” said Graham. “Our black blazers with ‘North Delta’ on them were infamous. Nobody else really wore them back then, and so they were pretty ominous and intimidating.”
It even went beyond that.
“He had us practicing positive imagery as a high school team in the early 1970s,” added Buis. “We would sit down and think about positive outcomes. He was doing things then that a lot of university coaches hadn’t even begun to use.”
He was also audacious enough to call some of the game’s brightest minds and ask them for their advice.
Graham, in fact, remembers that Stewardson was not only innovative enough to employ the famed help-and-recover defence that his idol Bob Knight had used at Army, Stewardson even looked him up and gave him a call or two.
“He understood that defence would win,” said Graham. “He phoned him a couple of times. I am sure Bobby Knight had no idea who Stan Stewardson was, but the odd time he would answer and take the time to answer his questions.”
Of course Stewardson would eventually move on the university level.
He coached North Delta from 1964 to 1973 and then left for Burnaby Mountain, becoming an assistant coach of the Simon Fraser men’s team under head coach John Kootnekoff.
Stewardson became the head coach in 1975, coaching the Clan from 1975-79, then later from 1984-89.
While there, he coached 11 Canadian national team players including his star recruit, current Phoenix Suns interim head coach Jay Triano, and 16 combined pros.
He coached B.C. high school greats like Mike McNeill, Dave Coutu and Graham with the Clan. And he also recruited stars like Mike Jackel, Tom Skerlak and of course Triano, proving with his 20-plus win teams that Canadians could indeed compete against U.S. competition.
A star baseball and lacrosse player in his youth, Stewardson was not as talented when it came to playing basketball, yet he was a member of the 1956 B.C. champion Lester Pearson Mikes of New Westminster, where one of his teammates was UBC star and B.C. high school basketball tournament director, caretaker and historian Ken Winslade.
His connection with the game and SFU run so deep that there is even one between him and current Clan athletic director Theresa Hanson.
Turns out that when Stewardson coached his first team ever in Rossland in 1963, he became friends with Hanson’s father.
Graham said Stewardson so often joked with him about what anyone would find if he ever provided a sample of his blood.
“Stan always told me that even though he was a UBC grad, he bled SFU red, blue and white,” Graham said of the school’s colours. “He loved Simon Fraser basketball so much that he would go up to every new coach they hired and volunteer his time. He would ask them what he could do to help them.”
And that was Stewardson. A guy for whom once loyalty was earned, it stayed for life.
“I had come back from a long trip in 2004 and he had had a brain tumour removed,” remembers Buis, who chatted Thursday evening from Peace Arch hospital where he was recovering from leg surgery. “And then he had another removed. Then he got radiation for another and he lost some of his balance and his ability to swallow. But you know what? He still came to visit me last week in the hospital.”
Graham and Buis both pointed out that Stewardson’s 79th birthday was Friday (Oct. 27) and Graham stressed how important birthdays were to Stewardson.
“Even this year and I am not the only one,” said Graham. “You could ask Mike McNeill or Rick Tough and they would tell you the same thing. When it was your birthday, the phone rang. He never missed with me.”
Graham, in fact, had wondered why he had not yet gotten a call from his old coach regarding the annual Christmas dinner Stewardson held at his home in late November.
“I was just thinking how funny it was that he hadn’t called and then I got the email today. I couldn’t have felt more empty.”
On a personal note, my 30-plus year career as a basketball writer allowed me to cross pass with Stewardson on countless occasions.
My defining image over the latter years is of Stewardson leaning against the top row of seats at Clan’s men’s basketball games, watching the games and supporting the team through some lean times.
But more than that, two things stand out for me and both have nothing to do with basketball.
I have always kept the Congratulations card that Stan sent me when I left my job as the sports editor of The Now Newspapers in 1990 for what would be a quarter-century gig at The Province newspaper.
Said the note inside: Congratulations on your promotion. It’s well-deserved. And when you make it to Sports Illustrated the lunch is on you!
The other happened years ago at a garage sale I was holding at my family home in North Delta.
Traffic was slow, but I remember seeing someone rummaging through all of the children’s books and toys that day and when he brought them forward to pay, it was Stan, buying gifts for who I could only assume were his grandchildren.
Stewardson even wrote a book of his adventures which is a long-lost treasure in our province’s basketall lore.
Today is a sad day for everyone who knew him, but please take the title of that book to heart.
He called it Lucky Me: My life in basketball. Fittingly, I think we can all say that during our lives in basketball, we have been all the luckier and the wealthier for having known such a big-hearted man.
Stan Stewardson suffered a stroke on Wednesday and passed away peacefully Thursday at around 1 p.m.
He is survived by his wife Heather, daughter Shannon and sons Kiki and Kevin.