SURREY — Watch the B.C. senior boys high school basketball championships each year, and in the sudden-elimination environment that defines the sport’s best March Madness qualities, the efforts of each team’s so-called ‘glue players’ is always magnified.
They are the ones who can chip in with offence but are more often than not entrusted with less glamorous roles, like setting the bar for offseason workouts and taking on the assignment of guarding the opposition’s best player.
Players like that, with the mindset to accept less-heralded roles for the good of the team aren’t easy to find, and at this time of the season, their influence is often times the most important part of a team’s dynamic.
The majority of every high school basketball team will always be comprised of its common workers, and if they can’t average 25 points-per-game, they can, at the very least, take their cue from the guy willing to work as hard as he can.
BLUE-CHIP, BLUE COLLAR
To coaches at every school in the province, the glue-guy is impossible to miss, and it’s no different at Surrey’s Tamanawis Secondary.
“He is probably the hardest working kid we’ve had since I’ve been here,” says Wildcats head coach Mike McKay of senior guard Kyle Uppal, a kid who works so hard for the betterment of his team and does it in a fashion that seems straight out the generations which have preceded him.
“He’s a throwback kind of guy in that he didn’t play any spring or summer AAU ball the past two seasons,” says McKay, who coached Tamanawis to the Final Four at the sport’s highest tier in both 2014 (third) and ’16 (second). “In the summer, Kyle arrived each morning as soon as the doors opened and stayed until the clerks left. It’s kind of refreshing to see someone doing it the way we all used to.”
Like any team which has spent any amount of time in and around outer edges of the VarsityLetters Big 10 Quad-A rankings, the Wildcats are working hard to peak at the perfect time.
And as favoured as both No. 1 Walnut Grove and No. 2 Kelowna might be to clash in the championship final, there are a bevy of other teams refusing to relent in their belief that they can also be one of those schools.
Tamanawis, again, is no different, and Uppal isn’t ready to settle for second best.
“I have to lead by example,” says the player whose off-season regimen added enough muscle to have his 6-foot-1 frame tip the scales at 185 pounds. “I have to be at practice earlier than everyone. I have to shoot before everyone. But it’s not just me, we have eight or 10 guys that can really play and our leadership has spread throughout this team. A lot of us have been together since the sixth grade.
“We’ve got five weeks left to make our push so we all have to make sure we’re focused. We think we can go all the way like last year and this time finish first, but we have to keep on working.”
Glue-guys can’t say it any better, and Uppal has a lot to build on following his move into the starting unit last season, not the least of which was the way he came into his own as a key defensive stopper at provincials.
In Tamanawis’ 87-80 quarterfinal win over Vancouver’s Kitsilano Blue Demons, it was Uppal who took on the game-long assignment of doing whatever he could to try to slow opposition scoring machine Luka Lizdek.
No one is ever going to truly neutralize a talent like Lizdek, but limiting him to 16 points, 11 rebounds and six assists is about as well as anyone has done.
“My desire to play defence, that comes straight from my dad,” says Uppal of his father Raj, a tough-nosed guard who played for Vancouver’s Sir Winston Churchill Bulldogs in the late 1980s, and whom his son honours by wearing his old No. 13. “Most of the conversations we have about basketball are about how to play defence.”
Uppal’s Class of 2017 teammates have experienced heartbreak but also success.
The Wildcats finished second at the Fraser Valley championships in both his Grade 8 and 9 seasons, and first in his Grade 10 and 11 (senior Quad-A) campaigns.
That 10th grade title meant so much to Uppal, that after his team was awarded the victorious banner, he took it home that night and slept with it.
Yes, like McKay says, a true ‘throwback’ player.
A late-season coaching change has meant a period of adjustment for all the players as McKay and Tamanawis principal Jim Lamond recently assumed the reigns of the program.
And through that adjustment phase, Uppal has once again shown the qualities of the glue-guy.
He’s become more vocal, his summer workout sessions have honed his deadly three-point touch and given him a ball-handling boost which has increased his versatility throughout the Tamanawis backcourt.
And if others feel these Wildcats are underdogs, Uppal feels they can be wildcards, and it was on those days in the weight room over the summer that he kept thinking back to the team’s championship finals loss to the Kelowna Owls.
“I felt at the end of the year, against Kelowna, that I wasn’t physically able to keep up,” admits Uppal. “So I went into the summer with the focus of getting stronger and not be the kind of guy who gets pushed around.”
He’d love to play basketball at the next level, and he’ll see how things progress in that direction once the season is over.
Yet Uppal also hits near 90 per cent in the classroom, and so he’s pondering his career beyond the court.
“I am thinking of going into law,” Uppal says. “My uncle is a lawyer and my dad is RCMP. We’ll see. But right now, my job isn’t to score 30 points a game. It’s to try to stop the other team’s best player.”
The best part about March Madness is that when you really watch the games, you notice the glue-guys like Kyle Uppal just as much as the ones he’s trying to stop.
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