NORTH DELTA — It’s easy to have a soft spot for a classic era of B.C. boys high school basketball, that span during the early-to-mid 1970s when the growth in the popularity of the game was out of control, and the single-tiered championship final was a mass spectacle played in venues as large as the Pacific Coliseum.
I grew up in that era, never attending the games, but hearing the stories of how big the 1971 and 1975 B.C. champion North Delta Huskies really were.
They are my alma mater (Class of 1981) and the litany of those who played or coached at the school (Mike McNeill, Bill Edwards, Tyler Kushnir, Mitch Berger, Chad Johnston, Ted Murray, Craig Preece, Davis Sanchez) goes on and on and on.
I could literally name a hundred more and still leave too many out.
Yet like every program in the province, fortunes come and go. There are the ebbs and the flows, the highs and the lows.
And that’s why it’s so fun when you can be witness to the mercury as it once again begins to rise.
That’s the feeling I had last March at the Langley Events Centre, watching the B.C. junior boys basketball championships.
The underclassmen on the 2016-17 North Delta JV team proved so exciting that, even more that its’ Final Four finish, was the fact that those Grade 10s would be moving forward to populate a senior varsity team that could potentially be a part of a senior varsity AAA championship conversation over the next two seasons.
Selfishly, I’ll admit a truth.
To have spent my life writing and reporting on the happenings in the high school basketball world has been an experience that goes beyond rewarding.
Yet to then have a tournament named in my honour, the Tsumura Basketball Invitational, in which I choose the field and create the draw?
Even better, right?
Because when the TBI 2017 boys tournament begins its three-day run on Thursday (full draw below), I have the North Delta Huskies facing the Oak Bay Bays (4 p.m.) in one of eight opening-round matchups at the Langley Events Centre.
Let’s be clear, North Delta is a part of this talented mix of 16 teams because they deserve to be.
Yes, they are very young, and yes, Triple A’s No. 6-ranked team will get all they can handle from a Quad A No. 3-ranked Oak Bay team which has the same kind of deep and dedicated root system of high school basketball, this one built on generations of tradition in our province’s capital.
To me, it is a classic match-up, and I say that based on the shared history of these two programs at the top levels of the game.
Over that early 1970s era in which I earlier referenced, the two schools were constant rivals at the provincial tournament.
When North Delta won in 1970, Oak Bay was fourth, a scenario that was repeated when the Huskies won the title again in 1975.
In 1973 when Oak Bay won, North Delta was third, and in 1976, Oak Bay was second and North Delta third.
Even when North Delta won in 1990, Oak Bay was fifth.
And despite the fact that Oak Bay has remained a top-tiered team at AAAA and North Delta now plays out of AAA, there is a lineage here that shouldn’t be forgotten.
YOUNG HUSKY HISTORIANS
And speaking of things that shouldn’t be forgotten…
If there is one way in which this current North Delta Huskies program sets itself apart from the vast majority of teams around the province, it’s in the ways in which it has studied and now celebrates its rich basketball history.
“We have a North Delta alumni Facebook page where we always talk about the fact that you can only move forward by understanding and remembering the past,” says Huskies’ head coach Jesse Hundal.
“I have always felt that what is on the front of the jersey is always more important than what is on the back.”
To that end, the Huskies’ coaching staff so perfectly represents the past and the future of the program.
Bill Edwards, the Huskies’ alumus who coached the team to its 1975 and 1990 B.C. titles, was coaxed back into the mix by Hundal in a lead assistant-mentor-Yoda-like role.
And Gary Sandhu, another assistant, has embraced North Delta basketball history and tradition to the point where he has begun to weave the team back into the fabric of its local community.
When the team’s founding coach, Stan Stewardson, passed away a day shy of his 79th birthday in late October, the team’s response was immediate.
Stewardson warm-up badges were produced and have been affixed to North Delta jersies this season.
“And at our first home game, it’s going to be a night for Stan and so we will be reaching out to all of our networks,” adds Hundal.
Sandhu’s social media efforts have been extraordinary, not only in terms of displaying the pride the players in the program have for the history of North Delta basketball, but in demonstrating the time and effort the players put into helping with clinics and fund-raisers in their own community.
“The main thing Gary has done by using social media as such an effective platform,” says Hundal, “is that he has tried to help our kids understand that the program is always bigger than they are, but that they can always have a role in it.”
SURAJ IS NO MIRAGE, GAHIR THE REAL DEAL
Only time will answer the question as to whether this will truly be the start of another golden era of Huskies basketball. It’s always easier to ponder the possibilities than it is to make them a reality on the court.
The last one came amidst both the excellence of the Richmond Colts dynasty, and the arrival of Steve Nash and the 1992 SMUS Blues Devils.
Craig Preece, the Johnston brothers, Berger, Sean Ramjagsingh, Kelly Gordon. So many great ones.
And now, a new North Delta team, which while still completely unproven at the senior varsity level, has the potential to start another period of excellence.
“We have moved seven Grade 11s in and we have another seven Grade 12s on this team,” begins Hundal of the new mix. “I have coached them all (at various points) and the mix is great. They care for each other. I have two daughters and I tell these guys that I hold them in the same place as my two girls.”
Transitioning talent from JV to senior is never easy, and often times far from a smooth venture. What happens here will unfold as it will.
Yet there is no question that 6-foot-3 Grade 11 guard Suraj Gahir has the potential to be something special.
“He is a once-in-a-generation talent,” begins Hundal, who then references Edwards, who has seen virtually every North Delta prospect in the program’s half-century history.
“Bill says that when (Gahir) is done, he could be one of the top three players to ever play for North Delta. The thing with him is that he works on the things every day that will make him better.”
Seniors of influence this season include swingman Armaan Johal, forward Brandon Bassi and wing Jaskirat Thind.
And among the Grade 11s joining Gahir are guards Arun Atker, Jag Johal and Ryan Cabico. Vikram Hayer is a vocal and physical front-court force.
“I say that our focus with this team is two-fold,” concludes Hundal, who has always appreciated the power of a high school team to empower itself by both its social and physical heart.
“First, we want our guys to embrace the old Huskies, to connect with them and understand their legacy. And then secondly, we want our guys to compete, to hustle, show their heart and lay it on the line. That’s two things, and together they can make us a successful team.”
That is the story from the heart of North Delta Huskies country, yet perhaps it’s the story of your high school program as well.
History happens when you take one day into the next with purpose, and then decide to do the same all over again.
And as a new high school basketball season begins, it’s a story worth telling wherever it’s happening.
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