VANCOUVER — When he arrived on the first day of classes at Point Grey Secondary School, in September of 1973, he was a well-traveled first-year student-teacher with a fashion sense for the times.
Fu Manchu moustache. Huge sideburns. Flared pants. Platform shoes.
It was a look that made Ted Cusick so instantly relatable to the students he would go on to teach that year, but even more so to those impressionable teenage boys he was soon to instruct on the court and later form the kinds of friendships which would last a lifetime.
To them, to the guy they all called The Cuz, he must have looked like the coolest, most fun basketball coach walking the face of the earth.
And he was their coach.
Earlier this week, however, after almost a full half-century of just such coaching and caring, the B.C. basketball community lost a man who can best be described as one its most enduring, kind-hearted and indefatigable beacons.
On Monday morning, after a short battle with illness, Cusick passed away at the age of 78, his longevity in the game combined with his humility in life obscuring a lifetime of achievements, the likes of which, when revealed, secure his place amongst the most influential figures in the history of B.C. boys high school basketball.
Noted for a 47-year boys coaching career in which he took three different programs — Point Grey, Killarney and Riverside — to the B.C. boys championship tournament, but unknown for so much more, Cusick is survived by wife Pam, daughters Beth and Heidi, son Stu, and seven grandchildren.
“I don’t think I ever met anyone who had more friends than Ted, and I don’t mean casual acquaintances” said Ken Dockendorf, the Maple Ridge Ramblers head coach, and one of the few in this province with a coaching CV to rival that of Cusick’s.
“I am talking about people that he saw on a regular basis, and that is a real statement to the kind of person he was,” added Dockendorf of Cusick, who passed two days shy of his 79th birthday (Nov. 3). “Everyone who knew him loved him because he was genuine, helpful and giving.”
A graduate of Nakusp Secondary in the Kootenays, Cusick was a phenomenal athlete, a rare dunker in his day who also trained on the track where he had a flair for jumping events.
Eventually, Cusick embarked on his college basketball career just across the line, beginning in the junior college ranks within Washington state.
He would go on to make stops at both Western Washington and Central Washington before returning to B.C. to get his teaching degree at UBC.
And although his post-secondary career was certainly an extended one, putting him just shy of age 31 when he arrived at Point Grey in 1973, those who have eulogized him with such fondness this week, including Tom Tagami, the man who would become his coaching partner over a span of 20 seasons (1976-96) with Vancouver’s Killarney Cougars, all point to the fact that it was the only journey he could have ever taken because it eventually led him to his life’s work as a teacher-coach.
Never in the history of B.C. boys basketball have two coaches been so closely linked with one school’s program than Cusick and Tagami, than Ted and Tom.
Last Saturday, the two men shared an emotional in-hospital goodbye.
“He squeezed my hand when I asked him a question,” related the stoic Tagami, 70, earlier this week. “I said some things to him, how much he meant to me, and then I said ‘Goodbye’ to him. And I know he knew what I said because tears formed at the corner of each of his eyes. And I had tears, too.”
BOYS, LET’S RUN AND GUN AND HAVE FUN!
Our first reference to Ted Cusick is genuine, and as genuinely fun as he was in real life.
Yet continued descriptions of his fashion back in the 1970s are not based in frivolity.
Instead, they are intended to illustrate how it was, back in the fall of 1973, that this then-30-year-old student-teacher so instantly broke down the generational barriers which so often stood between student-athletes and the more establishment-based group of teacher-coaches of the day.
And in examining his long coaching career to follow, that first day stands as a portent to Cusick’s talent for establishing deep connections with his players by first greeting them on a most genuine level, then infusing them with the the kind of confidence which told them all that he trusted them to play to their greatest strengths.
And as the cherry on top of it all, he told them that they must always, always have fun.
From there, the best they had to give — from their skill development, and their belief in themselves and in each other — seemed to automatically follow.
“He was this guy who looked like he had just arrived from Woodstock, this young hippy-rock star guy that we would all come to love so dearly,” remembered David Counsell, a 10th-grade Point Grey guard back in the fall of ’73, who would later play for Cusick on the senior varsity over his final two years as a Greyhound.
Quite incredibly, Cusick’s arrival at the west side Vancouver school coincided with the senior varsity arrival of Howard Kelsey, the prodigious, yet still virtually unknown Grade 11 talent who thrived within the open boundaries of his rookie head coach’s desire to play a fast-tempo style that was 1990s-era UNLV Runnin’ Rebels a decade-plus ahead of its time.
To be known simply as ‘Run-and-gun-and-have-fun’ for the rest of Cusick’s career, it was the starting point in the fall of 1973 for Howard Kelsey, and Doug Kelsey, his brother two years his junior, to both eventually average 30 points-per-game-plus over the course of their high school careers under Cusick.
And so it came to pass that the Greyhounds, known before and since, as one of the province’s tried-and-true rugby schools, reached the peak of their cult as a basketball school during the magical 1974-75 season in which the Kelsey Brothers helped lead the team to not only a thrilling Vancouver City championship series sweep of Van Tech, but a ground-breaking run to a fifth-place finish during the school’s first-ever trip B.C. Championships.
To this day, following an international career with the Canadian national team, Kelsey, 64, remains thankful that Cusick not only allowed but encouraged him to play to his strengths on his way to becoming one of the most unstoppable scorers in the history of the B.C. high school game.
Put him in the time machine, in fact, and he looks back on that season through the wide eyes of the 18-year-old that he was.
“I’ve talked to my brother Doug about this,” said Kelsey, the 1975 B.C. tourney MVP, “and we don’t know if we would have been as successful as we were had Ted not been so liberal. Had he been more dominant, we may have all been stifled. Ted was very innovative and he was not stuck in any one way. He was wide open to do whatever he had to. He was liberating. That is the thing that he did.”
Longtime Vancouver sports television and radio personality Barry Macdonald, also a member of that Point Grey team, expressed not only his sadness at his former’s coach’s passing, but the ego-less way in which he enabled his teams to always play to their strengths.
“I will always remember the symbiosis between those two,” Macdonald said. “(Cusick) gave (Howard Kelsey) the freedom to impose his style and his will on an over-matched defender. It was wonderful to watch in an era of coaches who too often stymied individual talent and flair in the interest of structure.”
FROM THE KOOTENAYS TO KILLARNEY
After a wildly-entertaining three-season ride at Point Grey, Cusick turned his attention east to Killarney Secondary, where upon his arrival, found instant hoops karma with Tagami, a man eight years his junior who had recently been stationed at the school as both a basketball and football coach.
The two men shared a Kootenays-region background, Tagami having spent his first decade being raised in Slocan City, site of one of the former internment camps for the thousands of Japanese-Canadian families who were stripped of all their possessions and incarcerated during the Second World War.
Yet despite a contrast in coaching styles, they were a perfect fit, beginning a unique 19-year coaching partnership which developed into a lifelong friendship.
“The talent pool had started to dry up and the demographics had started to change,” Tagami remembers of a Cougars program which had placed third in 1974 but had begun to lose traction in the city. “It was re-build time, and then Ted came on board, and I had a partner who was just as interested as I was in the game of basketball.”
It wasn’t long before the pair had come to an agreement on how they thought they could best re-vitalize the program.
“We decided that rather than co-coach, we would alternate,” Tagami continued. “I would do the juniors for two years and Ted would do the seniors for two years and then we would flip-flop so the kids would be exposed to both of our styles and philosophies. They’d get the best of both worlds.”
You could say their styles contrasted greatly, but if that was true, it was in the best ways possible with that fast-break mentality always on the menu.
Tagami was intense and his system more traditionally based on ball possession and defence, while Cusick’s was a much more wide-open and uptempo game.
“It was mutual respect,” Tagami begins. “Not only did we become great friends, we respected the fact that we were different in our coaching styles. Our egos never got involved because we decided to sacrifice our own interest to make the program better.”
And how does he best describe the Cusick coaching style?
“Like he did with Howard Kelsey at Point Grey, Ted brought that same philosophy to Killarney and he just had a knack for developing a scorer who could average 30 points-per-game,” says Tagami, essentially profiling the Cougars’ 1980-81 standout senior all-everything Mark Staley, who did just that and more before later playing under the legendary Stan Stewardson at Simon Fraser, and as well for the short-lived professional Vancouver Nighthawks.
“He just trusted a kid to score and shoot,” added Tagami of Cusick. “He never said ‘Nah, nah, don’t shoot’, he said ‘Just keep putting it up’. He had a way of putting his trust into a player. He let kids play.”
With his Killarney Class of 1981 now a full 40 years beyond high school graduation, Staley looks back on his senior varsity career spent under Cusick with true wonderment.
“He loved basketball, loved teaching us guys and basically opened the doors that gave us every opportunity to play,” said Staley, 58.
“He wore that long lanyard, it would hang from his belt and he always carried his keys to the gym doors on it,” chimed Staley of a jingle that is imbedded as a part of the soundtrack of his youth. “You could hear him coming from a mile away.”
One season, Staley swears that Cusick, knowing that his players weren’t always able to use the busy main gym for private practice time, purposely left the key inside the switch which was needed so that the hoops in the school’s auxiliary ‘C’ gymnasium could be lowered for use.
“One day, the key was just left there, and he never said anything else about it again,” Staley says reverentially, noting but not copping to any role in its disappearance.
There was, in fact, so much hoops karma at Killarney in those days, that back in 1980-81, two of the greatest offensive players that Cusick had the pleasure to coach were suddenly together, and the teacher delighted in watching two of his top students carry the torch together.
Howard Kelsey, investigating the possibility of becoming a teacher, had somehow managed to arrange a year of professional development under Cusick, and thus showed up at Killarney with basketball in hand.
“Ted was the coach who gave me the green light to shoot, and he had told me all about Howard Kelsey,” remembers Staley. “All of a sudden it’s like ‘Hey we get to play with this guy from the Olympic team. It was like heaven. Not only did I have Ted and Tom coaching me, but Howard as well.”
OF WARRIORS, RAPIDS, BLUES AND HYACKS
A hoops vagabond his entire life, Ted Cusick even spent one season in the mid-1980s coaching the boys junior varsity team at Granite Hills High School in the San Diego area.
Upon his return to B.C., he resumed his coaching duties at Killarney until 1996.
He would soon re-surface at Windermere Secondary where he worked as a counsellor and coached the Titans boys senior varsity.
In 2002-03, as part of his stint at Port Coquitlam’s Riverside Secondary, he coached the Rapids boys to the school’s first-ever B.C. boys hoops tournament appearance.
He then continued coaching in the old Fraser Valley North at Port Moody Secondary, before in 2010-11 beginning what would be his final stop, a decade-long stay at New Westminster with the Hyacks, one which concluded after the 2019-20 season.
“Ted loved being around the game and I would laugh when he would say he was retiring from coaching, which he did several times,” said friend and former Riverside principal Chris Kennedy, “because I knew he would be back. He loved the kids, the game and all the action.”
BEHIND THE SCENES IN A BIG, BIG WAY
Even before the start of his own coaching career, one which began during his senior year as a player with the Magee Lions in 1981-82, Paul Eberhardt was drawn to the excitement of up-tempo basketball.
“When I was about 10 or 11, I used to go with my brother to watch Howard Kelsey play,” begins Eberhardt, these days the Langara Falcons men’s head coach. “Even back then I would watch the coaches. It’s funny, but what stood out to me about Ted was, here’s this hippy dude who had his teams running and gunning back in the 1970s with quick, early shots and lots of pressure.”
Of course over the years, Cusick would becomes friends with Eberhardt, just as he had with the likes of other B.C. basketball lifers like Chris Kennedy and Ken Dockendorf.
There were many others, of course, but what those three shared was a love for the health of the boys high school game in B.C.
Cusick and Kennedy, in fact, are former presidents of the B.C. High School Boys Basketball Association. And Dockendorf is its current president.
And therein lies the other half of Ted Cusick’s life within the history of the provincial boys high school game. For almost as long as he was a coach, he was also an administrator.
“Ted served a couple of terms as president, and they were tough years,” says Eberhardt. “The transfers and the recruiting stuff was hard on him. He helped us get started on our way to going to four tiers of play, and very quietly, in the middle of it all, he brought Baden to the table as our sponsor, and that has been a huge positive for us in terms of being able to continue our scholarship program.”
Cusick also worked closely with Tagami in establishing the B.C. boys basketball website, enabling scores from the around the province to be inputted on a day-to-day basis over the course of the season.
No other sport playing multiple games per week in the B.C. high school world has been able to consolidate all of its scores onto one site, and most importantly, insure that those are updated nightly.
It’s no small feat to foster the level of buy-in required to make such a feat possible, yet what Cusick did, in concert with Tagami, was bring a level of day-to-day interaction within the sport, the likes of which had never been seen before.
Taken as a whole, as much as you can call anyone in our province a caretaker of the game, that was Ted Cusick.
COACH, CAN WE RUN THE CIRCUS?
Last Saturday, upon having learned the news that their former high school coach had taken ill, David Counsell and Dale Harris, teammates on that 1974-75 Point Grey Greyhounds team, met up with each other at their old school to re-tell favourite stories.
“We walked all around the school grounds and reminisced about the old days with Ted,” Counsell said. “He was this hip guy who’d get on the floor and play with us. One summer he even invited us to come down and stay with him at Central Washington. We called him The Cuz and we played a ton of rat ball together.
“I will never forget how in 1976, Ted arranged a Big Mac eating contest between our team, which was represented by Doug Avis, and the guys over at Charles Tupper,” laughs Counsell. “Doug won by a bite… he eat six Big Mac’s in 30 minutes. We won the bet and a Wilson Jet basketball for our team. Ted loved every minute of that disgusting hilarity.”
With three basketball playing daughters, including UBC guard/forward Hailey Counsell, David Counsell would go on to coach a lot himself, and this season is guiding the junior boys team at Heritage Woods Secondary in Port Moody.
And perhaps as an homage to Cusick, Counsell will this season allow his JV Kodiaks to run one of the craziest plays ever devised, one which Cusick taught his Point Grey players during the early 1970’s and is so fittingly called ‘The Circus’.
The only way to properly explain it is to quote Counsell verbatim.
“We’d send one guy to foul line right in the middle, then the ball would be passed into him. All four other players would then start to circle him, one behind the other at full speed.
“After one or two complete circle revolutions, one player would peel out of the outer ‘circle’ towards the basket. The post would either hand-off or pass to the peeler and go in for a layup!”
“Ted would rarely ever pull it out of his bag of tricks, but we all loved it,” said Counsell. “The defence would be running around chasing us in our our circle ‘circus’ not really knowing what the heck was going on.
“Scoring on the Circus was more exciting to us than a dunk, which were rare in those days, and way more memorable,” he added. “It was my favourite Ted Cusick play and a perfect example of the kind of fun Ted brought to the game. Every team I’ve coached since has loved it and begged me to let them try it.”
Perhaps as a tribute this coming season, the Point Grey Greyhounds, Killarney Cougars, Windermere Warriors, Riverside Rapids, Port Moody Blues and New Westminster Hyacks will all decide to run the play as a tribute to its originator.
BEHIND THE BENCH, BUT AHEAD OF HIS TIME
The outpouring of love for Ted Cusick this week has done nothing but verify the impact high school coaches can have on their student-athletes.
Cusick, in fact, never won a provincial championship title.
Yet ask those who knew him best, those who have themselves captured the grand mug, and they will tell you that what the kid from Nakusp eventually accomplished, was to him, worth so much more.
“It’s so genuine how everybody feels about him, and it wasn’t because his teams were ranked No. 1,” explains Dockendorf, who perhaps through a power vested by the basketball gods, actually got the chance to oppose Cusick in his final ever game, a Fraser North Quad-A sudden-elimination playoff game in which Maple Ridge beat New Westminster in overtime in February of 2020.
“It was how he related to kids. He was competitive and his fire still burned to coach. But that other stuff, in the end, is way more important than winning.”
And it was with that credo, and an uncommon level of humility, that Cusick greeted each day.
“He was our most recent winner of the Rich Goulet Coaching Award, but he did not want to tell anybody about it or promote himself in any way,” Eberhardt reports.
The award, presented through the Grade 9 Boys B.C. championship tournament, was started by its late namesake Goulet, the former Pitt Meadows and St. Thomas More head coach, and Rob Slavik who has continued to run the championships.
As part of his award, Slavik had asked Cusick to supply the biographical information which would accompany a photo of his award presentation.
“But even if you go there now, I think it still says ‘Bio to come,’” said Eberhardt. “He was very flattered to win the award but so humble a person he didn’t want to say anything about himself.”
Adds Ross Tomlinson, currently the head coach of the Heritage Woods senior girls team, but who as former head coach of the Burnaby Central Wildcats boys team in the early 1980s, became a friend of Cusick’s to the point where each season, they’d open their schedules against each other: “He was so genuine in the way he communicated with you. My greatest memory is of someone who was so willing to share that as a young coach you could ask him any question. He valued the hard work in others and when he saw it, he would seek them out.”
And of course, right to the end of his coaching career, he never stopped caring for his players.
“I knew he really cared for the kids, but I didn’t always fully realize the extent to which he did,” said Dockendorf.
“From the time he was a counsellor at Windermere all through his coaching career, any time there was a kid who was maybe a little rougher around the edges, he befriended them.
“It got to the point where he would financially help them, say coming back from a game, stopping at McDonalds to buy food for them. He was always trying to help the less-fortunate kids.”
Dan thanks for this important piece! Ted Cusick is an absolute legend to our game! He puts the kids first always, and fittingly, he stands BEHIND the bench so he can talk TO his kids! It's a little bit of his genius! Ted, thanks for all your service! https://t.co/EwCLfu6Dc0 pic.twitter.com/jjKORuJhSU— Howard Tsumura (@htsumura) February 28, 2020
And so as we close Ted Cusick’s chapter within the world of B.C. boys high school basketball, for your author, one enduring image will remain: That of a head coach, who unlike all of his peers, elected to step behind the bench to coach instead of the universally-accepted manner of roaming the sidelines in front of his players.
“Early in my career coaching in Richmond, we used to have talks about that,” Eberhardt remembers. “He told me he wanted to make sure he included all of his guys in everything, and not just his star players. He wanted to make sure his bench players knew that they belonged, too.”
This is the end of what is most commonly referred to as an obituary.
But now that you’ve read it, wouldn’t you agree that it’s more like Ted Cusick’s manual on how to make a difference in the lives of kids?
And at the end of day, with all of that accomplished, we pay tribute to a life well-lived.
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