VANCOUVER — Growing up as the son of immigrant parents, Max Astak admits it wasn’t always easy to traverse cultures and make the kinds of social connections so important in the lives of young people.
“But for me, basketball united me with others,” the senior point guard with Vancouver’s King George Dragons explains.
“My parents came here from Ukraine, and I was born a few years later, but for me, I had a big struggle with the language barrier,” continues Astak, 17. “But you don’t need to understand the language to play. Basketball, for me, became the bridge from Ukrainian to Canadian culture. It’s how I fell in love with the sport.”
It’s also been the platform from which to watch the 6-foot-2 Astak morph into one of the truest and most dedicated team leaders that B.C. boys high school basketball has seen over the pandemic era.
“The world is crazy place right now, but when a coach asks his kids how they are doing, they’ll give you the tough answer, like ‘I’m good,’” King George head coach Darko Kulic says, characterizing youthful stoicism. “But Max… he is the kid who checked in on their mental health.”
And truth be told, there were times when Kulic himself leaned on his teenage point guard to help the Dragons keep their ballast.
“When the pandemic happened, I was going through some tough times in my family,” Kulic admits. “I was working, getting ready for a newborn, and it would have been easy for the players to just do nothing.
“But (Astak) would call me, and with answers, not questions,” the coach continued. “It was stuff like ‘Dr. Bonnie says if we have one ball each, we can train at six-feet distance,’ and all of that kind of stuff. For our team, it was all the motivation we needed.”
All of that, of course, has led the Dragons into a 2021-22 campaign in which they sit at No. 3 in the most recent B.C. Double-A Top 10 poll, a perch which suggests they have the kind of team ready to make a potential run to what would be a third B.C. title game in five seasons.
Amazingly, Astak has been a part of the team for all five seasons, including suiting up and taking a seat on the bench as an eighth-grader for 2018’s championship game loss to Brentwood College, and as a part of the heavy rotation as a 10th grader for 2020’s title-game loss to Prince Rupert’s Charles Hays Rainmakers.
“Now, hopefully, against all odds, we can win that provincial championship and achieve our dream,” Astak states with conviction.
Regardless of what happens, the foundation of these 2021-22 Dragons — which also includes the substantial talents of fellow seniors Adam Spano and Palmer Currie — has been forged in true mettle-testing ways.
Owing to the fact that Kulic is not a teacher and had to work during the day, the Dragons were not only unable to use their own school gymnasium throughout the pandemic, they needed to find a lighted court on which to conduct evening practices.
The only place which met those requirements was the asphalt court located underneath downtown Vancouver’s Cambie Street Bridge.
Decidedly spartan and left bare to the elements, it nonetheless became the team’s home away from home right through the winter of 2021.
“The craziest day we had last year came in mid-February under the bridge,” remembers Astak. “I’ll never forget that day. It’s negative-five. It’s snowing. Darko’s wife is on the verge of having the baby and he was there for us.
“After he left that day, I pulled the team together and I said ‘That was insane. Darko has given so much time, so much effort for us, we have to battle through and win it for him.’”
A few days later, on Feb. 21, Kulic and his wife Eri celebrated the birth of their daughter Aria Alice.
Beyond its primary goal of bringing a B.C. title to the school, the toughness factor they’ve gained on the outdoor courts is something that will help Astak transition to next season, when he is hopeful of beginning his college basketball career.
Astak has received interest from NCAA Div. 2 and Div. 1 programs, as well as offers from the junior college ranks.
“I got some positive feedback which has been great,” said Astak, who played with Drive Basketball at the Las Vegas Classic this past summer.
What a next-level program is going to get is as team-oriented a player as they’re apt to find anywhere.
And he’s pretty talented, too.
“On the court, he is a floor general and confident in his game and his teammates,” begins Kulic. “He defends, man or zone, and he battles. He’s had some fabulous games. And the one thing I will say is that he does what’s needed to win. If has to be the guy to take the back seat to be the facilitator, he will. But if we need him to step up, he will …and he will take those big shots.”
All the while, Astak can’t wait to talk about the team’s pre-game ritual and what it means to both he and his teammates.
“Do you remember the huddle that we do?,” Astak asks of the team’s pre-tip scrum in which they gather in a highly-vocal and motivational circle.
“I am in the middle of it, and the one thing I always say is that we went through over 20 months of hard work, under that bridge in rain and in snow. For us, it all builds up to now.”
From a kid who found his voice through basketball, there is no doubting its sincerity.
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