VANCOUVER — He only picked up a basketball because his high school didn’t have a volleyball team.
At one stretch of his university career he had played for three different programs in four seasons.
Cut as a walk-on, he bumped into a former assistant coach who gave him a chance to return, one which he parlayed into a starting role.
But then, with only one more year of eligibility remaining, he twice offered up his left knee to a surgeon’s knife, at one stage going two years, 10 months and 13 days between games.
How did Harpreet Randhawa find the strength to undergo what basically amounts to 1,047 consecutive days of rehabilitation?
Furthermore, how did he keep the faith to continue the process knowing that if he could make his return by the start of the 2017 calendar year that he would get at most, six weeks of active duty with his team?
The answer is simple.
“Because sport is a beautiful thing, just everything involved with it,” the 24-year-old fifth-year senior forward with the UBC Thunderbirds explained last Friday night, seven games into a comeback in which he astounded both bench and crowd by going a perfect 6-for-6 from the field and finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds in just 15 minutes off the pine as part of a 127-62 win over the Brandon Bobcats.
“It’s stuff like this that I would have missed if I hadn’t tried to come back, and stuff like just being with 12 guys in practice,” says the 6-foot-8 Williams Lake native in a tone that reflects his nightmarish journey. “It’s the feeling you get from being in a family for eight to 10 months a year, and you are so glad to be a part of it.”
HUSTLE AND DESIRE
On Friday, one of nation’s juggernaut teams takes to the floor to face Prince George’s visiting UNBC Timberwolves (8 p.m.) in its annual Courtside Classic, a contest that for all intents and purposes is the program’s Homecoming Game.
The stands at venerable War Memorial Gymnasium are expected to be packed, and U Sports No. 2-ranked UBC comes in riding not only a seven-game win streak, but carrying a 15-1 Canada West conference record.
Its deep-and-seasoned lineup, led by guard/forward Conor Morgan, the nation’s scoring leader, and blue-chip guard Jordan Jensen-Whyte, has been through the wars, having hosted last season’s Final 8 national championship tournament.
Versatile and two deep at every spot on the floor, they are one of the toughest rosters to crack in the nation.
And it is within this group that the former walk-on underdog from now-defunct Columneetza Secondary has not only survived to earn frontcourt minutes as a hustle player, but has emerged as a key and respected part of the leadership chain.
“I call him the glue guy of our team,” explains forward Luka Zaharijevic, who along with Morgan and Jensen-Whyte are the only ‘Birds remaining from Randhawa’s first season with the team back in 2013-14. “He is such a great friend to everyone on this team, and he is the guy where if you get down, he is there with a helping hand.”
Raw and athletic coming out of the Cariboo in 2010, Randhawa found basketball as an eighth grader at Columneetza, but only because the school didn’t have a volleyball program.
After one season spent at Kwantlen University in Surrey, then another two at New Westminster’s Douglas College, Randhawa made the bold move of trying to walk on with the ‘Birds.
“I understood why I wasn’t making UBC,” Randhawa says in reflection of getting cut in the fall of 2013. “They had great players but I took it as a person goal that I was going to work on what Kev (UBC head coach Kevin Hanson) told me to go work on.”
Randhawa figured he would take another crack at the team the following season, yet a couple of months later, he bumped into former assistant coach Jamie Oei on campus. An injury bug had ripped through the team and suddenly the door to War had swung back open.
Two weeks of practice later, he was with the team in Regina for their season opener, and after coming off the bench in 17 games, he got some incredible news from Hanson.
“Kev came up to me before the last two games of the regular season and said ‘The starting five is for Victoria is going to include Harp Randhawa.’ The joy I felt, after grinding the whole year, and then I’m starting for UBC? It was unreal for a kid from Williams Lake. I had dreamt about this.”
UNDER THE KNIFE
Yet not too soon afterwards, adversity hit hard.
UBC returned to full health for the 2014-15 season, and the decision was made to give Randhawa a red-shirt year to hone his skills.
But while running a one-on-one drill with practice partner Zaharijevic in Janaury of that season, he tore his ACL and was lost for the campaign.
“I was trying to do an in-and-out hesitation move and I hit him by accident,” Zaharijevic remembers. “He fell down and started screaming. It was an awful time for him and I was way heavier (300 pounds) back then. I thought ‘Oh-oh, Luka just injured someone again.’”
Randhawa admits he didn’t take his rehabiliation as seriously as he should have, and when he returned to practicing with the team in July of 2015, he promptly tore the same ACL again, this time while taking a jump shot in a non-contact situation. UBC was hosting the nationals and thus had been given an automatic berth, but Randhawa couldn’t get the surgery done until January of 2016, keeping him out of action for a second straight season.
“I started to question whether or not I could take another year of my life re-habbing,” Randhawa says. “But a core of support guys like Conor, Jordan, Phil (Jalalpoor), Luka, they were around the whole summer and they kept me going. And (strength coach) Joe McCullum was huge. He said we’d make it work and I trusted him. I am so thankful.”
And that’s why, despite the fact last Friday’s win was the highest scoring regulation game in program history, the 13 points scored by Randhawa were the most special ones of all.
“You saw the reaction of the bench,” said Hanson afterwards. “That is a comeback. Tonight was the first time I have seen him as athletic as he was before his injuries. Before he got hurt he was dunking, blocking shots and getting rebounds. Tonight we saw that kind of Harp again. What a great thing it would be if he could keep that going.”
And what a storybook ending it would be if UBC could maintain its form through the post-season and take yet another crack at winning a national title.
“I have always felt that way,” Randhawa says when the word ‘underdog’ is mentioned. “I’m a small-townm kid and from where I come from, not many kids make the post-secondary push (in sports). Even to this day, when I go back home to Williams Lake, people make me feel like a celebrity. Little kids coming running up to ask for a hug and ask about my season.”
Beginning Friday, Harpreet Randhawa gets a chance to continue a stretch drive he thought might never happen.
“I’ve never played in a national championship before, but there is a feeling here that is real. We’re about four weeks away and we can smell it.”
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