LANGLEY — I am writing with pace in my hotel room this morning because I have a self-imposed deadline on my plate.
It’s 9:32 a.m. and I start to tap keys, and I must be at the Langley Events Centre by the strike of noon to watch the Fighting Irish of Vancouver College tip-off against Victoria’s Oak Bay Bays. So I am giving myself 90 minutes.
I know, it’s a consolation-round game, but in this crazy year of upsets at the top tier, I spent much of last night and the early hours of this morning re-inforcing why, despite the all-out mental and physical assault it requires to cover provincial high school basketball for the masses, why it is so easily worth the effort.
And it’s because after spending a few charmed years writing about this game at the high school level, I have come to realize that not a moment goes by over the two solid weeks I spend at the LEC where I don’t bump into someone who connects dots of both my career and theirs within about a split second.
And so excuse my indulgences as mental gymnastics vault me back and forth from March of 1988 to the present, a 30-year span that seen startling changes in our game from top to bottom.
OK, so where to start?
This past Feb. 24 seems as good a place as any.
I am seated courtside at the B.C. junior boys basketball championships, watching the Vernon Panthers, largely because one of their coaches, Sean Smith, is a person I have great respect for as a leader of young people.
The job he did at both levels of varsity football this past season at the school was tremendous.
Yet as I studied the rest of the coaching staff and quickly referred to my program, not only did I see former Vancouver College head coach Bob Corbett serving as an assistant, but the head coach, minus a little hair but still readily identifiable as the former Irish standout Malcolm Reid.
Right in my wheelhouse! This is my portal back to the 1987-88 season, my favourite year of B.C. high school basketball.
MARCH 1988, PNE AGRODOME
Thirty year ago shy about a week, I was a cub reporter, all of 24 years old, taking it all in for The NOW Newspaper chain at the PNE Agrodome.
I’m not too much older than the players at this point, and the 1988 Final Four seemed larger than life.
One of the teams that night were Vancouver College Fighting Irish with Reid, Finbarr O’Reilly and big man Scott Harrison, coached by Doug Beers, who I have continued to see at stops along the way for each of those 30 years, including two weeks ago where he was a part of the staff of a Fighting Irish JV team that fell to its rivals, the St. George’s Saints, in the junior Final Four.
They were opposed that year by the Seaquam Seahawks of North Delta, one of the most talented and over-achieving teams I have seen in three-plus decades of reporting.
That team with the likes of seniors Bob Hoy and Rick Gill, was magnificent, and I have said this often, had the misfortune of playing in an era where one program in particular came to set a bar for excellence which still stands.
On the other side of the draw?
Head coach Jim Mayo’s Alberni District Armada were one of the most fearless and together groups in the last 30 years of Vancouver Island basketball.
Perv Randhawa, Mike Dejong, Dilbog Deol and the incredible Dereck Dirom still epitomize to me the core of a nestled basketball team which is drilled in the back country and comes forth to beat back its big city rivals on the provincial stage (Ladysmith, Dover Bay).
And then, of course, there were Bill’s Boys.
They were back from winning the 1987 title, and with Ron Putzi, Brian Tait, Joey deWit and Bryan Wevers serving as their engine, they were about as close to The Beatles as B.C. high school basketball has ever gotten.
WHERE DID THE LAST THREE DECADES GO?
It has been 30 years since the night Seaquam beat Vancouver College 73-64, and Richmond beat Alberni District 89-70 to set up a title game which the Colts won 99-80 to complete two undefeated seasons against Canadian competition, and earn in the eyes of the pundits, the title of B.C.’s greatest-ever high school basketball team. (Yes, I looked up those scores but that’s all).
Tonight, in the Final Fours that will take place at the 3A and 4A levels at the LEC, the lineage in our game shines bright.
The underdog Belmont Bulldogs of Victoria under coach Kevin Brown have come out of nowhere, a No. 13 seed even more unheralded than Coach Mayo’s magnificent Alberni Armada.
The Burnaby South Rebels under coach Mike Bell, teasing with their talent all season, and like those ’88 Irish, super-skilled but looking for a B.C. top-tiered title that has been elusive for almost four decades (1979)
The Semiahmoo Totems under coach Ed Lefurgy, entering a renewed period of prosperity within their ranks but, like those Seaquam Seahawks under the guidance of even-tempered general Bill Stebbings, perched on the precipice of greatness.
And finally, Surrey’s Mike McKay-coached Tamanawis Wildcats, like the other three of recent vintage, still ringless, but possessing a talent named Miguel Tomley, whose impact on the game in this day and age, keeps pace with the impact of Richmond’s resident heart-and-soul leader Ron Putzi.
To me there is symmetry 30 years later.
All of this is another reminder of why our community is so special: The kids I interviewed that season, like Reid and Putzi and Hoy are greying these days. Yet not only that, so many of the coaches of that era are still actively involved in the game.
St. George’s head coach Bill Disbrow was, of course, Richmond’s head coach that season, and he was the man singularly responsible for telling us how great our product was when he convinced USA Today No. 5 deMatha with soon-to-be NBAer Jerrod Mustaf to come play a game at UBC’s War Gym. Some 4,000 crammed into the stands to usher in the modern age B.C. high school hoops just before Christmas of that 1987-88 season.
Disbrow coached a kid named Lloyd Scrubb who continues to helm the Irish senior varsity, who lost Thursday in the Elite 8 to Belmont.
In the 3A championships, my alma mater, the North Delta Huskies, play a semifinal game against favourites Byrne Creek.
Lending his expertise as an assistant this season in the resurgence of Huskies hoops is none other than Bill Edwards, who would win the top-tiered title two seasons later, in 1990, with Chad Johnston and Mitch Berger.
In 1988, Johnson was a bruising big man as a 10th grader (so rare in those days) and the star of the team was fluid scoring guard Craig Preece, who these days you will see strolling through the LEC with Big Kahuna Sports.
That year, Preece and the Huskies fell in the quarterfinals to Alberni.
And now, 30 years later, I can say that his second coming has finally arrived at the campus on the corner of 114th Street and 82nd Avenue.
He’s a slender, new age Grade 11 hoops savant named Suraj Gahir, a kid with moves galore, and as I have watched carefully since November, a player who has brought both the physical and mental together, evolving into someone, who by his senior year, looks like an MVP candidate.
These are ties which will never be broken.
And as I look around the media tables, join the post game media scrums, and see the scores of young writers and photographers drawn to covering this magnificent event, I feel a blessed sense of honour for just having had the chance to experience this world up close and personal.
I was 24 that year, walking in their shoes. Now I’m 54.
Thirty years ago seems like both a lifetime and an instant ago.
See you all later today as we celebrate something none of us can truly explain but know is something so very, very special.
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