EAST VANCOUVER — If you’ve ever ventured into a gymnasium on the opening night of the B.C. high school basketball season — as a player, coach or spectator — you can attest to the fact that there is a feeling in the air as palpably uplifting as the one you feel on its final day.
Sure, coming in from a dark, wet November night to the sight of a sparsely-populated set of bleachers may not match the grandeur created by the thousands who make the pilgrimage to March’s vast championship stage at the Langley Events Centre each spring, yet do we really need to describe how special a birth actually is?
That opening day was supposed to arrive this coming Monday, and so in contrast, can we find the words to describe how sad it is when that birth doesn’t happen?
Instead, a B.C. tradition whose recorded history was so duly noted with 75th anniversary celebrations this past March — just days ahead of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic — remains hanging in arrested limbo, contrasted by the sobering realities of the virus’ second wave, and the promise of a long-awaited vaccine.
And through it all, we’re hearing more than mere whispers of doubt regarding the future of high school sports in this province and of its ability to emerge in tact on the other side of the pandemic.
Perhaps, however, we are underestimating the resolve of those who so passionately care.
Perhaps by the very nature of B.C. high school sport’s infrastructure, one built on the shoulders of volunteers from inside and outside of the teaching profession, there is more of a built-in resiliency than we realize.
And perhaps in the end, there is enough culture and tradition to see us all through.
THE COACH-PLAYER CONNECTION
Jeff Gourley concludes every Facebook message he sends to his Sir Charles Tupper senior boys basketball team with the same three words: Your Coach Forever.
Ask the longtime head coach ‘Why?’ and he cites examples which on closer inspection reveal not only the basic truisms of high school sports in B.C., but why they matter every year… even in years like this one when there aren’t even any games being played.
“I talk to former player after former player, all of whom still contact me on a regular basis,” begins Gourley, who since arriving in 2002 at the East Vancouver school has created a hoops oasis in the most unlikely of locations, last season guiding his team to the B.C. Triple-A Final Four at the Langley Events Centre.
“It’s ‘What do you think of this, coach?’, or ‘I’m having a hard time, can we meet for coffee, coach?’” adds Gourley, 61. “Or, just as much ‘Coach, I’m getting married. Can you come to the wedding?’ or “Coach, we’re having a baby.’”
When you give of your time to bring a team of young people together in pursuit of a common goal, and you foster those ideals within the same high school classroom environment in which they also happen to be experiencing the most significant social growth opportunities of their lives, you create the conditions where the deepest of connections can be made.
And while it’s a challenge to inspire student-athletes when the carrot of an actual schedule of games is not available, for a coach like Gourley, there is too much at stake even without an actual season of play to not to continue espousing the benefits of what being a part of a team is actually all about.
It’s the essence of why he feels so privileged to write: ‘Your Coach Forever’.
“Where the real fear comes in for me, is with the kids who have been in the program for a few years, but have maybe not quite bought in yet,” begins Gourley, whose team was to have played its annual alumni game in the Tupper gym today (Nov. 25) ahead of next week’s slate of opening games.
“For me, it’s about what I like to call the ‘daily, daily,’” he adds. “My fear comes from the players not experiencing the culture we’ve built on a day-to-day basis. Normally, we’d have a senior practice, and there would be like 12 kids in grades 8 and 9 in the stands watching because they want to be Tupper Tigers and they have bought in big time. It’s the repetition of what our culture is all about. It’s not just about basketball. It’s about something else, something a lot bigger, a lot higher.”
YOU SHARE A BASKETBALL, YOU SHARE A COMMUNITY
Earlier this month, in a Nov. 8 post to the team Facebook page, Jeff Gourley spoke to his players about just such “bigger and higher” things.
Wrote Gourley: “The leaves are falling like snow – help your parents out, help a neighbour out. Fifteen minutes of work will provide you with so much karma and good will. I swear it will make you feel good to give, to help someone else. Think about the poor widower or widow on your street that could use some help with all these leaves. Can you imagine how it would make your parents feel if they didn’t even ask you to do it and you raked the leaves? You are mature young men now and you can help out around the house. I know you are feeling a strain, feeling stress around this whole COVID thing but let’s think about your parents for a moment. Think about how they are stressed out thinking about their jobs, thinking and worrying about you getting sick or perhaps their parents getting sick. Remember that your family is your first team. Be a good teammate.”
To some, such sentiments stoke the fires of their cynicism and beg the question ‘What does this have to do with sport?’
Yet for those who can never quite put their finger on why a high school sports team is so unique, and in the end so untouchably special… this is why.
You share a basketball. You share a dressing room. You share a gymnasium. You share a classroom. You share a school. You share a community.
And in the end, it’s why so many who have experienced that very journey arrange to meet together in secret, huddling at their old high school years after their graduation ceremonies to surprise the old coach one day after practice, trying to find a way to say ‘thank you’ for the kinds of lessons that gain nothing but impact through the passage of time.
That’s what happened just ahead of last season’s provincial tournament when a group of 60-to-70 former players and their families sat waiting in the Tupper staff room one evening.
“The amazing part was that kid, after kid, after kid got up … or I should say man, after man, after man got up, and they talked about what an impact I had on them, and even how I had saved some of them,” Gourley said, the tone of his voice expressing just how gobsmacked he still is in recounting an event now some nine months in his rearview mirror.
“And you know, there were a whole bunch of guys there that weren’t the star players,” Gourley continued, “guys that might have had some trouble with the law, guys that didn’t have a home, only had a single parent in their life, and so on and so forth. My wife taped all of their speeches.”
That would be Anita Roberts, with whom he works together with in a program called Safeteen.
Now in its 44th year, it’s an internationally-acclaimed violence prevention program which, in Gourley’s words “…deals with de-escalating violent situations through body language and words.”
All of our most dedicated B.C. high school coaches, whether they are teachers or non-teachers, volunteer their time and their own unique skill-sets because they know that they are serving within a bigger picture. Thankfully, it’s that rare place where expertise and money are not mutually exclusive. And it goes without saying that it’s a place worth saving.
Gourley, like so many other coaches, is doing what he can to preserve the one thing that, over the course of the pandemic, can not be left to its own devices: Team culture.
As a part of his Nov. 17 Facebook post, Gourley told his players: “You have all the drills you need. It doesn’t matter the shape of the hoop you are working on. The Mikan Drill doesn’t need a glass backboard. Your ball-handling can be worked on from home-to-school and back. Rain? It’s not snow — Dribble around the puddles like they are defenders.”
For the uninitiated, the Mikan Drill, named after former Minneapolis Lakers’ forward George Mikan, is one of the single most effective solo player drills available, as over the course of making rhythmic right- and left-handed layups, players gain fitness, footwork, balance, timing, and a better sense of rebounding.
Ask Gourley about the drill, and his answer provides the perfect backdrop for the less-than-privileged neighbourhood in which he and his players all happen to live.
“Within eight blocks around my house, we have David Livingstone (Elementary) which has four hoops, two of them which are eight-feet high, and then the tennis courts where we’ve got four more, except one has the rim ripped off, and another happens to be turned sideways after some brilliant vandal thought that would be pretty funny. But hey, you can still do the Mikan Drill on that hoop.”
With loving care, it lasts and it lasts and it lasts.
Just as it has with Gourley’s own coaches, including his high school coach Rick Cotter (1975-78) at Fredericton (NB) High and his university coach Brian Heaney (1978-81), first at St. Mary’s and later at Alberta, both of whom he speaks with regularly, including as recent as this past weekend.
Which brings us to Jeff Gourley’s June 21st Facebook posting: “It might be Father’s Day but I want to honour my ‘Sons’ for everything that they give to this old man. You all keep me young, you educate me, you teach me something almost every day about myself and those around me. Numerous coaches around the province joke about me screaming ‘Son’ at you on the court but I truly consider so many, if not all of you my ‘Son’.
Your Coach Forever
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