B is for Basketball

🕔Jan 31, 2011

When the new children’s library opened in Skidegate, parents were invited to check out all the great Aboriginal children’s literature. Shelves were stacked with books that would reflect Haida children’s lives back to them. But when asked what more the parents would like to see, one mom called out for a book on basketball.

The idea was a slam-dunk. Not only are there very few other children’s books written on the sport (hockey and soccer are well covered), but basketball is a huge part of people’s lives on Haida Gwaii and across the whole Northwest.

“Families spend months preparing for the All Native,” says Tawni Davidson, an early learning coordinator with School District No. 50 (Haida Gwaii), of the week-long tournament held in Prince Rupert every February. Young children, who the new alphabet book B is for Basketball is aimed at, watch their older brothers and sisters play while their moms and aunties bake or create items for fundraisers for the team. Fathers and uncles coach, referee or play themselves. Chinaays and Nanaays are the athlete’s biggest fans.

The tournament is so popular that the school district tries to accommodate students who plan to head across Hecate Strait to watch the games. Superintendent Angus Wilson says it’s been a long-held tradition to schedule professional development days on the Thursday and Friday of the All Native. Even BC Ferries changes its schedule to accommodate the games. And when he worked in Prince Rupert as a teacher, Wilson would expect students to do alternate assignments based on the All Native if they were missing school.

“I would have my junior secondary kids write up a play-by-play of the action at game x, draw a sketch of the crowd or team bench, make an estimate of the attendance and calculate the gross revenue, that sort of thing,” he says.

Peter Haugan, president of the All Native Basketball Tournament, is well aware of how important basketball is to local First Nations. Basketball is the perfect sport for BC’s Northwest Coast communities, he says: in the summer everyone plays outside, but in winter the sport goes indoors.

The wildly successful tournament is like another Christmas for Prince Rupert. Haugan estimates $4 to 5 million dollars are spent in the city during that week. Hundreds of players and families participate in age-old rivalries between villages, or meet up with family and old friends.

They play basketball, too. 54 teams in four divisions are slated to play this year, some from as far away as Kamloops, Duncan and North Vancouver.

Basketball dynasties
The tournament has a storied history. Haugan says the idea came to local hotelier Irwin Garfield in the late 1950s. “He could see the rivalry between the communities and got some of the players together along with other businessmen to get the tournament started.” The first tournament, in 1960, boasted 15 teams in two divisions: Boys and Senior Men.

“16 years ago, the board put Women’s and Masters’ divisions into play and doubled the size of the tournament. With one decision they made it what it is today,” says Haugan, who started as a scorekeeper for the All Native 45 years ago, when he was 13.

It’s been amazing to watch the different dynasties over the years, says Haugan. In the 1960s and 70s, Kitimaat was unstoppable, taking the Senior Men’s championship six years in a row. In the 2000s, Hydaburg, Alaska boasted seven back-to-back championship wins.

For more than 52 years, basketball has been a big part of people’s lives in the Northwest. Alison Gear, another early learning coordinator with School District No. 50, says the idea behind B is for Basketball is to not only inspire new readers with a book they can relate to, but to inspire adults to tell their own basketball stories when reading the book with children.

The educators also wanted to make the book a community effort, so they involved students by asking them to choose basketball-related words for every letter of the alphabet. Gear, Davidson, the school district’s Aboriginal principal Joanne Yovanovich, and Literacy Haida Gwaii’s Beng Favreau pieced the work into simple sentences that describe the tournament experience: A is for Aunties who arrive from Alaska, B is for the teams bouncing the basketball before the game begins; and C is for the crowd clapping as the captains walk onto the court.

A mighty roar
Over on Haida Gwaii, stories about basketball abound. One is about the community coming together in 1967 to build a new recreation hall in Skidegate. A huge celebration was held in 2007 to honour more than 40 years of basketball. According to the stories told at the event, the first Skidegate team started when a group of young men came home from residential school in Edmonton. They played against Masset and practiced with no heat in the tiny old community hall. Percy Williams, who didn’t hang up his uniform until his 70th birthday, was recognized at the event for his dedication to keeping young people involved in the game.

Williams remembered the long-haired hippies who arrived en force on the islands in the late 1960s, and how they were encouraged to get in on the game. Queen Charlotte-based George Farrell was one of the original players on the team known as the Gogeets, (for the long-haired forest dweller of Haida tales). Farrell played basketball in college and when the opportunity came to play against the Skidegate and Masset teams, he and several others jumped at the chance.

Only 23 at the time, Farrell remembers the first time he came into the gym for a game. The stands were packed and there was a mighty roar. “It was very intense,” he says. The fans were a huge part of the experience; everyone was hungry for the competition and action that went along with the game.

“The guys had short shorts back then, so the girls all watched,” laughed Farrell. “Now they have shorts down to their knees.”
For Farrell and his wife Donnette (the ultimate fan), basketball enriched their lives in many ways. Playing the game opened up a whole new social sphere, said Farrell. “You got to meet everyone, then you get invited to the dances and feasts.”

Everyone joked that the “hippies” only played to get a chance to use the showers. Farrell, who hadn’t played basketball for two years before he moved to the islands, admitted that most of the Gogeets (who actually did live back in the forest) didn’t have running water, but playing meant more to him than that. “It was like a religion. At least it was for me.”

Farrell went on coach basketball and attended years of All Native Tournaments with his teams until he retired.

No quitting
Players turn into coaches, coaches have children, and a new generation of players comes along. Basketball teaches important lessons, said Jason Alsop, a long-time Skidegate Saints team member, at the Skidegate celebration. “It taught me there was no quitting, no giving up and no crying no matter what happened.” He also realized, it wasn’t just the game he loved, he loved playing it with people he grew up with—people he would know his entire life.

As artist Robert Davidson writes in the foreword of B is for Basketball, “Be a good sportsman, be a good team player, become the champion you were born to be. Play ball.”

The book, featuring illustrations by Queen Charlotte-based artist Judy Hilgemann, is published by McKellar and Martin. It will be launched with a special tournament edition at the All Native Tournament on Feb 7. After that it will be launched again on Feb 19 on Haida Gwaii at the Haida Heritage Centre’s Greeting House. All proceeds go to early learning initiatives on the islands. An early version of the manuscript has also been translated into Haida by the elders at the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program and will be used for educational purposes, says Gear. She thanks Gwaii Trust and Northern Savings for supporting the project.