photos: Photos courtesy of the Council of the Haida Nation media team

The global basketball crossover

Heartbeats: The international HaiCo World Indigenous Basketball Challenge comes to B.C.

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A cultural exchange between two teams from opposite hemispheres has sparked an unstoppable basketball competition about to play out right here in B.C.—just above the 49th parallel. This month, 16 North American and international indigenous men’s basketball teams will converge in Burnaby to dribble, dunk, and drive change.

The HaiCo World Indigenous Basketball Challenge, hosted by the Skidegate Saints, a men’s team from Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, will take place August 10 to 13 at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus. Teams will face off elimination style during the tournament, which will be open to the public.

Right after the Skidegate Saints men’s basketball team in Haida Gwaii won their fourth all-native tournament in Prince Rupert last year, head coach Dave Wahl reached out to New Zealand’s Maori National Team.

“They invited us to come and play a four-game series in the summer,” he explains.

Plans were quickly in motion—the team worked hard to raise funds, and eight Saints players travelled to New Zealand last August.

“The games were incredible; the cultural sharing was incredible to witness,” Wahl says. “To see the Maori team do the haka before games is incredible, it’s inspiring, it’s somewhat intimidating, and it’s really beautiful. Those guys seem, to me, to take a lot of pride in how they do it in much the same way the men on my team take pride in how they do the Haida men’s dance.”

Moving on the success of the exchange, the Maori Team decided to visit Canada this summer. Wahl was inspired to organize an entire tournament. And now one international team is set to travel some 13,000 km to play on B.C. turf.

“It grew and grew to the point where now there are 16 teams, teams from all over the world,” he says.

North American indigenous teams from Vancouver, Vancouver Island, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, Oklahoma and the Blackfoot Confederacy will compete alongside teams from Bermuda, Zimbabwe, Tonga, Zambia, South Sudan,and Haiti as part of the tournament.

Following the tournament, the Maori National Team will travel to Haida Gwaii for a three-day exhibition series. “There’s a very strong feeling of connection,” Wahl explains.

Not so distant
Skidegate Saints point guard Desmond Collinson is looking forward to playing the Maori team again, after losing to them in a close overtime game in the series last August. “We did kind of a cultural performance, and they brought us around to certain areas that they found sacred,” Collinson says of the trip. “You play them a couple times, then you develop a kind of relationship.

“Haida Gwaii is filled with amazing, rich culture that’s alive and breathing—I think they’re in for quite the experience.”

Collinson says there are similarities between the two cultures, a powerful connection. “We cut through the waves in canoes, big war canoes, so it’s just so many similarities, they live off so much of the ocean too,” he says—noting his appreciation for not having to play with jet lag this time around.“I felt like I couldn’t even jump,” he jokes.

When the exhibition games start, he says the community will be behind the team. “The whole village will come together, the gym will be packed,” Collinson says.

Growing up in Skidegate, Collinson has played basketball since he was 10. After a stint living in Vancouver and playing ball for Langara College, he returned home where he coaches junior and high school teams—competing at provincials and sending promising players off to college-level competition.

Basketball is a driving force for kids in Haida Gwaii, he says. “It creates direction for individuals in a small community: it keeps them composed and focused,” he says. “It creates a sharp carving tool for life.

“Community is so strong here. When you can do that, when you can play on the team and you can make things run correctly, everyone is playing an individual role, it all relates to the community.”

All together
That sense of community is almost palpable in Skidegate’s gym, Wahl says. “There’s 10 or 15 of the most beautiful basketballs you could find just sitting on the gym floor, so kids walk in, and they keep their shoes in the gym. In fact, I keep my shoes in the gym too, so you show up and you take off your regular shoes, and put on your [basketball] shoes and there’s probably some food in the fridge if you're hungry,” he says. “It’s just a really beautiful part of the community. I can’t really say that I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.”

Community members will be travelling to support the team.

“I know people who are planning their vacations around it,” says Collinson. The Saints team is a core group of men, some of whom, according to Wahl, have won 11 or 12 annual all-native basketball tournaments in Price Rupert. “They’re just a very talented group who have, probably for as long as they remember, spent their evenings playing basketball in the gym in Skidegate,” says Wahl.

The crew is joined by Damen Bell-Holter, a Haida player from Alaska who has played internationally and spent time on the Boston Celtics roster, and recent high school graduates, one of whom was recently recruited by a top American university.

“I think we can be sure that our team is going to perform, put on a good show,” says Wahl, noting competition will be formidable.

“The three teams from Africa will all be very good. Bermuda, certainly, is a national team that has beaten some other bigger countries in the Caribbean, and certainly a lot of the other aboriginal teams from Alberta or from across Canada or from British Columbia, they’re very talented players,” he notes.

While organizing the tournament, Wahl says he’s come across compelling team stories—among them, Team Bongu from Haiti.

Haiti’s slam dunk
The team is currently awaiting approval for visas to enter Canada, an opportunity head coach Sebastian Petion says is one the team never imagined having. “This is the chance for us to show the world that Haiti has something to offer: competitiveness, dignity, sportsmanship and great basketball skills,” he says.

Petion explains how Wahl extended an invitation, after reading an article on how he formed the team after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. “It has been a monumental task to get my nation back on its feet,” explains Petion, who previously played basketball in Florida and studied digital film production at Langara College in Vancouver.

With sponsorship from Haitain household goods company Bongu and his own personal investment, a team was formed and has since risen to be top of the league in Haiti, where there is no national team.

“We used basketball at the time to heal our wounds—most of us had lost family members from the earthquake and the cholera outbreak—as well as our homes and our jobs. When we were on the court we forgot about everything; we were able to live just in the moment. The lessons learned on the court can be applied to life.

“These were guys who didn’t have the money to pay for education or support their families. The income from ASHBAC [Association Haitienne de Basketball Corporatif] changed their lives,” says Petion.

Their sponsor and an online crowdfunding campaign have helped raise funds to travel to Vancouver. “I feel like he’s my friend and I care about those players and coach even though I’ve never met them,” says Wahl.

Skidegate Saints’ Collinson is currently recovering from an injury, optimistic for recovery in time to play in the tournament that he describes as powerful and peaceful. “I say powerful and peaceful because we’re going to compete so hard against each other but at the end of the day we’re still all people,” he says.

“There’s going to be a high level of play. I’m interested in that, but meeting all the people, hearing their stories, and hearing where they come from, seeing what their history is, what their culture is all about, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Admission to watch the tournament will be $5 a day, or $15 for a week-long pass.

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