More than 800 B.C. youth are preparing for the province's largest youth basketball tournament and no one feels the pressure more than the 10 Vancouver boys who won the title last year.
The Vancity Sons are defending champions of the Junior All-Native Basketball Tournament. Vancouver is hosting this year's championships, which run March 18 to 23, culminating in a championship match at Capilano University. Organizers are expecting more than 5,000 spectators.
It’s an even bigger tournament than the B.C. high school provincials, which had about 60 teams competing this year.
“We are preparing for the crowd,” said 17-year-old Marlon Edgar, a shooting guard for the Vancity Sons.
“It gets pretty wild.
Edgar, a member of the Nuxalk First Nation, is one of hundreds of athletes who will compete for the title. Edgar moved from Bella Coola to Vancouver when he was in grade 10, specifically for the chance to play basketball at an elite level.
But the Vancity Sons were not always the powerhouse they are today. Kobe McKnight, also a shooting guard, was named MVP at last year’s championships. He recalled the team's humble beginnings in elementary school.
“We weren’t very good. We lost a lot of the games we played in,” said the Kitasoo First Nations member.
Then, two years ago, they placed 5th at the Junior All-Native.
Last year, they won.
The boys are practicing every day this week to prepare for the competition. That level of dedication doesn't surprise coach Chris McKnight, who is also Kobe's father. Many of them grew up dreaming of playing in this very tournament, he said.
“They view this event as very special because they get to play in front of their family, their friends, and the audience is going to be some of the biggest crowds they have ever played in front of.”
McKnight, Edgar, and three teammates just finished the high school basketball season, placing 6th in Double A provincials with the Britannia Bruins.
For McKnight and Edgar, it’s their last year playing at Junior All-Native, which starts at U13 and caps at U17.
“This is our last year to get it done,” said McKnight, who was recently accepted to play college basketball at Douglas College in the fall.
But next week’s 83-team tournament is about more than just basketball – culture has always played a big role, according to organizers.
The tournament’s theme this year is unity, with the aim of promoting reconciliation throughout the province as well as within First Nations communities. There is a cultural opening ceremony as well as a family night, where community leaders offer words of encouragement to the players and invite them to dance.
It’s an opportunity for urban indigenous youth to explore their culture more, said McKnight’s father and Vancity Sons coach, Chris McKnight.
“A lot of the kids in urban areas like [Vancouver], they’re not exposed to their culture enough. So a lot of the elders will get them together to sing and dance to expose them to their culture.”
For Edgar, who grew up immersed in that culture, it’s a nostalgic experience.
“It’s a taste of home,” he said.