March madness is coming from March 19-23 as 49 teams and up to 1,000 fans converge on Port Alberni for the B.C. Junior All Native Basketball tournament.
Teams are coming from Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, the Interior and Northern B.C. to play in the venerable tourney, which is one of the oldest if not the oldest in the province.
“People are going to see some of the best players and the best fans in the province,” tournament coordinator Bruce Lucas said. “You won’t hear cheering and team tribal support the way you will here.”
There are 26 boys teams and 23 girls teams playing in the tourney. Defending champs Homiss Wolves from the boys division and Sylix from the girls are both gunning for the title again.
Homiss is a tribe within the Hesquiaht First Nation, which is part of the Nuuchahnulth nations on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
In the boys division, Lucas said Lax’kw’alaams, Heltsiuk, and Prince Rupert from basketball’s mecca of the North will likely provide the toughest competition.
“Vancouver could be tough if their players from last year return.”
On the girls side, Sylix from Penticton will be team to beat. Their rivals from Bella Coola, who they beat for the title last year, are back as well.
There will be two girls teams from Port Alberni playing in the tourney. While there are no boys teams from Alberni proper, several boys from the Valley are playing on other teams.
Several members of the ADSS boys and girls basketball teams are playing in the tourney as well.
Native ball is less structured than high school ball, Lucas said. “Its really its own brand of ball — you have to watch it to see.”
But it's different in other ways as well.
Some grandparents played in the provincials and now their grandkids do.
Fan tribal pride in their teams eclipses that of any school team pride.
And there’s a togetherness and closeness, even among rivals, that Lucas said he could see but found it hard to explain.“You can feel the ambience,” he said.
Lucas played on the Hesquiaht Braves team that won the junior provincials in 1977. “We only had 10 teams play then and in a tiny gym,” Lucas said.
Players are taller and more athletic now, he said. “I played against a guy who was six-foot-one and I thought he was a monster,” Lucas said. “Now there’s guys who are six-foot-five, six-foot-seven.”
Gear is different now as well. "I played wearing Converse Chuck Taylors," Lucas said. "When leather basketball shoes came out they cost $32 and that was a lot of money."
The tournament was held at the old Athletic Hall in 2009 and the facility burned down just months later.
“There were great games there, great rivalries and great players who are gone now,” Lucas said.
Aboriginal people took some time to warm to tourneys at the new Athletic Hall. “People are warming up to it now,” he said. “This generation is creating its own memories there.”