Basketball arrived in Skidegate in similarly strained circumstances, brought home by boys from residential schools. The first makeshift hoop and basket in Skidegate was erected on a grassy patch outside one home in the early 1960s. George Brown, a successful local native businessman and athlete, took the role of coach and mentor.
In 1963, a team embarked across the Hecate Strait to Prince Rupert to an all-native tournament that had first been played in 1947 and exists to this day. The Skidegate Saints, in their debut, placed second and returned home to a celebration at the wharf, a parade and a feast.
Basketball has become entwined in the fabric of Haida Gwaii, islands that do not have a single indoor hockey rink. Life remains tough. There isn’t much of an economy, and with jobs hard to come by, the population is in decline.
The 2013-14 Queen Charlotte Saints are a beacon. They announced themselves in January on one of their trips to the Vancouver area, winning five and losing only one against larger schools, a run that included a 97-73 thumping of Vancouver College, a perennial power and No. 3-ranked in this week’s provincial finals.
“There are lots of good teams,” says Vancouver College coach Lloyd Scrubb. “But they have the players to knock off anybody. They’re big and they’re a very tough team.”
The leader is Mr. Vogstad, a 6-foot guard who is readying to play at Simon Fraser University next fall. The other pillar is Mr. Barnes, his 6-foot-6 frame topped by a mop of curly brown hair. The two both played on provincial all-star teams last summer, against competition in the United States.
“We know we can compete with them,” Mr. Vogstad says of the much-larger schools. He sits on the bleachers after practice. He knows the difficult history of this place. His father, a tree faller, died in an on-the-job accident when Nate was young. “Running on the beach, on the trail, thinking about the history, we’re embracing it,” he says. He speaks about Haida culture, a warrior spirit. “It’s kind of almost a legacy. Play real tough. Play real hard. Relentlessly.”
Then there is Brandon Gibbard, an 18-year-old Grade 12 student, 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, with a startling touch from the three-point arc. The power forward is also an honour-roll student and has come through fire. As he was starting high school, his beloved grandmother died. It cracked him. Anger boiled. “By Grade 9, I couldn’t handle it and it exploded,” remembers Mr. Gibbard, with short buzzed black hair, wisps of a moustache and beard.
As an incident one day spiralled, he shoved an administrator and was kicked out of school. It was the demarcation point of his young life. He returned the next year to repeat Grade 9, reached the honour roll, won the award for most improved student. Today, he is an emotional heart of this team. Ahead of key games, he will sing Haida songs, one of a canoe journey, everyone in it together.
“This is our last kick,” Mr. Gibbard says of the Saints, together for three years and friends much longer. He speaks with the eloquence, and wisdom, of someone older. “We always wanted to play to the highest levels. Win or lose – you come out on top.”
The attention of B.C. basketball has swivelled to the Saints.
“Their story is unbelievable,” says James Blake, coach of the SFU’s men’s basketball team. “How good they are, coming from such a little village.”
At the George Brown rec centre, the clock ticks towards 9 p.m. Practice concludes, and the team gathers. “Play loose, play relaxed,” Mr. Wahl tells the boys. The assistant coach is 6-foot-7 and a veteran of SFU and pro basketball in Britain. He knows the challenge undertaken is heady. “We need to play in pursuit of joy.”
Mr. Collinson presents the more ambitious edge. He reminds the teens to be here at 5 p.m. the next day, for a run on the rocky beach, before dinner at home and practice. “Know what we’re going to do,” he says. “We’re there to win. Don’t lose focus.”
The boys head home. There is homework, video games, rest. Mr. Collinson lingers.
His eyes are a deep brown. His left hand is bandaged, a plastic splint. He broke a bone in the hand in February, late in the final game when he led the Skidegate men’s team to victory at the All Native Basketball Tournament in Prince Rupert. He was the highest scorer and MVP. In his role of mentor, Mr. Collinson carries the weight of responsibility, history, teaching boys how to be men.
“These guys,” he says, “have set the tone. They’ve set the pedestal so much higher.”