The thump-thump-thump of bouncing basketballs reverberates in the George Brown Recreation Centre. The hardwood here, in the village of Skidegate on Haida Gwaii off the jagged northwestern coast of British Columbia, is all old-growth forest: hemlock and spruce and Western red cedar. The red-and-white emblem of the Haida Nation, an eagle and a raven, marks centre court.
It's Wednesday night and the teenage boys who comprise the Queen Charlotte Saints, the local high-school basketball team, practise a typical routine of drills, running and scrimmages. Assistant coach Dave Wahl, dressed all in black – touque, shirt, shorts, long johns, shoes – is a livewire of enthusiasm and has the boys sprinting the length of the court and back, several times over. It is preparation for what is coming next week: the provincial basketball championships for large high schools that will see the isolated, small-school Saints challenge the toughest competition around.
"If you don't sprint your asses back every time, they're going to punch it down your throat," Mr. Wahl says. "Sprinting your asses back is the key to success. Go." The boys run.
These are the penultimate moments of an extraordinary winter. Skidegate and neighbouring Queen Charlotte are home to about 1,600 people and there are barely two dozen Grade 11 and 12 boys at Queen Charlotte Secondary – attended by a total of 142 students – to populate the senior basketball team's roster. But among the small troupe are a couple of the best players in the entire province – 17-year-olds Nate Vogstad, in Grade 12, and Jesse Barnes, in Grade 11.
And so the Saints have stormed their way to the highest echelon of provincial basketball, led by strong coaches and going 14-2 in tournaments and exhibition games as they travelled several thousands of kilometres and spent tens of thousands of dollars to get to games. The Saints would normally play in and likely dominate the lowest of four tiers, divided by size of school. Instead, they will measure themselves at the top, the 4A tier. Queen Charlotte Secondary is possibly the smallest school ever to play at this level.
On Wednesday, the four-day provincial championships for large schools begin at the Langley Events Centre in the Fraser Valley. The first game of the 16-team tournament, at 8:30 a.m., pits the No. 13-ranked Saints against No. 4 Walnut Grove Secondary. Walnut Grove in the Township of Langley is the defending provincial champion and has about 1,800 students, greater than the population of the entire villages of Skidegate and Queen Charlotte combined.
"We're pretty damn good," says Desi Collinson, the 28-year-old coach of the Saints. "I don't think there's many high-school teams that can keep up."
The challenge at the provincials remains significant, and victory is far from assured. But success for this team is counted in more than wins and losses. It is rooted in the rugged land of these islands, sometimes severe and often beautiful, and flourishes in the spirit of the people, in the bright faces of teenage boys on the cusp of manhood.
Mr. Collinson, his long black hair down to near his waist and tied in a ponytail, is himself a former high-school star, and weaves the narrative of history and the islands into the days, weeks and months of training and practice. He runs the boys on the rocky crescent beach in Skidegate – "breathing in the air, you become alive," says Mr. Collinson – and up the three-kilometre path through thick mossy forest to Spirit Lake.
In summer, he has the team out on the water in a traditional Haida canoe. Through the many dark nights of winter, the boys practise and, in lieu of any nearby high-school team to challenge, their games are against local men. This season, there have been only three excursions off island to face other squads their age.
"Basketball teaches you discipline," Mr. Collinson says. "How you're supposed to carry yourself. The strong history that we have, the storytelling, and how you should have a sense of pride. But just because you inherit something doesn't mean you have an automatic right to it. You have to work. A sense of who you are is going to make you a better person, and a better basketball player."
Haida history is one of scars and resilience and rebirth. Here on these islands on the edge of the world, there was for centuries a culture renowned for its art and feared for its warrior seafaring. In the 1860s, a smallpox epidemic struck, and it nearly decimated the Haida. Numerous villages were abandoned and survivors retreated to Skidegate and Old Massett, the south and north of Graham Island. As the Haida were dying, their culture was also attacked: a ban on the potlatch, central to community, politics and identity.
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."