It’s March madness in British Columbia’s Alberni Valley as 49 teams and up to 1,000 aboriginal people have converged for the week-long British Columbia Junior All Native Basketball tournament.
Teams have come from the Lower Mainland of Vancouver Island as well as Interior and Northern British Columbia to play in the tournament, the oldest aboriginal junior basketball tourney in the province.
There are 26 boys’ teams and 23 girls’ teams playing.
“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.”
More than 2,000 people attended opening ceremonies at the Alberni Athletic Hall, at which each team made a grand entrance dancing in their nation's traditional style.
“I haven’t felt this much excitement or seen this many people since an ACDC concert,” Tseshaht Chief Councillor Les Sam said to the crowd.
Sam was welcoming nations on behalf of his tribe, which resides in Port Alberni. Defending boys' champs Homiss Wolves, and Sylix from the girls' divisions, are both making a run for their titles again.
Homiss is a tribe within the Hesquiaht First Nation, which is one of the Nuu-chah-nulth nations on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Sylix is from Penticton in the British Columbia interior.
According to Lucas, Lax’kw’alaams, Heltsiuk, and Prince Rupert will likely provide the toughest competition.
“Vancouver could be too tough if their players from last year return,” he said.
On the girls' side, Sylix is the team to beat. Bella Coola, who they beat for the title last year, is back as well.
The tournament itself runs for one week, but the preparation is year-round as teams conduct bingo games, deliver dial-a-meals, and hold raffles, car washes, bake sales, 50–50 draws and bottle drives to raise funds to go to the tournament, which can cost up to $15,000 per team to travel to, one coach said.
Aboriginal-style basketball is more free-flowing and less structured than high school ball, Lucas said.
“People call it ‘run-and-gun,’ but it really is its own brand of ball—you have to watch it to see,” he said of the spectacle.
Aboriginal basketball is different in other ways too, Lucas added. It's a tradition handed down through families. Many grandparents played in the tournament, and now their grandkids do too. As such fans' tribal pride in their teams is greater than that of any school team pride, and the tournament is like one big visit.
“There’s a togetherness and closeness, even among rivals," Lucas said. “You can feel the ambience.”
Originally known as the Provincials, the tournament got its start sometime in the early 1960s. Officials changed its name to the B.C. Junior All Native in 1980. Lucas himself played on the tournament’s championship-winning Hesquiaht Braves team in 1977.
“We only had 10 teams play then, and in a tiny gym,” Lucas said, adding that players are taller and more athletic these days. “I played against a guy who was six-foot-one, and I thought he was a monster. Now there are guys who are six-foot-five, six-foot-seven.”
Gear is different now as well, said Lucas: "I played wearing Converse Chuck Taylors."