With performances that surpassed Canada Games U17 records, powerful teams playing up to their potential, and the depth of talent rising across the country, perhaps the most poignant story was that of the Northwest Territories basketball team.
Though they lost every game they played by somewhere between 60 and 80 points, this team showed such class, heart and spirit they reminded everyone what the Canada Games is all about – sport bringing the country together.
This was a team that clearly enjoyed themselves. Having fun throughout the tournament they cheered the hardest, stood the proudest and appreciated the moment most. They even found time for a spontaneous Gagnam Style dance-off with the P.E.I. girl’s volleyball team across the court.
“We came here to play our best and see how we compete with everyone, and before every game we said our team goals and for every game we accomplished what we wanted to do,” said guard Austin Smith, who opened the Games as the flag-bearer for the Territories.
“I take away that I got to play against Ontario, got to play against guys that will probably play in the NBA, and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life. We’re going to close the gap between us and the better teams, come back and work harder on our weaknesses and stay strong as a team.”
Other members of the Northwest Territories staff tried to put the team’s presence at the games into perspective as well. For them it was a matter of tempering expectations and focusing on small victories to build the program through each experience.
“It’s an honour to be playing at a Canada Games,” said Damon Crossman, a member of the Northwest Territories Mission Staff. “Not everybody gets to do it, so we don’t take it lightly and we get experience and some of these guys might get looked at for a school at a competition like this and use it as a stepping-stone for their basketball career.”
“We have to travel a great distance to get to anything,” continued Crossman. “Even to get our team together costs a lot of money and we don’t have the luxury from picking from millions of people. We’re a territory of less than 50,000.”
Northwest Territories aviation expert Evan Donnelly adds, “Competitive athletics are difficult to arrange up here, as teams from the communities must travel long distances, generally by air, to play against other teams.”
With a dispersed population, expensive flights, and few outdoor courts that are only really playable for a couple months each year, geography isn’t in favour of Territorial collective squads.
No person at the Canada Games traveled as far as 6-3 wing Chris Church who resides in Inuvik where he was born and raised. The small town of about 3500 is roughly 50 hours north of Yellowknife in the summer, but easier to access in the winter along ice roads – as long as they’re completely frozen.
Church’s involvement with the team wouldn’t have been possible probably even ten years ago. Technological advances have allowed his coaches to communicate with him constantly and keep him on the same page as the rest of his teammates, most of whom live in Yellowknife or the surrounding area. They send him game footage, physical and academic lessons to work on, and advice on which drills to do. Then he goes in the gym, often alone, and puts in the work.
“It’s kind of complicated because the whole team is in one spot and I’m in another,” he explains. “I just practice and they send me notes of what I should practice and what I should work on, they send me videos to watch and learn from and they send me down eventually to be with the team for a few weeks before coming here.”
Some of Church’s funding comes through the government and other sport support systems in the north, some of it he fundraises himself with the help of his community. His sights are set high and he believes if he puts in the work, he could play college basketball some day.
Head coach Nick Diem says pretty much the whole team has practiced together the whole year except for Church and another player Kevin Roche who also lives too far to commute to regular practices. The team has some decent offensive sets, works together on the defensive end and usually put themselves in good positions to shoot.
It’s been a long road already just to get here, and Diem knows it will be a long one ahead to bring Territorial teams to National prominence. Diem also serves as the technical director of Northwest Territories Basketball. Part of his job is to run camps that spread basketball to communities that wouldn’t have sport programming otherwise. With each camp they hope to inspire somebody like Church who will take it upon themselves to continue to nurture the spark he gives them.
Sometimes this means going to towns like Aklavik with 600 or fewer people, often with the aid of programs like Canada Basketball’s Steve Nash Youth Basketball. These places are so isolated that in the past Diem says people have believed he was Steve Nash. “It’s so isolated there that when somebody comes in the whole community comes out, literally every kid was into it and engaged.”
It’s inspiring to see the group of them work together and stand and encourage each other from the bench even when the team is down by 50 or more points. Not a member of the team can dunk, but their stature is part of the appeal. Kent Alacida is the starting point guard who aspires to be like Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry (and Steve Nash he admitted with some prodding) though his stature is more like that of Muggsy Bogues. Standing 5-3 he snuck into the paint with low crossovers to protect his dribble.
“You could play on an outdoor court three, maybe four months of the year if you’re really dedicated and want your fingers to get frostbite,” said the crowd-favorite Alacida who was also interviewed by CBC and other outlets throughout the week.
Alacida says the team came here to get some game experience against top competition, judge their progress against the rest of the country and to represent the Yukon and Nunavut who weren’t able to field teams for this summer’s 2013 Canada Games. He just turned 16 and has a few more years of eligibility in the age group and hopes to represent his Territory again.
“They’re definitely playing for those guys,” said Diem of the Territories not in attendance. “Thirteen players tried out for this team and we took them all. One of them isn’t here because he got injured, but we took the rest of them here to the Games.”
Progress isn’t going to be easy, but with experiences like this one to guide the rest of the future athletes, it’s a start. They’ve placed a marker to inspire future basketball players from their region and raised the bar for participation in sport across the Territories.
Time will tell if performances like this one will help grow the game in a region with so many obstacles to overcome. For the players that were able to take part though, it was a life-changing opportunity that they’ll try to pass on and will certainly never forget.