In her team’s final game at the Junior All Native Tournament, eight-year-old Kai Sam played two minutes. During her brief but intense time on the court Sam faced players who were as much as five years her senior, in a basketball tournament that attracted 91 Indigenous teams from all corners of British Columbia. Hosted by the Snuneymuxw First Nation, the annual event was held at multiple venues in Nanaimo this year, from March 19-24.
“We put her in for two minutes in the last game,” proudly recalled Sam’s coach Nasimius, Ed Ross, who brought the Tseshaht Lightning into the tournament. “She had two steals.”
Although the lightning were in the tournament’s 13 and under girls category, none of the squad is older than 11, with many players who were introduced to organized basketball in the two months the team had to prepare for JANT. They began with two practices a week at Tseshaht’s Maht Mahs gym, but it soon became apparent more sessions were needed.
“The girls wanted to practice more, so we got another space for them,” said Ross. “We were practicing four times a week and doing conditioning.”
The Lightning didn’t win any of the three games they played at JANT, but their coach is thrilled with the process he has seen evolve for the team leading up to the tournament.
“There was so much growth in that two months. We had girls that were self-conscious, they were scared that everybody was looking at them, they were scared to make mistakes,” Ross reflected. “As a coach, you’re pushing them to the edge. You’re on the cusp of insanity. You’re trying to break them - but not break them - because there’s no growth in being comfortable, you’ve got to get them out of their comfort zone to push them.”
With the event being held in nearby Nanaimo, this year JANT saw a heavy Nuu-chah-nulth participation, with 14 teams originating from different parts of the territory on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
Among the highest ranked squads in the event was the Tseshaht Pride, who finished second at last year’s JANT in Kelowna. In Nanaimo Ross’s young players came to watch the 17-and-under girls team for inspiration over the five-day competition, where Tseshaht Pride finished third overall with a 4-2 record, losing to Syilx in the semi-final.
“We were winning by two at halftime, it just seemed that we went south,” recalled Pride coach Joe Charleson of the team’s final game. “It was against a really good team that we played in the past. We knew that we had to hang with them. Fatigue took over, I think, and it didn’t work out in our favour.”
But in a 25-team division, the coach is pleased with the Tseshaht Pride’s finish. On the day before they recovered from a deficit to win their quarter final, after trailing for the majority of the fist half against Vancity Nation.
“We were down about 15 points in the first half,” recalled Charleson. “In the first half we were kind of doing a front court trap that wasn’t working so well. I switched to a zone defense that worked against the Vancity girls.”
In the 13-and-under boys division the Vancouver Island Sea Wolves claimed the tournament title, beating the Prince Rupert Coastal Pride.
“We got upon them pretty quick at the beginning of the game, 10 nothing or something,” recalled coach Tom Campbell. “Lots of our guys are tiny guys, but the starting five were fairly well established to handle themselves on the floor.”
Most of the team’s dozen players have family ties to Ahousaht, although just three live in the Flores Island community. With players spread across central Vancouver Island, coach Campbell admitted that holding practices were a challenge. He rented the Alberni Athletic Hall four or five times for two-hour intervals on some weekends to give his boys a chance to practice together before JANT.
“I had to travel from Ahousaht to Port Alberni for a day trip,” said Campbell. “Sometimes our practices were from 4 to 6, so I would travel back in the dark too, in the snow, in the rain.”
In some cases, donations and money was gathered to help parents transport their boys to these sessions.
“A couple of our players are from single parent homes,” Campbell added. “If we could, we would help them.”
Coordinating practices was also a challenge for the Maaqtusiis Thunder, a 17-and-under girls squad led by coach Luke Swan Sr.
“They have roots to Ahousaht, but nine of them live in the cities,” said Swan. “I had to host a couple of practices in Port Alberni to get us together.”
The Thunder came away from JANT with a 1-2 record, with performances that left the coach pleased.
“It was the first time for a lot of them to play together, the first time for four of them to play basketball,” he said. “Other than that, we faired well for their experience.”
Holding the tournament’s 188 games took months of preparation from the Snuneymuxw organizers, incorporating the help of 137 volunteers to make JANT happen over its several venues across Nanaimo.
Campbell observed multiple games when the Sea Wolves weren’t playing to scout potential competition.
“It’s not just cheering for our own team - it’s cheering anybody else who’s playing, watching games, our next opponent,” he said. “That’s my job, is seeing what the highlight of the next team is going to be. Who do we have to step up on defense for?”
“The gym was just nasty loud,” added Campbell about the Sea Wolves final game. “Thanks to our relatives from Tseshaht, they sang a couple of songs at halftime and drowned out everybody else.”
For the young Tseshaht Lightning, they’re already back to practicing, as they look ahead to future tournaments.
“It’s about getting our bodies ready for our spirit, because our spirit becomes 10 times bigger when we’re in competitive mode,” said Ross. “It’s up to us to make sure that we’re giving these kids these opportunities, because you never know where these kids can make it, and who they’re inspiring behind them.”
Ross hopes that his First Nation will one day be able to host a Junior All Native Tournament in Port Alberni.
“In the future, we want to host Junior All Native,” said Ross, who is an elected councillor with the First Nation. “It’s not just Tseshaht that would be hosting, it would be all of the Nuu-chah-nulth communities.”