The All Native pauses but its heart beats strong

In a normal year, today would be one of the most exciting days of the year in British Columbia – in Prince Rupert, in particular. Well over 1,000 people, from near and far, would be at the Civic Centre to watch the championship games at the annual All Native Basketball Tournament. There would be Ladies and Masters finals in the afternoon, and Intermediates and Seniors finals in the evening.

It was evident months ago that the All Native would be another event casualty of COVID-19, but the committee held off until just recently to officially announce its cancellation. It is the first time it will not take place since its inaugural year of 1960.

In a normal year, the past week would have seen several thousands of fans passing through the doors to watch games morning to night in the main gym, and in the arena on the portable basketball court. They would have also packed into the auditorium, where vendors sold food, First Nations art and jewelry, and ran draws every day (and, normally, where I purchased my Valentine’s gift!). It is a great meeting place where you could renew old acquaintances and make new ones.

Last year, I was posted at one of the tables, selling my novel, All Native. We had a good spot, right by the entrance. Initially, there was some confusion, with some thinking it was a history of the event or featured profiles of former players. Several people asked whether a relative of theirs, who played in the tourney, was mentioned in the book but most of the players in the novel are fictional although some are based on real players – the same goes for some events.

I wrote All Native because I thought it was crazy that there was very little written on it besides the program-style history done by Len Harrington in the 70s, and in news articles and the annual tourney program. I didn’t want to do a history, as it is not really my thing. Also, the resources tell conflicting stories, and many of the people who were there in the early years, have passed on.

And, so, I decided to instead do it as a narrative and weave the tourney’s history and lore into a story about two boys, a father, and their aspirations to play in the tournament. Many things happen in the story that have nothing to do with the tournament but it always comes back to it.

There is one scene based on personal experience and that is the one in which a young Nate watches the senior men’s final with his father, Frank. Much of that is derived from a game I watched with my dad, when we both cheered for the dynastic Rupert Chiefs team. Because of their success and that they were not a village team, most visiting fans (and locals loyal to their villages) booed the Chiefs lustily, and that bothered me. It seemed like a betrayal of our own.

There is a fictional Chiefs player whom is modelled after my favorite player and late uncle, Art Helin. Art was well-liked and had the good humored and gentlemanly characteristics attributed to the character. Bespectacled, thin and long-armed, he had great touch and was a leader, and is a member of the tourney’s Hall of Fame.

I miss Uncle Art, his stories and good humor. I miss my dad, despite his great flaws. The part in the book where Nate tries to help his lame father down the steps and is brushed off because he is too weak is also based on my memories of that night.

I also miss the lady with the 50/50 tickets, the one who wears the funny hats and will wander off while you fill in your tickets and still remember you 20 minutes later when she is retrieving them.

I even miss the door guy at the first entrance across from the men’s bathroom, who takes his job way too seriously and whose favorite line is “you can’t stand there!” When I was a reporter, I would hold up my camera at such admonitions; it was my ticket to be anywhere I wanted to be.

I miss the elders’ kitchen, with the seaweed and rice, fried halibut, and bologna sandwiches; their sweet smiles and stories about my mom and dad.

I miss the voice of Wild William Wesley, who brought us so many games on the radio and whose old school charm and phrases always reminded us that this was a First Nations event. I hope he is enjoying his well-deserved retirement.

I recall when I was, one time only, one of the voices of the All Native. A friend and former Rupert Trojan, Joey Nelson, and I called the tournament one year when The MIX56 AM radio decided to also broadcast the finals. Neither of us had done it before and we were exhausted by the fourth game. Once, when I noted a change in tactics by one of the teams and asked Joey for his thoughts on it, I got nothing. I looked at him, and his eyes were glazed over and his mouth was agape. I had to give him a shot in the arm to wake him up!

My highlight of that one and only sportscaster stint was when, during a halftime break and being desperate to kill time, I interviewed the toweling-off-the-floor boy. One of the questions was what was his preferred technique for wiping sweat off the floor, side to side, or clockwise?

COVID-19 has robbed us of another chapter in this great community event. No exciting games. No seaweed and rice. No long chats with old friends in the auditorium. No economic bump for Rupert’s hotels, shops and restaurants.

The ANT will return, though. We’ll get there. Just think of us as that player slowly making his way up the court, carefully taking his time, waiting until everyone is in place so we can set up that winning shot.

The novel, ALL NATIVE, is currently sold out but a second printing is impending and the book will be available on:

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