Snow and cold may be on the ground in Winnipeg, but inside a gym, players and coaches of Manitoba’s male North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) basketball teams are hard at work.
Joshua Gandier, who is from Peguis First Nation, is one of the coaches for the team. A former player himself at the 2017 NAIG games, he said practicing this early is needed as the teams are made up of kids from all over the province.
“My experience in 2017, we didn’t have too many practices, we had about two weekends of practice and then we went off to the games so this about our fifth practice now and we’ve just been going weekly,” Gandier said.
“I like to get some things going for our northern guys, we have about four or five with the 16u team who are up north so I’d like to get up there in the new year to help them get training going.”
The teams are made up of 14, 16 and 19-year-olds. Some play on teams year-round while others only practice during these group practices.
The players all relate to basketball in their own way, but it is also what brings them together.
“I grew up playing hockey and I just thought I wanted to change because everybody plays hockey in Manitoba so I wanted to try something new and I got hooked on it. Watching highlights, dunking, I wanted to do that someday,” said Bruno Vanbewer, who is Métis.
“It’s been a big role because its taken me places and I’ve met new people and it was like the only thing that was there for me in the reservation and it got me out of there now because I live in Winnipeg now,” said Mason Chartrand, who is from the Pine Creek First Nation.
“I could never skate for hockey, never had the best coordination but again with the Toronto Raptors they had just never won before and only team in Canada,” said Carter Pashe.
James Lockhart is also Métis and one of the players from Manitoba’s north who came down to practice with the team, Lockhart’s first practise with the group.
His love of basketball is a simple one.
“Just the competition, just the way it was learning, hockey’s a big sport in my community and so is basketball and hockey’s just like a no go for me so I tried out for basketball and enjoyed it, just because I’m tall and just like playing it,” he said.
Keith Mason is another coach of the team who shared some of the same sentiments as the players.
“Everything. I love everything about it, from the sounds of the ball hitting the hardwood, the rims, the shoes squeaking it’s something you can get better at every day, there’s always something to be worked on, something you can get better at. Like I’m 35 and still learning,” Mason said.
With basketball growing in popularity in Canada, especially in Indigenous communities, a major factor is how inexpensive basketball is to play.
“It’s affordable, you just need pair of shorts, pair of shoes and a shirt and you’re good to go. It doesn’t require a whole lot of equipment it’s accessible it’s for everybody, it doesn’t matter your age, skill, or your height you just go out there and do what you do,” Mason said.
For someone like Lockhart being from Manitoba’s north, the affordability of the sport makes it accessible for those who want to try it.
“It is super affordable, you can play anywhere you want to really as long as there’s a hoop and all you need is shoes, shorts and a basketball and you’re set,” Lockhart said.
The sport has also given those involved with this team an escape from negativity at times.
“Basketball has been a big part of my life you know, it’s always been there. Every time I feel down I always resort to playing basketball with friends and stuff like that,” Vanbewer said.
“It kept me focused, kept me disciplined gave me an outlet when I needed it, it was my safe place when sometimes I didn’t have one, it was somewhere I could go where I could focus on myself and you know nothing else bothered me,” Mason said.
For Gandier, he hopes to see these players also become coaches one day and keep the Indigenous basketball community alive.
“Getting these relationships built when they’re young is so important because myself, getting into coaching, I hope it’s like a domino effect. I hope a lot of these boys want to become a NAIG coach from this experience and this domino effect just grows into a bigger community of coaches and hopefully, we can get a big program up running for the years when there is no NAIG, Gandier said.”
While coaching the skills of the game is the main focus for Mason, his message to the players is also one of appreciation.
“I really emphasize that over, I wouldn’t say over winning but I just really want them to soak it all in and appreciate the moment that you’re in,” Mason said. “It seems like almost a year away but that’s going to go by fast and then you’re there seven, eight, nine days sometimes and even that goes by fast before you know it, it’s over.
“You’re on the bus home and you’re like wow that was a really wicked experience and it’s been like that for me every time. Each time is something new and awesome and I learn so much from these kids every time. I probably learn more from them than they do from me.”