She has never missed an All Native Basketball Tournament for as long as she’s lived.
Gillian Leeson has roots in the tournament that date back to when her grandfather’s Kitkatla seniors’ team won the first All Native tournament in 1960. Leeson played forward but retired five years ago. She has been a scorekeeper for 18 years and her husband coaches two of their children who play in the tournament.
The floor beneath Leeson’s feet wears down whenever she watches either her son or daughter play. She paced, hollered, and clasped her hands tightly in her own sort of prayer on Feb. 10 when she cheered for her daughter’s team, the Prince Rupert Rain, when they played the Metlakatla, B.C.
Once she said she cheered so loud she lost her voice.
Leeson grew up in Kitkatla and moved to Prince Rupert for high school. Her feisty spirit was untamed back then. “I was very wild so I didn’t graduate on time. School was the first place to find out where the next party was. But I made sure that I graduated,” she said.
At 21 Leeson had her son, Charlie. Once he turned three and was old enough to go to daycare she completed the courses she needed to graduate. She did it for her kids. She didn’t want them to turn around one day and say, “‘well you never graduated’ well you’re not going to get that chance kid”, she said belting out a laugh.
She worked at the cannery for 20 years until it shut down, and when she was a stay-at-home mom she sometimes packed fish with her father. They would pick up hoards of fish from the gillnetter boats so they could go back out and continue fishing. “Our boat was loaded with everybody’s fish,” she said. It was tough work.
Her husband, Jerrett Faithful, is also a fisherman — and faithful, she pointed out. He fishes for salmon or urchin and his days off are dedicated to basketball. One time when he was out fishing and it was time to sign up for basketball, Leeson saw there was a need for more coaches.
“I actually threw him into reffing first as something he could do when he came back from fishing. Then I’m like, ‘Oh by the way, you’re coaching too’. He’s been doing it ever since,” she said with another playful laugh.
In 1998, the couple had their daughter, Billie, and the same year Leeson started scorekeeping as a replacement to help the guys out. She loved the work and making sure everything was done just right so she stuck with it. The only hassle has been the score clocks over the past three years, which have the tendency to flicker or stall causing an uproar from fans that she missed their team’s points.
Leeson played forward for Kitkatla and then switched to play for the Rupert Rain who she won two championships with. She often competed against her younger sister, who she said plays better than her, but she could hold her own.
Now, she said she forces her children to play as a way to stay active, although her youngest, Seth, 12, has a mind of his own and hasn’t caught the basketball bug — yet anyway.
Charlie, who is now 24, didn’t stand a chance. He was indoctrinated before kindergarten.
“We showed him who Mel Bishop was and we’re like, ‘That is your god. That is your coaching god, that is your basketball god’ and our son Charlie always knew that one day he was going to play for this man.” For those who don’t know, Mel Bishop is the long-time Prince Rupert senior boys’ high school basketball coach.
Her son has been playing since the minor leagues, and a few years ago he played for the Prince Rupert Tribesman in the Junior All Native under 17 tournament and his team won. A glow of pride washed over Leeson’s face when she told this story.
But being a basketball mom also means fundraising is a part-time job. She said these days it can cost up to $20,000 to take one team to a tournament with hotel, food and travel expenses. Leeson has done bake sales, 50/50 sales, spaghetti dinners, jewelry raffles. “You name it we’ve done it,” she said.
One year, Leeson, when she still worked at the cannery, ran a bottle drive fundraiser and sent her daughter to a tournament in Regina. She remembers dancing around in her slickers cheering for her daughter who was a couple provinces away in a game.
After the cannery closed Leeson considered herself lucky to have picked up a job at the Port. In her spare time she takes on fundraising duties and her husband has taken the responsiblity of coaching their daughter’s team, the Rain.
“My husband is thrown into coaching with the girls now, it’s different for him. I’m honestly shocked he’s not bald yet,” Leeson said.
Basketball is just a game for some but for Leeson and her family it is a thread that has woven itself deep into their lives.