Mel Bishop is coaching Prince Rupert high school basketball for his 35th year this season.

Heart of Our City: Mel Bishop finds success through adapting

He’s been called “legendary” in the basketball scene by more than a few people who darn well know what they’re talking about.

He’s been called “legendary” in the basketball scene by more than a few people who darn well know what they’re talking about.

He’s played from age nine and transitioned from a forward to a point guard in university — one of, if not the most difficult positions to master in the sport.

He’s played in Ontario, B.C., overseas in England and has picked up a few things in America, most recently in Santa Barbara, California where he helped coach a basketball summer camp for a few weeks during the summer over a span of 10 years.

Mel Bishop needs no introduction in this city, or anywhere really, but the North Coast born-and-raised coach of Prince Rupert high school senior basketball for 35 years has earned every accolade thrust on him by soaking up knowledge of the game; of his players; of strategy; and by just getting it.

The game of basketball is constantly changing, and Mel is quick enough to keep up with it.

“I think with age, you get better,” said Mel last week in the weight room after school had ended for the day.

“First of all, you never stop learning about the game, because with basketball there’s always a different kind of defence or zone attack or another offensive press break or a man-to-man attack. Your defensive philosophy could change, so the game – it’s always changing; always evolving.”

The athlete grew up watching the late- Pete Maravich, an American NBA star who went to school at Louisiana State and later played for the Atlanta Hawks in the ‘70s. To this day, he holds the NCAA Division 1 scoring title with 3,667 career points.

In basketball-crazed Prince Rupert, Charles Hays Secondary School (CHSS) coach Mel stands tall, literally and figuratively, in the markings Prince Rupert has made in the provincial scene and beyond.

With the city, Mel played on some provincially powerful minor and school teams through Prince Rupert’s thriving and pioneering minor basketball programs. He was part of a B.C. third-place high school squad who fell to Abbotsford by seven points in the provincial semi-final during his Grade 11 year. After that, he headed east to Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario for four years before completing his schooling with the teacher’s college at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario from 1976 to 1977.

That year, he led the team in scoring, averaging 19.97 points per game in 33 games.

“We finished second in the country in the CIAU (now CIS – Canadian Interuniversity Sport) and I was an All-Canadian (all-star) there,” said Bishop, whose Thunderwolves lost to the Acadia Axemen, 72-63, for the national championship in 1977.

Bishop would play professionally in England with Cinzano Crystal Palace where Cinzano vermouth was the corporate sponsor for the team.

“You were kind of as good as your sponsorship, so if it’s a good one, there’s a little bit of money around,” Mel said.

While there, the player met his wife-to-be, Heather, and a couple of years into living in Europe, had to make the choice of a lifetime.

“I was kind of at a crossroads … there was a teaching job I knew was coming up and do you keep playing [in England] where everything’s a one-year contract, and if you get injured [that’s it for you]?” he recalled.

The point guard made up his mind to head back home to Canada and teach at Dawson Creek, but didn’t stay long.

“The winters were too brutal, so I came home [to Prince Rupert],” said Mel.

Early on in his coaching career, Mel had the impulse to jump off the bench and onto the court to help his teams through some tough situations.

“To be honest when I first started coaching, I would have much rather been a player. You’re only 26 or 27 years old, but I still liked the coaching. The thing about coaching is you can always improve your ability to teach your fundamentals and I think that’s the key to any game,” he said.

And as he was beginning his coaching journey, youth didn’t stop the bench boss from being austere.

“I was way too restricted,” he said.

“We’d hardly ever shoot a long, perimeter shot; everything was pounded inside. We’d go for that two-inch shot. But I think kids have a little more freedom now, more creativity. I think they have more of a free mind. As an athlete, you can’t be worried about mistakes, you’ve just got to play.”

Strength training, conditioning and fitness levels are the base components to being a regular contributor on a trademark Mel Bishop team. Whether they’re a small or tall group, slow or speedy, Mel’s athletes are athletes in the truest sense of the word.

The Rainmakers coach even started a curriculum-approved basketball course a few years ago at CHSS.

“It’s a phys. ed. credit … and it’s in the weight room [to start off]. We do a ladder for quick feet … and we’re working on explosive jumping and we have hurdles at the end of it,” said Mel.

The Rupertite’s stress over fundamentals is well-documented in coaching circles among B.C. and is a proven technique to get the most out of his athletes, Mel finds.

“It adds up … if you have that fundamental grounding … if you keep pounding fundamentals, by the end of the year, everything comes together,” he said.

And it’s not just senior ball. Rupert kids all the way from middle school onwards are playing the same way.

“[Junior CHSS basketball coach] Kevin [Sawka] does a great job and Cary Dalton – he’s 67 years old, he’s a career guy – he’s going back to coach the middle school so we’ve been lucky to have a coaching staff with the same kind of philosophy. That helps too as a senior coach,” said Mel.

North Coast basketball icon Ken Shields provided the basis of Mel’s philosophy. The fellow Rupertite was coaching Laurentian University, which prompted Mel to attend school there in the ‘70s. Shields would later coach consecutive seven-time champions University of Victoria and even Team Canada’s national team from 1990 to 1994.

“He’s a tremendous influence. Technically, he’s probably one of the best guys around,” said Mel.

Among the highlights for the 35-year CHSS and Prince Rupert Secondary School veteran, Mel says his two championships in 1998 and 2001 are up there, along with last year’s magical B.C. second-place finish, but coaching his two sons, even on the same team one year, has to be close to the top of his memories.

“Brody, my youngest son, was on that [2001] team when we won it in Kamloops and about three years before that we won it again and [my older son] Ryan was a 10th-grader on that team. And then one of the best years was when I was coaching both sons on the same team – Brody was a 10th-grader and Ryan was a 12th so that was kind of neat. It wasn’t super smooth, it was probably harder on my own kids than the other guys,” said Mel.

Ryan Bishop is now Mel’s assistant coach and fellow teacher at CHSS and Brody is the family’s resident fireman.

The B.C. playing field isn’t exactly even and hasn’t been for awhile for Mel’s Rainmakers.

Going up against private schools, like last year’s champions, St. Thomas More, Mel doesn’t have nearly the player base or recruitment tools some schools down south use. But still, the Rainmakers are a top-10 provincial team more often than not.

“The beautiful thing about high school basketball is you’re not recruiting; guys come in to you. You have to make adjustments, so if it’s university, you can recruit to your system,” said Mel.

“You have to adapt almost every year.”