The All Native Basketball Tournament’s Women’s division is experiencing an injection of youthful, vibrant talent – players playing at a level of basketball that athletes just 10 years ago would have only hoped for.
But don’t call it a changing of the guard.
For Denise Wilson and her powerhouse Metlakatla Crest Women’s team, it was both invigorating and a little wistful seeing the Bella Bella and Kitamaat teams rock the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre in the 2015 Women’s final that resulted in Bella Bella’s first women’s victory for the village.
“Looking at the rosters as they came out, I was pretty excited about the level of talent that’s come in,” said Wilson at Prince Rupert Middle School (PRMS) last week, where she’s the Grade 6 counsellor and former Phys. Ed and inter-murals teacher.
“Some of the players that haven’t played before are coming in … and you can see that their talent is getting greater and greater. It’s quite exciting and a little bit sad because we’re getting older and they’re just getting better,” Denise said.
Denise is a three-time MVP in the All Native Basketball Tournament’s (ANBT) Women’s division, having won the honour in 1999, 2001 and 2008.
She’s claimed the tournament championship nine times – once with Kaien Island in the division’s inaugural year, and eight times with Metlakatla, B.C.
If anyone can attest to the evolution of the women’s game on the North Coast, it’s Denise. Her Crest team has battled with Nanaimo on several occasions in several finals, but it’s through the uniting spirit of the sport that she’s been able to play on both Metlakatla and Nanaimo in different tourneys.
“Some of the last couple years, we’ve been in the finals with Nanaimo and became really good friends with them, so after the ANBT, I’ve gone to a couple tournaments in Kamloops and Vancouver and played on their team, so it was quite a different experience playing against them and playing with them. I think that’s what basketball brings – it just brings people together,” she said.
Denise has played at every ANBT tournament since women were invited in 1993, save for four when she was away at college down south.
“I went to Camosun College for two years and then they didn’t have the program I wanted, so I switched over to Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University) and I stayed and finished my teaching degree there,” said Denise, who went to Charles Hays Secondary School from Grades 9 – 12 while growing up in Rupert.
On the court, Denise is flexible in playing different positions, but it’s running the game up the court and controlling the team in transition that she enjoys more often.
“I play all positions, but point guard is what I like playing most … For a couple years in college we had some teams that were rebuilding and so I’d bring the ball up across half and then I’d play post,” she said.
“The first few years that I was playing, I was a little fitter and faster obviously … so I got a lot of assists in my beginning years. The last little bit, I’ve been trying to score more [from] mid-range. I was never really a three-point shooter, not like my cousins Emily or Judy who were consistent three-point shooters. I’m more mid-range jumpers and pull-ups and things like that, but I definitely still try to help the team and give them assists [any way I can].”
Denise’s work with the Grade 8 PRMS team is a chapter in a long narrative featuring strong middle school coaches in Prince Rupert.
Ideally for her girls, Denise doesn’t want to see many days off – even in the offseason where athletes can still work on their fitness and good habits. But she recognizes that Grade 8 is still one of the formative years for knowing how to work together as a cohesive team.
“You try to have fun and play everybody and basically it’s just the year where you really want to work on your fundamentals – make sure your footwork is proper – so hopefully they carry on with it,” she said.
“I always try to tell them to get on the floor as much as they can. It’s now the offseason so you can still get in the gym and run around and shoot and get into the basics.”
For the coach, it’s her former bench bosses and Prince Rupert mentors, who still teach the game today, that have influenced her to keep being involved in the sport and even led her down the pathway of teaching.
“I’ve had a lot of great support – a lot of great teachers and coaches. The one who started me off playing basketball was my cousin Emily and then all my coaches in high school. Anna Ashley (who currently coaches the Charles Hays Secondary junior girls) was my Grade 8 [mentor] and then I had Ken Minette and Skip Cronck for my Grade 9 year and then I moved up to seniors in Grade 10. Peter Haugan was my coach … so I’ve had the opportunity to have some great teacher coaches and that basically inspired me to become a teacher as well,” she said.
“And it wasn’t just basketball. Jacqueline Jackson was my volleyball coach and one of the biggest reasons I became a teacher [and also] Cindy Mah.”