Thomas McKay has been hard at work volunteering behind the scenes at Prince Rupert’s largest event for more than 43 years.
Basketball runs deep in the community of the Northwest and Thomas has been a part of that history with the All Native Basketball Tournament almost since its beginning.
“I enjoy my job at the tournament more than the games,” Thomas said.
Although if it gets more noisy than usual, you’ll see him pop in to see what’s going on.
Born in Lax Kw’alaams, Thomas was raised by his aunties, uncles and extended family.
“It was tough because of all the trauma we went through when we were young over there,” he said.
Although, Thomas does not like to revisit the hardships of his youth, what he does cherish the most is the times he spent with his family.
The best memories he has are of being out on the water bouncing around on a boat with his family reeling in fish and going out to harvest his community’s traditional foods with his aunties.
Growing up, Thomas split his time between Lax Kw’alaams and Prince Rupert, where his grandfather worked at the Prince Rupert Civic Centre as a janitor.
Whenever he was in town, his grandfather would call him in to help clean up after-hours at the community centre. There, he was first introduced as an 11-year-old to the then-ANBT president, Russell Gamble, who took Thomas under his wing.
“He really mentored me quite a bit about doing things at the tournament,” Thomas said.
His first responsibilities were wiping the basketball court floor and cleaning the bleachers.
“To help was a big thing,” he said “Some days were special, especially listening to the crowd and how much the fans and everything were into the games.”
After volunteering that first year and experiencing the tournament for all it was, it made Thomas want to do it all again to his grandfather’s delight.
The tournament is all about helping and putting in your time to do all this for the communities involved, Thomas said.
“I guess I had it in me. I love to help out, doing things and volunteering,” he said.
From then on, Thomas was given more responsibility each year at the event where he would go on to do everything from ticket sales, to refereeing and court building.
Getting involved in the tournament at such a young age also had a lot of benefits.
“It set me up quite a bit. It showed me how to respect and honour people more … how to help out and do my work properly and how to speak to people properly,” Thomas said.
The changes he experienced and lessons he learned were seen by his community and recognized.
“You’re doing a good job. Keep it up. Don’t change for nothing in the world,” his elders told him.
Before experiencing his first ANBT, Thomas had never played basketball, but was then inspired to take to the court and join a team.
It was not long into playing on the court that Thomas went to reffing those on it.
When he was about 14-years-old, and representing Lax Kw’alaams, one bad call from a referee, in his view, changed the course of his future in basketball
Having gotten into a dispute with the ref for a foul called on him, Thomas vented his frustration to the official the only way he thought was fair in the moment.
“I went and kicked him in the butt,” he laughed.
“Ever since then, they gave me a whistle. That was my penalty for kicking him in the butt — and then they made me ref.”
From then on, Thomas went on to referee games all over the province and at the ANBT for more than 30 years.
To be a referee takes a certain kind of person.
“You have to want to be there,” he said. “If you’re going to become a ref, you have to be there for the players. That’s what I was taught. It’s basically for the love of the game.”
On the court, there can be a lot of animosity between teams, and as a ref you have to have control, Thomas said.
The biggest part of his years as a ref was teaching the next generation of officials. Having to pass on how to place themselves on the floor, how to speak to the players and the coaches, as well as, how to benefit from all of it.
The early years are always the most important, he said.
“Those are the biggest years,” Thomas said. “It’s not taking away, it’s giving back to the others who want to learn. That’s my biggest thing. It’s giving back.”
Weaved in between his years of volunteering at the ANBT and refereeing, Thomas also coached junior basketball for 19 years. He coached junior teams from Lax Kw’alaams and Gitxaala.
Watching his uncles in Lax Kw’alaams and Mel Bishop in Prince Rupert coach while growing up inspired him to also step into the leadership role.
“Oh, it was something how the younger generation learned,” Thomas explained.
Seeing how the kids hit the courts hard and the effort they poured into learning their fundamentals left a mark on Thomas.
“It was amazing to see what the junior teams did,” he said.
As the years passed on, balancing his work as a commercial fisherman and a logger took a toll and Thomas eventually had to step back from his role coach. Later, arthritis would prevent him from also refereeing.
However, nothing seems to be able to stop Thomas from volunteering at the ANBT.
“It’s the noise,” he said. “I always go back to that. It’s got to do with the fans and all the noise that happens there,”
The camaraderie behind the scenes also is what draws Thomas back year after year.
“It’s amazing how all the volunteers are,” he said. “Everybody shows up every year and does the same job.”
It can take months to plan the entire event, especially for the years that include a qualifying tournament. Planning usually begins in September so everything can be up and running come February, Thomas said.
Volunteering at the event for more than four decades has meant a lot and will always have a special part in his heart.
“Being here for the people. That’s the most important thing. You must be here for the people. The people players and fans. As long as I can keep moving around, I can keep volunteering.”
Norman Galimski | Journalist
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