After taking first place at an Indigenous basketball tournament in Winnipeg, the Niagara Regional Native Centre’s boys’ basketball team came home to proud and impressed parents.
The team played in the Battle for Turtle Island tournament at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba from May 19 to 21, winning first place on the final day.
The native centre, located on Airport Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake, formed the new basketball team in January, but its coach says it’s not so much a new program, as it is the return of an old one.
This team is made up of high school-age boys under 17 years old.
The centre used to run a basketball program under the leadership of Shannon and Blue Hill, said team coach Quinn Hill.
However, like so many other sports leagues, it shut down during the pandemic to help implement social distancing recommendations.
Hill said he played with the old team for about four years but took on coaching in 2019 after he was too old for the program.
In its first season back, the team is enjoying some early success after winning the Winnipeg tournament.
Hill said the team was short a few players entering the tournament as well.
“I think we went up with eight players to Winnipeg,” he said.
“They did really well, even being short-benched,” he added.
For Hill, coaching is so much about pushing his team to win games as it is about passing on his experience and wisdom.
“I like giving back to the kids and teaching them stuff that I’ve learned over the years,” he said.
“It teaches them a lot of life skills as well.”
Hill remembers when he first started playing he became close friends with Max Grant.
Now, he and Grant coach together.
“It creates those lasting friendships,” he said.
Hill said he was surprised by how large the competition in Winnipeg was.
The native centre’s team competes most often with teams from Hamilton, Six Nations and other teams around southern Ontario.
“It was great to see just the level of competition – in the – within the native youth for basketball,” Quinn said.
Hill doesn’t necessarily see all the good the basketball program does off the court.
Marie Louise, a mixed-racial Mohawk woman who lives in St. Catharines, said her son, 15-year-old Zion Russell, took the initiative to try out for the centre’s basketball team.
She was proud he did, she said, because she wants him to have a strong connection to his cultural identity.
While in Winnipeg, for example, the team also got to attend a powwow, where they saw firsthand how Indigenous communities celebrate their culture.
The basketball program at the native centre also provides an opportunity for Indigenous youth to connect with their culture, said Louise.
Through the centre, the players have access to positive Indigenous role models, Louis said, including coach Hill, who she said has “a lot of good insights” into the community.
The program has been great for her son’s academic performance, she said.
“In order to play you have to do your schoolwork,” Louise said.
Academic performance is important to Louise, she said, as she works as an Indigenous graduation coach for the region’s Catholic school board.
Her son doesn’t just play on the centre’s basketball team. He also is active in lacrosse and football.
She describes her son as being a little sluggish just a couple of years earlier before he started getting involved with sports.
The team meets every Monday and Wednesday evening at the DSBN Academy school in St. Catharines to practice.
Louise said she chose not to go to her son’s tournament in Winnipeg, but she did get to watch him play at a tournament in Six Nations earlier this year.
“He’s pretty serious about his game,” Louise said. “I like seeing that side because you don’t always see that in the day-to-day.”