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Basketball: Junior All-Native Tournament has Nanaimo gyms humming

The annual basketball tournament features 1,200 players on 91 teams in under-17 and under-13 boys’ and girls’ divisions.

March is synonymous with basketball. If you haven’t noticed, you’re not watching hard enough for the madness.

The NCAA tournament fills the TV screens, and this week, the bouncing roundball is filling gyms across the Nanaimo-Ladysmith region as 1,200 players on 91 teams from across the province have converged for the Junior All-Native Tournament. The annual tournament, featuring U-17 and U-13 boys’ and girls’ divisions, rotates around the province. The tournament started in 1960 and the 2022 event was held in Kelowna.

The 2023 tournament ­opening ceremony was held Sunday night at Frank Crane Arena. The games started Monday and are being played in the John Barsby, Nanaimo District, Wellington, Cedar, Dover Bay secondary school gyms and the ­Snuneymuxw Youth Centre Gym. The championship games are Friday at John Barsby.

The Snuneymuxw Nation is perhaps best known over the years in sports for its Native Sons soccer teams. But basketball has long been a staple as well, as part of an overall hoops history in the region, which has produced the likes of two-time Olympian and four-time UVic Vikes national-champion Gerald Kazanowski out of Nanaimo District Secondary. Three area high schools this month made their semifinals at the B.C. boys’ championships at the Langley Events Centre with the Nanaimo Trail Blazers in Single-A, John Barsby Bulldogs in Double-A and Dover Bay Dolphins, the latter making it to the championship game in Triple-A. Two of the Barsby players are on the host Snuneymuxw Nation Native Sons U-17 team in the Junior ­All-Native Tournament.

“Many of our players have played high school and gone on to play college over the years,” said Snuneymuxw Nation Chief Mike Wyse, who has coached the Native Sons U-17 boys’ in the Junior All-Native Tournament for 10 years.

“The biggest challenge in this tournament is to pull together players from a bunch of different [school or club] teams and getting them to gel and come together in a very short time frame.”

Wyse played up to the college level at Malaspina [now Vancouver Island University] and knows about the power of sport to build character and community.

“Sport provides young people a pathway and a way forward,” said Wyse.

The Junior All-Native Tournament adds a cultural element to the equation.

“This has been a very important competition and promotes health and wellness to our young people while they meet players from other nations across the province they might otherwise not have met,” said Wyse.

The Snuneymuxw U-17 boys’ team leader is Jayden Thomas, one of three returning players from last year’s Snuneymuxw squad that made the semifinals in Kelowna.

“We want to take the next step at home and win it all. It’s going to be an exciting week,” said Thomas.

Thomas is an all-rounder who attends the lacrosse academy at NDSS and has chosen lacrosse as his main sport and hopes to play in the NCAA.

“Jayden [Thomas] has amazing footwork and can do it all in both sports,” said Wyse.

Coaching the Snuneymuxw U-13 girls’ team is Daphne ­Robinson.

“It’s exciting to watch the next generation,” she said.

The tournament is about more than basketball.

“It reminds the players of who they are and where they come from,” said Robinson.