On the court, 14 members of the Van City Aboriginal Junior Girls basketball team are awash with sweat and breathing heavily as they practice under the watchful eye of coach James Savino, a bridge worker who originally comes from Haida Gwaii.
“Leave it all out on the court — everything,” Savino tells his players. “Give it everything you've got and don't regret not doing something out there when you could have.”
The team — along with the Van City Aboriginal Junior Boys squad — is readying to compete in the 2014 BC Junior All Native Basketball Tournament which is being held from March 16–21 in Kamloops, B.C. Games start March 17.
Keitlah sister-brother duo laces up for Kamloops
In Vancouver, sister-brother duo Allie and Stephen Keitlah will compete, playing for the Van City girls and boys teams respectively.
Allie attends Britannia Secondary School where she plays the post position for the girls basketball team. She likes social studies and English, and she dreams becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
Her basketball idol is ShoniSchimmel, the Umatilla First Nation member who plays guard for the University of Louisville Cardinals in the United States.
Basketball is second nature to Allie.
“I played my whole life, but I've only played competitively for the last two years,” she said.
Allie says she is naturally closer to the teammates on her aboriginal team than her school team.
“On Van City, we hang out together, fund raise together, we have team dinners and our parents know each other too.”
The 2014 Junior All Native is Allie's second. She enjoys being part of team but senses that she's also part of something bigger.
“I feel like I'm a part of it all. They're all family.”
Basketball is a huge part of the aboriginal community.
The teams come from reserves across B.C.'s landscape are attending: Ahousaht, Port Alberni, Nanaimo, Heiltsuk, Nuxlak, Tsimshian, Haida Gwaii, Gitxsan, Sylix and Nisga'a to name a few.
According to the tournament Facebook page, more than 500 players from 45 teams: 24 boys teams and 21 girls teams, are competing in the tourney.
Aboriginal youth are mastering a game that was first taught to their ancestors by masters in residential schools, said Savino.
“My aunts and uncles told me stories about how bad it was in residential school. Basketball is one of the few positive things that came out of those places.”
Basketball is life for the Keitlah family
The Keitlahs are part of a burgeoning aboriginal population in Vancouver, which has grown to more than 40,000 people according to the 2006 Census.
Their father Numutch is a construction worker who traces his roots to Ahousaht on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Their mother Dori is a support worker who hails from the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella. Both grew up playing basketball.
From fall until spring each year the Keitlahs’ lives revolve around their children's basketball. The siblings both play on their high school and Aboriginal teams.
“They keep busy but in a positive way,” Dori said. “They have to keep their grades up for school ball and aboriginal ball too and that's a big positive.”
At six-foot-three and 195 pounds, Allie’s brother Stephen also plays the post position. “In school ball you play for your school and the crowd can be kind of quiet,” he said.
“But in aboriginal ball you play for your home, and the crowds are loud, we can barely hear our coach.”
Playing aboriginal ball evokes complex feelings for Stephen when Van City plays his home nations of Ahousaht or Heiltsuk.
“We played Bella Bella last year and all the Bella Bella people were cheering for them,” he said “On one hand I wanted to beat them. But on the other, it made me want to play with them to. I would never feel that way playing school ball.”
Stephen graduates from high school in June and he intends on studying to be an auto technician. He's playing in his final Junior All Native.
“It's my last year so we're going to have some fun.”