Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Vancouver's Kitsfest Basketball Event

Great piece in the Vancouver Sun that mentions SMU's Joey Haywood, Bol Kong, who has been the subject of numerous rumours - according to this article he is headed to Gonzaga this fall - and some more refined fellas like Howard Kelsey.

Cool at Kits: Vancouver beach Canada's summertime hoops mecca
From talking trash to Steve Nash, this slice of asphalt paradise has seen it all

By Yvonne Zacharias, Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER — You can spot the lithe, lanky Bol Kong from a mile away as he saunters down to the Kits Beach basketball courts, his diamond stud earring and gold chain glistening against his dark skin. The 6-7 player stands out in every way. Even his name is pretty neat.

In the hierarchy of these courts, Kong is king. Nobody messes with the Sudan-born player down here.

Around him spins Joey Haywood, red ball cap on backwards, baggy, below-the-knee cutoffs flapping in the wind. Looking like a hip-hop kid who has tumbled in from the Bronx, Haywood is as fizzy as a can of pop. He is as friendly and fun as Kong is reserved and cool.

They are part of the new guard down at these courts, which have become Canada's summertime hoops mecca since they fired up more than 40 years ago.

They are proof, too, that some of the finest players in the province bring their hoop magic to this patch of paradise.

A summer festival known as Kitsfest will celebrate beach basketball and the beauty of the place this coming weekend.

A casual beachgoer might think they are looking at some ordinary outdoor basketball courts where anyone can drop in and play street ball. They would be wrong. This is a place of unwritten rules and codes of conduct.

"You have got to put the ball in the hand of the hot man, because if you lose and you are not known on this court, you won't be playing for hours," said Haywood, in an easygoing Trinidadian accent.

It's something called deference and it's practised a lot down here. If you are unsure of your shot, you defer to the guy who can score. Otherwise, you will get a reception cooler than a chill wind off the water.

Harlem Globetrotters, Olympians, B.C. Lions and high school up-and-comers have all pounded these courts, which have evolved over the years, going through good times and bad. At their seediest, they were pitted with potholes and you had to sweep the water off of them. Seedy courts attract seedy elements.

In 2007, two men who are synonymous with the sport in the province, Howard Kelsey and Ron Putzi, decided to take back the courts. In cooperation with the Vancouver Parks Board, they dug into their own pockets to spruce them up. As a result, they are undergoing a renaissance.

"Today, when I drive past the courts, it honestly brings me great joy to see players and parents using the courts like we did," said Putzi, who was a high school basketball star in Vancouver and played professional basketball for 10 years in Europe.

Guys like Haywood, who attends Saint Mary's University in Halifax, seem to sprout naturally from the asphalt. Nicknamed King Handles because of the slick way he handles the ball, the 24-year-old says playing down here toughened him up.

"You are going to run into different obstacles like guys who do a lot of trash talking, guys playing really tough defence, fouling you all the time, trying to get you to focus off your game," he said.

And Haywood is one talented player. A first team all-star for the Huskies this year, he led the Atlantic University Sports Conference in scoring and was fifth in the CIS. He credits the Kits courts for much of this. Because of the competition, and the spectators he doesn't want to disappoint, Haywood has stepped up his game.

Kong, who is off to Spokane's Gonzaga University this fall on a full scholarship, says it's harder to score here than it is indoors because of the double ring on the top of the basket in the outdoor courts — not to mention the wind. He feels the double challenge has made him better, too.

The former St. George's student, who escaped war-torn Sudan with his family a little more than a decade ago, is considered a basketball prodigy, who can easily play both offence and defence. A senior national team member, he led the Douglas College Royals to an undefeated season and a national title in 2006.

At the other end of the spectrum, Charles Pruiet, 68, was on the ground when the courts first opened and has been here ever since. In a southern drawl, he talks about moving from his native New Orleans 40 years ago to this magical place where ocean meets sky and mountains in one contiguous splash of beauty.

He watched as the courts started to catch on in those early days. Word spread to the military bases in Washington and guys from the U.S. started showing up to play. Then it caught on with high school kids. Then football players from Toronto, Edmonton and B.C.

Everyone had the same idea.

"You would try to stay on there all day long until you got tired."

The rules evolved. It was skins against shirts, with most guys preferring to play on the skins side. You played until a team scored 11 points, although you have to be up by two to win with the game capped at 15. If a player is going for a lay-up, the normal protocol is to let him go, otherwise you risk having him slam into the metal poles holding up the baskets. Fortunately, they have been padded for the players' protection. If you weren't a good player, or weren't good at spotting good players, you were either relegated to the sidelines or shipped from Court A to Court B where the lesser lights play.

With no refs, you call your own fouls. There's plenty of arguing over that. The guy who can argue the longest and loudest usually wins. But through the year, players learned more than basketball.

"One of the best lessons kids learned out here was how not to be intimidated," said Pruiet. "Along with not being intimidated comes independence."

Like many of the guys who grew up here, Pruiet shared it with his sons. It was the perfect place. Surrounding the courts where the dads play are a picnic area, a beach and a children's playground. Father and son can keep an eye on each other.

Kelsey, a strapping 51-year-old known as the "Dick Clark of Kits Beach basketball," is basically a product of these courts.

"I have got thousands of games down here," said the two-time Olympian, who was a member of Canada's national basketball team for 11 years. He says the courts make you a better player for all kinds of reasons.

"You are playing with the wind. You are playing with the dust. You are playing with people grabbing you. You are playing with all kinds of adversity. Plus the athletes down here are exceptional."

And then there's the surrounding. "I try to get five or six games straight and get a win," said Kelsey. "Then I go dive into the ocean."

Kelsey has watched the courts go through phases. The peak of aggression was reached from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, when fighting sometimes put players in danger. The police had to be called several times. Refurbishing the courts helped to clean them up in more ways than one.

Mike Verney thinks the courts have such an important legacy, that he's set up an alumni association so court-goers can keep in touch. How else to stitch together players from New Zealand, Australia and Bosnia-Herzogovina?

A tumbleweed from Ontario, Verney came west in 1972 looking for adventure. Missing basketball and his friends back in Ontario, he stumbled upon the courts. It was like a hockey nut going to California and finding a pond with a bunch of Canadians playing hockey.

"I saw there were quite a few African American men playing there. To a little white kid from Canada, that was the place you wanted to be."

In its heyday, there would be 50 to 100 guys standing around, waiting to play, and a hundred gorgeous women in skimpy bathing suits watching. The beach is still a magnet for pretty people. There is a reason that Forbes magazine recently rated this the third sexiest beach in North America.

Verney wasn't a high-calibre player, but he survived here because it was a challenge court. He could "call" a game, which meant he waited his turn to bring the players he had selected onto the court. "I recognized the fact that a little white kid needed to choose four big guys who are really talented if he wanted to stay on the court."

As a single parent, he, too, wound up raising his son down here. He has so many memories, but one in particular stands out.

On a Thursday afternoon 12 summers ago, he looked at one of the players and said, "I am guarding you. My name is Mike."

The player replied, "My name is Steve."

"I don't get to guard first-round NBA picks too often," Verney told the player.

It was Steve Nash.

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