Program gives elite basketball players lessons, exposure
If there’s one redeeming thing about life during the pandemic, people from all walks of life have shown resourcefulness in new and imaginative ways.
The sports world is filled with examples.
In high schools all over Winnipeg, health guidelines have severely limited what organizers and coaches of fall term sports are permitted to do.
With COVID-19 cases spiking in the province, the possibility of a lost season for winter term sports such as basketball is very real.
“I’m pretty optimistic but preparing for the worst and expecting the best,” says Waqo Tessema, a Grade 11 point guard on Glenlawn’s varsity boys hoops squad.
Training opportunities were so limited during the early days of the pandemic, the provincial MVP of Glenlawn’s 2019 junior varsity provincial titlelists begged his mom for a concrete court in the backyard.
Since the return to school in fall, he’s barely seen the inside of the gym.
“We get to be there for the first five minutes of our gym class and then we have to head outside,” he says. “It’s pretty brutal.”
Lately, Tessema and a number of similarly motivated hoop junkies are finding a competitive outlet called the Evolve Basketball Development.
EBD was founded by a handful of local high school coaches wanting to give elite players a place to improve their skills while also giving coaches a chance to work on their craft.
“Around the month of August, we sort of made a decision to do what we’re doing right now and a reason why it’s been working is because there’s a lot of really solid, positive relationships amongst coaches in the province,” says Nick Lother, head coach of Vincent Massey’s varsity boys provincial champions in 2019 and a member of the EBD coaching staff.
“They’re sort looking out for the best interest of our students and there’s a wide variety of schools that are going to be involved in the program here this fall.”
Lother has been joined by Dakota’s Eric Sung, Jon Lundgren of Oak Park, River East’s Tyler Kohut and Cyril Indome of Windsor Park.
The original group of 12 players from across the city has been working out three times a week at the Sport For Life building downtown since September.
Earlier this week, a second pod of 12 boys players began practising at the Dakota Fieldhouse.
“Well, we’ve got some pretty good coaches here,” says Tessema, a member of Manitoba’s 15U team two summers ago. “So you learn a lot of new stuff. More or less the same things but adding on to… the fundamentals and really helping out your game specifically, that’s what we like to do. Not everybody’s the same.”
A designated practice gym with a standard set of health regulations is key to the setup.
“Part of the reason why this has come together is basically we can follow the guidelines that are set out by Basketball Manitoba quite closely,” says Lother. “The issue that we’re finding right now in the schools and because they have to, is essentially there’s different guidelines and different policies put in place in different areas of the city. So what that looks like, come December, we don’t know.
“I think there’s still a hope that there there could potentially be a season but, again, even if there is a season, what does that season actually look like?”
Another high-profile player, Miles Macdonell point guard Daren Watts, has also found a basketball home. He practised on his own when the pandemic outbreak first hit the province and worried that his Grade 12 season would be wiped out.
Now, three times a week, he’s getting high-level instruction he can’t get anywhere else.
“Hopefully I can gain some offers from different colleges or universities, because, who knows, this is my final year,” says the 6-3 Watts, who, like Tessema, was a member of the all-Manitoba team in 2019-20. “I’d like to see if I can continue playing point guard at the next level. That would be great — I’m a pretty good height for that, so we’ll see.”
Demand for spots in EBD’s program quickly outstripped supply but Lother says the program could be expanded in the new year if the high school season is shuttered.
For now, it’s about skill development and giving players a push when it comes to being seen by college recruiters.
“We’re trying to get these boys exposure via social media,” says Lother. “So we’ve been putting in quite a bit of work on our Instagram account to get this stuff on video and to find exposure opportunities.”