Vancouver Showcase brings big-time basketball to iconic waterfront location

West Van resident Howard Kelsey hard at work getting court ready in Vancouver Convention Centre

He may not know it, but North Vancouver basketball star Robert Sacre should be awarded an assist for his role in bringing a unique and exciting NCAA tournament to the Vancouver Convention Centre.

The Handsworth grad, a future teammate of Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers, played Div. 1 ball at Gonzaga University and in 2011 the team was tagged for an exhibition game at Rogers Arena. If Sacre hadn’t starred at Gonzaga, it’s highly unlikely that the perennial March Madness darlings from Spokane would have come to play in Vancouver. Sitting courtside at that game was West Vancouver resident Howard Kelsey, a former national team player and forever basketball junkie.

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“When Robert Sacre played in his senior year, Gonzaga played the University of Hawaii here at Rogers and that game, I was asked to observe it and critique it,” Kelsey told the North Shore News.

Kelsey and fellow basketball fanatic David Munro were investigating the viability of hosting NCAA basketball events in Vancouver. Was there an appetite for the game? Was the venue correct?

The answers were yes, and not really.

Vancouver has always had a love for hoops, despite the unpleasantness of the Grizzlies era, and on that day back in 2011 Kelsey and thousands of other fans watched Sacre put up 16 points and 10 rebounds in a win over the Rainbow Warriors. Kelsey reckoned the venue might be a bit too big for future games - the crowd was big, but not nearly big enough to fill the arena - but everyone loved the product on the court.

Thus the seeds were planted for what would become the Vancouver Showcase, a high-level men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament that will run Nov. 18-24. Kelsey and Munro are the lead local organizers for the showcase, working with a tournament hosting company based in Kentucky on the event which will feature some of the best teams in college basketball.

Vancouver Showcase
Crews are hard at work this week setting up a basketball court under the iconic sails of the Vancouver Convention Centre. photo supplied Howard Kelsey

On the women’s side Notre Dame and South Carolina, the last two national champions, will play in Vancouver in an eight-team tournament that will also feature a Gonzaga team with another Canadian star, former Brookswood Bobcat player Louise Forsyth. The four-team men’s showcase will feature a powerhouse lineup of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Washington Huskies, Texas A&M Aggies and the Santa Clara Broncos, alma mater of a talented fellow named Steve Nash.

The teams participating are great, but what has Kelsey really fired up is the idea of hosting such an event under the iconic sails of the Vancouver Convention Centre. Tournament organizers toured venues across Vancouver looking for the perfect place for the event before landing on this very unlikely location. They discovered that the Convention Centre, normally used for gatherings such as trade shows and business conferences, had once before hosted a big-time sporting event: a Davis Cup tennis tournament back in the 1980s. If the roof was high enough to allow tennis balls to fly free, a basketball would be no problem, they reasoned.       

“We looked at the ceiling and said, you know what – we can actually play a game in here,” said Kelsey. “And that’s where it was born.”

This week the hardwood is going down and the stands are going up – enough to hold 3,100 fans – as the Convention Centre prepares to welcome a truly unique event.

“It’s going to be electric, it’s going to be eye-opening, and it’s going to be bigger than basketball, because we’re talking about one of the most recognizable buildings in Canada – the sails are known around the world – and we’re going to have men and women,” said Kelsey, who was touring the facility when the North Shore News caught up with him by phone. “I don’t like large facilities because the sightlines aren’t good unless you’re courtside. Whereas here, the sightlines are good for everybody.”

Kelsey is also jazzed about the convenience of the location, particularly for all his basketball-mad friends on the North Shore. Fans can walk off the Seabus and be standing on the court in less than five minutes.

The first half of the tournament will be the men’s showcase, with double headers Sunday and Tuesday followed by a matinee on Wednesday. On Thursday the women will tip off in a full tournament with semifinals Friday night and the medal games set for Saturday night. If the bracket holds, the final would feature the last two national champions playing against each other.

“It’s a mini Final Four,” said Kelsey, who himself played NCAA Div. 1 and Div. 3 basketball back in the day.

“The idea of having NCAA Div. 1 basketball here has been a no-brainer for many years. We’re all Final Four fans, March Madness fans,” said Kelsey, adding that there’s nothing like watching passionate, talented and dedicated college athletes get after it on the basketball court. According to Kelsey, this is the first time ever that NCAA Div. 1 games played in Canada will count on the teams’ non-conference records, meaning that every single win and loss could be the difference between getting into the March Madness tournament or sitting at home during the big dance.

The stakes are high, and the teams will play accordingly, said Kelsey.

“They don’t take any plays off.”

For full schedule and ticket information visit ticketstonight.ca.

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