Contempt of court

Despite a memorable championship game between the St. George's Saints and the Kitsilano Blue Demons, Lower Mainland high school basketball may be split into two zones. One for private schools, one for public schools.

In the confused seconds after referees waved off and then counted a last-hope, last-second basket at the Lower Mainland championships March 3 at St. George's undersized gymnasium, hundreds of Kitsilano Blue Demons and Saints fans swarmed centre court under an enormous mural of a knight battling a dragon. Raucous, delighted chants for the Demons were suddenly silenced. In contrast, crest-fallen faces perked up as quickly as it took the Saints bench to embrace their game-winning shooter.

Kitsilano head coach Randy Coutts looked for an explanation from the officials. None would come. They had hustled from the gym. As Coutts turned his back on the winners, Saints head coach Guy daSilva took a half step out of the jubilant throng. His thick hair recoiled with the movement and the one-time Blue Demon who played for Coutts in the late '90s yelled, "F**k you!"

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The two schools had just played one of the best boys basketball games in memory, but they may never again meet to decide the Lower Mainland champion. Instead, the region could have two championships-one for private schools such as St. George's and another for public schools such as Kitsilano.

How could this happen? What could bring the B.C. High School Boys Basketball Association (B.C. Boys) president James Johnston to say, "Unfortunately, with these guys, the battle line has been drawn in the Lower Mainland." The division, as described by the executive director of B.C. School Sports, Sue Keenan, is "heated," loaded with accusations and confused by misinformation. "People are angry," she says.

The lines are drawn along political and personal divisions, meaning basketball games aren't just played on the court. A secondary competition-driven by antagonism and fuelled by ego-presents some of Vancouver's public and private school sports leaders as an infighting crowd of begrudging and self-serving men. "We have to continuously remind ourselves it's about our student-athletes," says Keenan. "They come first. Sometimes, quite honestly, our coaches forget that."

The Lower Mainland High School Boys Basketball Association (L.M. Boys) isn't just on the cusp of breaking apart. It's already broken down.

On a Saturday morning in Langley before the AAA provincial boys basketball finals in March, coaches, managers and athletic directors voted at the B.C. Boys AGM to split the Lower Mainland zone in half.

"I'm not sure if it will be good," reasons Paul Eberhardt, the coach who wrote and forwarded the motion. Kitsilano's Coutts seconded. An intelligent but polarizing figure in high school hoops, he is the vice-president of the L.M. Boys executive and a former coach at Magee secondary and Capilano College who led Richmond's Palmer Griffins to their first ever AAA championship over Vancouver College last year.

Eberhardt says the rift has expanded to a point where there are "such strong feelings on both sides that I felt it was worth discussing." His motion was an opportunity to start a discussion and air grievances. He describes the deliberation as "productive, excellent and engaged." By the end they voted for a split. If upheld, the decision could mean public schools from Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby and New Westminster compete in one zone for four to five berths to provincials each year. The other zone would count the region's private schools, also known as independents, and at the AAA level St. George's and Vancouver College would face each other as the only two schools vying for a single spot at B.C.'s big dance.

Vancouver College's Jon Tagulao spoke against the motion. He did not return interview requests. If approved, the private school playoffs would not just become their league's city championship but also the regional title game and the provincial qualifier. Results from a mail-in ballot from the province's coaches will be known in two weeks and the Competition Standards Committee of B.C. High Schools Sports will weigh in before the province's 430 secondary schools ultimately cast a ballot more than a year from now at a 2013 AGM on an issue that, for the large part, impacts them little and interests them even less.

In the 67-year history of the provincial tournament, the Vancouver College Fighting Irish have the most impressive record with five titles and 37 top-eight finishes in 47 appearances, more than any other school. More recently, St. George's has developed a competitive basketball program and was the best AAA team in 2009 when they beat Vancouver College in the final.

After the Irish, the Vancouver team with the strongest showing is Kitsilano with 19 appearances, 11 top-eight finishes and five championships.

Heralded as the best amateur sports event in the province, the AAA boys basketball championships was hosted at the Agrodome until it was relocated to the Langley Events Centre last year. Twenty teams are drawn from eight regions of the province, each of which is granted a proportionate number of tournament berths to represent the total number of AAA schools. Regions with only one AAA school automatically enter that school.

There were 28 Lower Mainland AAA schools last season and the region sent five teams to provincials. Teams qualify for regional zone tournaments through city leagues.

The rift that threatens to split apart basketball in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland doesn't cross into girls leagues, in part because the boys AAA field is deeper, highly competitive and undermined by schools' unequal access to resources and fundamental philosophical differences. "It really is, philosophically, two groups of people who see the world differently when it comes to athletics and they aren't going to see it the same," says Johnston.

All considered, the majority of boys basketball coaches, teacher sponsors, community volunteers and athletic directors are also inspirational at times, dedicated and very generous with their time. Despite this skirmish, these coaches benefit the lives of thousands of teenage boys, the benefit of which cannot be denied and should not be diminished.

The philosophical difference Johnston points out lies in the very purpose of the B.C. championships. Should it continue to be based on proportional representation of the regions or should it become a tournament for B.C.'s best? The solution ("There are solutions," insists a confident Johnston, a typically measured and calm vice-principal at South Delta secondary) will be spelled with the letters of compromise and concession. The heightened need to find and implement a resolution is one thing almost all agree on. Keenan has, for years, suggested a mediator.

"All of the people who are involved in the situation right now are too close to it," she says.

So close that one coach spat vulgarities at another. In his own defense, daSilva says he was excited and shouted, "F**k yeah!" Widely believed to be rescinding his position as the Saints senior boys basketball head coach, the generally good-natured and likeable daSilva, said after that heated regional final, "I shouldn't have sworn."

Leading up to that game, St. George's made an overt threat to sue the L.M. Boys-an association of which daSilva held the rotating presidential role if in name only since, according to other elected members, he wasn't participating but hadn't resigned-to gain direct entry to the regional tournament.

The B.C. Boys board of governors agreed the Saints deserved to compete although they lost their playoff series to Vancouver College. (St. George's headmaster avowed in a March 2 newsletter "legal action was never initiated." Read the letter here.)

Proving themselves on the basketball court, St. George's beat Kitsilano at the buzzer and won the Lower Mainland championship.

A regional split would extend what already happens in Vancouver. The city's public and private schools don't compete against each other in the same citywide league. From bantam to senior, boys and girls, badminton to volleyball, each is part of a distinct public or independent athletic association. Until this September, some independent sports teams did compete in the Vancouver Secondary Schools Athletic Association (VSSAA), which charged $500 for each external senior team to participate, $250 for junior and $200 for juvenile and bantam. Teams still meet in exhibition and tournament action.

But at last year's June AGM, public school educators reinforced their constitution by voting in a resolution that ensured "_only public schools from the Vancouver and District Public School systems will only be allowed the participate in the [VSSAA] leagues."

Mike Allina, the association's chairman, says public school sports encourage participation over all else. "We have provincial champions coming out of our district [but that] is completely irrelevant," he says. "We want to show [students] that it's fun. Although some [teams] are very competitive, it's based on representing your school and out of that participation, part of our philosophy is that if we increase participation in all the schools maybe we'll have elite teams but that is not our goal."

St. George's and Vancouver College have for years lobbied to play basketball alongside and against the 18 public high schools in the VSSAA, making a strong case that additional schools increase participation, heighten competition and provide more gym space as well as membership fees. Vancouver College principal John McFarlane listed as a benefit in his May 10, 2010 letter: "A more inclusive zone and playoff structure."

St. George's ended one of their formal requests with this line: "If we do not hear from you by July 1, 2010, we will be seeking alternative means to have our application considered."

The requests were denied and it was the following year, at their 2011 AGM, when the VSSAA eliminated all independent schools from league competition.

St. George's representatives, including its directors of communications and athletics, have not answered interview requests.

The rationale for the decision, which was written and seconded by Kitsilano rugby coach Don Staller and King George P.E. department head, Hanif Karmali, cited student transfers out of the public system. It stated, "Independent schools have the resources and ability to attract student/athletes to their schools. Many of the Independent schools have the ability to pay their coaches.

Independent Schools do not have catchment areas and will attract students from across the province and Canada." It passed 23 votes to eight.

Transfers are commonplace although recruiting is prohibited by B.C. School Sports. A winning status, storied reputation and the private-sector prosperity of a program can attract players, as can whispers of encouragement from alumni and influence at provincial and club programs.

Vancouver College and St. George's aren't the only schools to fend off such accusations. Past and present public school programs are suspected, too. Bill Disbrow, now on the Irish coaching staff, dodged complaints and stories in the media for years while he built a dynasty with the Richmond Colts. Eberhardt fared similarly at Palmer secondary, also in Richmond, and accusations of recruiting are laid at the doorstep of Kitsilano's Coutts. None has been proven. Private and independent schools, often the realm of a privileged set not used to restrictions they can't influence in their favour, decry what they call segregation. Public schools, constantly short-shifted in funding and embroiled in a labour dispute that leverages extra-curricular activities as a bargaining chip, condemn what they see as a sense of entitlement.

A two-tier education system also shapes hiring practices. Public schools cannot interview or hire teachers based on the after-hours contributions they may bring to a sports, drama or music program. By comparison, independent schools can list the same activities as an expectation of the job and, furthermore, compensate teachers for their additional out-of-classroom work.

George Oswald remembers a different feeling, one that nearly merged the public and private school basketball programs. "In the early '70s we came 30 seconds from being in the Vancouver league," says the Notre Dame vice-principal, also the winningest coach in B.C.'s high school football history who sat on the L.M. Boys basketball executive for nearly 30 years and still determines the bracket at the AAA tournament and which athletes are named all-stars and receive scholarships. He graduated from the East Side regional Catholic school where he spent a lifetime playing and coaching sports and is now an administrator.

In the merge that never happened, Oswald says Vancouver College would play on the West Side bracket, Notre Dame in the east and St. Thomas More would play in Burnaby, where public and private school leagues are also separated. "We were about to take the vote. Somebody stuck up his hand and said, 'But wait, those independents can recruit.' It fell apart. The coaches all agreed."

The atmosphere was co-operative although even then some coaches recognized how the different mandates of public and private schools impacted athletic competition. Oswald can spot the shortfalls on both sides of this rift and says there is very little co-operation today, particularly since public school representatives outnumber and outvote their private school counterparts. He says some public school coaches resent the resources many private schools can invest in athletics. He stepped down from his position in the L.M. Boys association last year. "A frustration level set in and I left."

Neither Oswald nor B.C. Boys president Johnston are optimistic a dtente will be amicable but agree one is forthcoming.

When the basketball season begins again next fall, none of this year's problems will be resolved. In fact, Kitsilano and St. George's just might meet again in the Lower Mainland final. The teenaged players will give their all. So too will coaches, although Keenan of B.C. School Sports doesn't expect the focus to sway too far from the final score. She says, "It's not about winning at all costs although some people would disagree with me."

mstewart@vancourier.com

Twitter: @MHStewart

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