Basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson once said, “All kids need is a little help, a little hope and somebody who believes in them.”
If that saying is true, then the scrappy Killarney junior boys team has all they need to succeed from their head coach, Yash Zandiyeh.
By all accounts, Zandiyeh is beyond dedicated to his Cougars.
On any given weeknight, Zandiyeh can be found working his team on the hardwood at Killarney secondary school.
His assistant coach Keith Nath, 26, said Zandiyeh, who has a day job in the IT department of Revenue Canada, pays for much of what the team needs out of his own pocket. He sourced the Cougars’ green hoodies, pays for pizza nights and has bought struggling students shoes.
Nath said on weekends, Zandiyeh, 29, often takes the team to watch university level teams play. Last Saturday, for example, the team headed to Washington State to see Seattle University play New Mexico State.
Zandiyeh is more than a coach to his players, he is a mentor and friend.
"I am proud to say that I have been around Yash to learn a lot of great life lessons that I might not have had the opportunity to, growing up in East Vancouver,” said Nath, who started out as one of Zandiyeh’s players.
Cougar shooting guard Greg Popa, 16, credits Zandiyeh with boosting his confidence on and off the court.
“Some coaches, they just care about the basketball, they don’t really care about the players, but he really cares about us,” said Popa.
Zandiyeh sees coaching the Killarney boys, some of whom come from less than ideal homes or financial situations, as giving the kids a break from their sometimes chaotic lives.
“It is not selling them dreams, it’s not selling them hope, it is just saying, hey even if for an hour and a half you can take a kid out of the mindset that they are in for 10 to 12 hours a day, who knows what that hour and a half is going to do as it adds up,” Zandiyeh said.
Like his players, Zandiyeh has faced challenges.
He is severely hearing impaired, which also impacts his speech. He relies on lip reading and body language to converse.
His sister is also hearing impaired and his mother is deaf. Growing up wasn’t always easy, Zandiyeh said, but he was able to find comfort and belonging playing basketball. (He started playing when he was six, under former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis.)
Zandiyeh said his disability has come to work in his favour as a coach.
“If I were not hearing impaired, I would not be as compassionate and empathetic with people,” he said.
The coach and his team seem to have a symbiotic relationship — he doesn’t give up on them and they don’t give up on him — and that has translated into a team that is a force to be reckoned with.
The height-challenged Cougars — their tallest guy is six-foot-one — currently sit at 22 and 4 on the season. The underdogs came out on top in two tourneys — Surrey’s Guildford Park Secondary Sabre Classic and their own Killarney Cougar classic — and are second only to Kitsilano secondary in their Tanabe Division.
Zandiyeh said if they can maintain their confidence against taller and more well heeled teams, his Cougars will be unstoppable next week at the junior boys city championships hosted by Eric Hamber secondary.
“If they get past their mental issues, come Feb. 20 we will be putting a banner on the gym, guaranteed,” Zandiyeh said, smiling wide.