Night Hoops

An evening basketball program for at-risk youth initiated by a UBC alumnus is now enjoyed by youngsters from all kinds of backgrounds.

A procession of teens, all boys on the cusp of adulthood, flows into the Edmonds Community School gym in Burnaby. It's Saturday night and they’re here to play basketball. They crow and strut, make their rounds of high fives, and call out to one another: Yo, yo – Number One – Let's do-oo this.

One of them, Glen Morgan, is in grade 11 and like all guys his age he says he never gets scared. At the edge of manhood, fear, like vulnerability, needs to be squashed or, at the very least, silenced. But not so long ago, as part of the Night Hoops Senior Boys' basketball roster, Morgan's team played at the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre. That place scared him.

The centre’s team filed onto court wearing identical orange jump suits, which they immediately stripped down to the waist, exposing bare chests. Morgan saw someone he recognized: a class comedian who had ended up on the inside, now being rewarded for good behaviour by being allowed to play basketball. Each of the Senior Boys' teams in the Night Hoops league plays at the youth correctional institute once during the four-month season, and the experience isn’t lost on them. “If we didn't have ball -- if we didn’t have Night Hoops,” says Nathaniel Jang, one of Morgan's team mates, “half of us could be in there.” Almost inaudibly, more to himself than anyone else, Morgan says, “Easily man, easily.”

Night Hoops teaches youths the importance of cooperation and inclusion.

Sneakers squeak, rhythmic and repetitive, at the Edmonds gym, where a few fans are watching the end of the Junior Boys' game. Morgan, Jang, and other team mates Parsa Moeini and Fitsum Zewdu  – “the one and only,” he says – continue to jostle and joke as they wait for their chance to play. Morgan still plays basketball for his high school team, but the other three have all graduated. Without a home court, they have memorized every drop-in schedule at every community centre between Burnaby and Vancouver. But tonight it's not just pick-up ball, it's Night Hoops. “Here everybody shares the ball,” says Moeini, “and everybody gets to play no matter your skill level.”

Gordon Hogg, a UBC alumnus and current MLA for Surrey-White Rock, started Night Hoops in 1996 when he was director of the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre, which went by a different name then. He says that at the time over 90 per cent of youth crime was committed at night, usually on the weekends, mostly because youth were bored. Hogg found that dozens of American cities were implementing midnight basketball leagues to solve inner city crime. Modelled around these programs, Night Hoops is a recreation alternative for at-risk youth. Most of these youth, says Hogg, remembering the beginning years of the program, had never been involved in what he calls pro-social activities. “With basketball,” he says, “they had to work together in a team environment, often for the first time.”

Fifteen seasons later, the program has evolved. While preferred placement still goes to those referred by a social services agency, a broader range of youth are involved, not just those living on the edge, and there is also a girls' league. At Edmonds, a large number of the players are African refugees. At Britannia High School and the Aboriginal Friendship Centre in East Vancouver there are many First Nations players. In Kerrisdale, it is largely Chinese immigrants. Chad Cowles, program coordinator for Night Hoops, says the league helps integrate these youth into the community, socially and in terms of language.

Night Hoops teaches youths the importance of cooperation and inclusion.

Despite the changes, the program's core values remain the same. Night Hoops uses the power of sport to provide opportunities for personal growth. What makes it unique is the virtuous circle it creates. Not only does Night Hoops affect the youth it was started to help, it transforms coaches, referees, and board members.

Kim Howe, who played varsity basketball with the UBC Thunderbirds from 2000 to 2007, sits on the Night Hoops Board of Directors. She helped start the girls’ league in 2008 and remembers the biggest challenge was getting enough girls out to the gym. “It is hard to get girls to play if they are not sporty,” says Howe, who is downright competitive, a side of her she says comes to life only on the court. This competitive edge helped the Thunderbirds to victory in the 2004 and 2006 national championships. But Night Hoops, she says, is more about participation. Through Night Hoops, confidence came to overshadow competition. Howe remembers watching the Night Hoops girls play in the annual championship game against the Vancouver Police Department. “It takes a lot of confidence for the girls to play with guys,” she says. “So it was really great to see.”

Confidence leads to capacity and that is one aspect that Jocelyn Greer, who started out as a Night Hoops player and then returned as a coach, has experienced firsthand. Greer joined the girls' league in its first year, when she was still in high school. While studying for her BSc in Global Resource Systems at UBC, she came back to coach and now fills in for practices. In Greer's opinion, playing basketball turns players into better people and citizens. Night Hoops, she says, has given her a long list of tangible outcomes, including a sense of camaraderie and sportsmanship among people from varying backgrounds, a good work ethic, as well as a sense of commitment and personal achievement. “A good coach,” says Greer, “can help players achieve these values, skills and experiences.”

Rajbir Sohal, who is studying education at UBC, coaches the Trout Lake Junior Boys team.

Tonight, in advance of the Junior Boys' Edmonds versus Trout Lake game, coach Dean Valdecontes facilitated a workshop on personal hygiene. As a pilot project this year, these life skills workshops, which have always been part of Night Hoops, take place in advance of games and are delivered to both teams simultaneously. “We want to breed unity in the players,” says Cowles, the program coordinator. “Like we are all a part of Night Hoops, not competing teams.”  Topics have included drug addiction, sexual health, nutrition and immigration. Rajbir Sohal, who coaches the Trout Lake Junior Boys, says she gets ideas for workshops from her players. Over the six years she has been involved, Sohal has, upon request, delivered many career development and resume workshops.

Through volunteering with Night Hoops both Sohal and Christian Loro, who coaches the Edmonds Senior Boys, have advanced their own careers. Sohal is currently in the education program at UBC and Loro graduated last August. Coaching, says Loro, pretty much got him into the teaching program. Loro's approach as a coach mirrors his student-centred teaching style. “Ninety per cent is participation,” he says. “There is basic instruction but you just let them learn on their own.”

Inderjit Waraich received the 2011 Outstanding Referee of the Year Award.

Inderjit Waraich, who has been a coach as well as referee over the five years he was involved with Night Hoops, says that as a coach he learned to let his players make mistakes. “Fortunately, on the court the worst mistakes aren't that bad,” says Waraich, who recently joined the Vancouver Police after completing a Human Kinetics degree at UBC. For Waraich, the greatest gift of Night Hoops is watching the players mature over time.

“Number 24,” says Cowles, as the buzzer goes for the Junior Boys' game, “– he needs some shoes.” And he makes a note to grab a pair of high tops from his trunk. “They give us everything for free,” says Jang. From coaching to jerseys, food and shoes. “The only thing we got to learn,” says Morgan, “is if they say come eight o'clock, we got to be here.”  “Yeah,” comes a chorus of voices. “Respect back,” they all say. “I think it is about giving back,” says Moeini, speaking up louder than the rest. “When I am 25 or 30, it is time to give back. It is not just about taking.”  This is the lesson of Night Hoops. Pass the ball.