“The boys were all saying ‘Look at that football field’ and ‘We could put 10 of our school in there and still have room for a field,’” laughed Dragons’ coach Darko Kulic.
In this era of smartphones, such scenes wouldn’t be enough to divert the attention of the majority of B.C.’s thousands of high school student athletes for even a second.
Yet for the Dragons’ players, who attend classes and shoot hoops within Canada’s most densely populated urban setting east of Toronto, a view without the backdrop of massive high-rise apartments can be something to behold.
“Being in the downtown itself is unique because it is the most populated area of B.C.,” continued Kulic of the tiny King George campus, located smack dab in the middle of the West End, one of the most inhabited parcels of land on the continent. “When you live downtown there are so many distractions, but seeing the focus of our kids, the way they stick together wanting to be great in basketball and in school, that is something that makes me feel so proud.”
Enjoying one of their best seasons in school history, the Dragons clearly are a focused bunch, and a large part of the reason for their success is the environment which Kulic, a 2005 King George grad, and fellow program coaches Roger McBride, Hanif Karmali and Randy Chan have worked so hard to foster.
Taking full advantage of the neighbouring West End Community Centre, where Kulic is employed as the pre-school and children’s recreation programmer, Dragons players meet for homework club, volunteer in community outreach, and sometimes, just have a great time hanging out together and strengthening their team bond.
“It’s like a family and it’s not just entirely about basketball,” says senior forward Jonal Hall. “When we do team events, we do what a family would do and that improves our team chemistry.”
Like two Saturday’s ago when Kulic and the team gathered at the centre and created a movie theatre-like set-up to watch the slam dunk contest that was part of the NBA’s all-star weekend.
Kulic told the team afterwards that Vince Carter’s performance in 2000 topped anything he saw in 2016. The team argued back between bites of pizza and a good time was had by all.
And this season, that sentiment has extended to the court.
Heading into the Lower Mainland championship tournament on Monday at the Richmond Olympic Oval, where King George is considered the favourite, the Double A No 4-ranked Dragons have compiled a 27-5 record by beating not only the best teams in their own tier, but those in larger and deeper Triple A tier as well.
King George has not only topped Double A No. 1 G.W. Graham of Chilliwack this season, but also Triple A No. 4 Byrne Creek of Burnaby and Triple A No. 9 McMath of Richmond. Last week, after having lost twice to Triple A rival Windermere this season, the Dragons got their revenge over the Warriors with a 77-69 win in the Vancouver City championship final.
“They were all good wins,” said team scoring leader Yoel Teclehaimanot, who starts along with Hall, Kyle Guerrero, Shayne Sweder and Jonathan Dimalanta on a team that also boasts a talented bench, “but we have always had the mentality that we are a 0-0 team that wants to be 1-0.”
One step at a time is the best course of action for a school that in recent years has fashioned three fifth-place finishes at the provincial tournament, but in the school’s history, has never won the grand prize.
Yet if there is one thing the current team has working in its favour, it’s the fact that so many have stayed and played together since their days at nearby Lord Roberts Elementary.
Kulic admits that in past years there had been a very transitory nature to the families who arrived in the West End, many of them internationals making their first stop in Canada.
“But we’ve been fortunate the last few years that the kids have stayed,” he explained. “My fingers are crossed.”
As he is speaking, Kulic is standing on the school’s small grass field, one that used to be a lot bigger before a seniors’ high-rise was built on part of it.
“When you grow up here it just becomes second nature,” he concluded. “You see all the buildings on Robson, all the buildings on Barclay. And then there is our school. I think we all take pride in knowing that this is our own quiet little place.”