Former NBA player shares life lessons at basketball camp for Yukon kids

Grade 7 student Channing Smarch lines up his shot at a March Break basketball camp this week in Whitehorse.  (Amy Kenny - image credit)
Grade 7 student Channing Smarch lines up his shot at a March Break basketball camp this week in Whitehorse. (Amy Kenny - image credit)

Channing Smarch wasn't a Boston Celtics fan until this week. Now, a few days after meeting former Celtics player Damen Bell-Holter, Smarch is donning a brand new Boston baseball cap as he shoots hoops.

"I mean, Damen's cool … he's a nice guy. He's definitely not, like, an intense coach," Smarch said.

Smarch was participating this week in a March Break basketball camp with Bell-Holter in Whitehorse. The camp is a partnership between the Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) and the Council of Yukon First Nations. It's aimed at boys and girls aged eight to 12.

Bell-Holter may not be a tough coach, but Smarch's regular seventh grade basketball coach is. If you want to play for the team at Khàtìnas.àxh Community School in Teslin, Yukon, you run laps as punishment. Bell-Holter just gives you a warning, then makes you hold a plank. Planks are easier.

While basketball skills are part of the camp, Bell-Holter says they're not the point. Culture is. That's the focus of the camps he's been offering since before he retired from pro basketball at 27.

Bell-Holter grew up in Hydaburg, Alaska. He's of Haida, Tlingit and African-American descent. He was always skilled as a basketball player, he says, but it was the support he had in his community that helped.

"I was fortunate," he said, standing in the gym at the KDFN multipurpose building. "My mother, she made me understand everything from a historical context. My father's black, so she made sure I understood where I came from on both sides of the spectrum … she made sure when I left my community [at 14, to play ball], I knew exactly who I was."

Amy Kenny
Amy Kenny

That's the starting point for his basketball lessons. To play on a great team, you need to be a great team member. And if you can be a great team member, you can be a great community member. So how do you do that?

"Listen," Smarch said. "That's been the main word of the week, for sure."

If you listen to your coach, you learn to listen to other people you have relationships with, he says. That includes respecting boundaries when people have them.

Bell-Holter tailors his teaching this way, especially for young men. He's had experience with abuse, depression and toxic masculinity.

Amy Kenny
Amy Kenny

When he left basketball, he had a lot of time to think about that experience and process it. That's when he decided he could meet a need he wasn't seeing met, especially when it came to addressing those issues for black and Indigenous men.

He knew his sports reputation would open the door for him if he wanted to do something with it, like start a skills camp. But he also knew exactly what he wanted to advocate for, and what he had to say about life skills at the same time.

"My biggest thing is, I lead with vulnerability. I'm honest about my depression, I'm honest about my anxiety, I'm honest about my traumas," Bell-Holter said.

"Because if they could see me and they could look at me and say, 'oh wow, you're so strong,' I explain to them, it's because I went through so many battles and I had to work through so many things to get to this place of being confident, being secure in myself."