Kobe McKnight was living his dream of playing a championship game in the All Native Basketball tournament when he realized the Burnaby Chiefs were about to win it.
With only a minute and 43 seconds left in the game against the Prince Rupert Cubs, the shooting guard sensed victory.
With his cousin — playing for the Cubs — checking him, McKnight faked going right, crossed the ball to the left, and launched a three-point shot, the ball arcing in the air then sliding into the net.
"That's where I thought the game ended," McKnight said. "That's when it hit me that we are going to win."
The Chiefs pulled out a 81-70 final score to win the intermediate men's division championship, with McKnight earning the tournament's most valuable player award and other high-scorer honours.
The achievements weren't his alone, he says.
"All 10 of us accepted our roles, played smart and brought it to another level," McKnight said.
For the Burnaby Chiefs, the victory was a fitting end for a squad that has largely been together since grade school: it was the first tournament in two years after the coronavirus pandemic forced play to be suspended, and four out of five starting players are aging out of the division, leaving younger teammates to carry on next season.
And for them, losing the players will not only be felt on the court, but off it, too.
Bond beyond ball
Fifty-two Indigenous teams from all around B.C. competed in the annual All Native Basketball tournament in Prince Rupert, which ran April 3-9.
Burnaby Chiefs' players come from different Indigenous communities across the province and country, who move to cities like Vancouver for employment, education and better opportunities.
Teams from Indigenous communities have tribal history, culture and generations old family kinships, all of which help create strong bonds between players — even for a city-based team like the Burnaby Chiefs.
Players spend a lot of time together on and off the floor, often going to dinner together after practice and games, and are regular visitors at coach Chris McKnight's home.
"There's a lot of mentorship that happens, a lot of camaraderie. There always will be," said Chris, Kobe's father.
Chris McKnight says the Burnaby Chiefs has a good track record of leading its players to further success.
"Five of our players have gone to play in the North American Indigenous Games," he said.
They also have to work or go to school if they want to play for the team. Chris McKnight and his wife, Amber, help them find employment, or navigate post secondary programs.
"We're not just developing successful players. We're helping develop successful people."
Kobe, who learned to play basketball during elementary school, attends Capilano College where he studies kinesiology and plays shooting guard on the Capilano men's basketball team.
He experienced his first All Native tournament at 13 years old, and knew afterward that he wanted to play in the tourney.
"No matter how much you tell them about it, you have to experience it playing on the court," Kobe said.
"It's just so different because basketball is part of our culture."
Club team critics
Unlike typical First Nations teams, the Chiefs are a club team and players don't just come from one First Nation.
"We have players from Nisga'a, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo, Carrier Sekani, Haida and Mohawk," Chris McKnight said.
At the All Native tournament, some grumbled that club teams were stacked with star players, giving them an unfair advantage over smaller First Nations teams.
But McKnight challenges this, saying he doesn't do anything different from other successful teams on reserves.
Players know and can feel when someone really, truly cares about their success. - Burnaby Chiefs head coach Chris McKnight
Teams such as those in Haida, Haisla and Greenville run successful programs where leadership invests in players with time, energy and sincere interest in their lives — not just by throwing a budget at the team, Chris says.
"Players know and can feel it when someone really, truly cares about their success," he said. "Not with words but with actions."
Healer helps women's champions
Also returning to the Vancouver area as champions are the All My Relations (AMR) women's basketball team, which beat the Similkameen Starbirds 57-52 to win the All Native women's division title — the first in the club's 17-year history.
AMR's Shenise Sigsworth won MVP, while teammates Adelia Paul and Karalee Antoine were named all-stars.
"This is the first All Native championship for East Van, where a lot of Indigenous people live," said AMR's Joleen Mitton. "This is a long time coming."
The final game was AMR's second game against the Starbirds, who beat them by 20 points earlier in the tourney, knocking them into the losers' bracket.
The loss shook the team, who had also been dealing with a sick head coach and a badly injured player.
"I thought, oh my God, we're not going to win this if we don't fix whatever's happening with us," Mitton said.
Players turned to a traditional healer, who did cultural and spiritual work to ground them. It was just what they needed, Mitton said, and the move paid off immediately: AMR tore through the losers' bracket, notching three straight victories before the rematch with the Starbirds in the championship final.
"We were a different team, and that [healer] was a big part of it," Mitton said.
"We let go of our anxieties and egos. I cried after, but it was a good cry."