Nearly 30 years have passed since my first game as a member of the Saint Mary’s University Huskies back in 1990.  The Scotiabank Centre was called the Metro Centre, and the pro team in town was the Halifax Windjammers, not the Hurricanes. The CIS tournament was a mainstay in the Halifax sports scene. The thought of the Canadian University National Basketball Championship tournament leaving downtown Halifax never crossed my mind. I bet most fans felt the same.

Much has changed in 30 years.  Although the tournament has come and gone a few times, Halifax is, once again, the picturesque destination of teams from across our country. The icy, hilly streets (the hotel ped-way solves that, for the most part) make it difficult, I imagine, for our friends from British Columbia to appreciate our city when, in March, spring has marched deep into their province.  But the scene, if not the scenery, is as vibrant as it gets for university sports in Canada. That has not changed one bit.

The action is exciting and fun to watch. The games are competitive. What has changed is the type of player we are watching.  Let me explain.

My second gig as a professional athlete was for a team in the German Bundesliga for a team call Brant Hagen (not Haagen Dazs –you will be as disappointed as I was).  Our team was composed primarily of men, supplemented by four or five players from the ‘junior’ team.  One of those players name was Bernd Kruel, a lanky 17-year-old with shaggy hair and a warm smile.  ‘Stork’ was his nickname.  At 6’9, he possessed the skills of a point guard, something we see on a regular basis today, uncommon in North America at the time.  Think Dirk Nowitzki. No. Think Kristaps Porzingis.

When I was 17, I was in the “post” at Halifax West High School.  I was told to go down low and stay there.  I was encouraged not to dribble because that was the guard’s job.  We weren’t players; we were ‘positions’. I was a ‘5’, or, a center. The potential for me to become anything more, to become a “Stork,” was limited by thinking and restricted by labels.

This was North American basketball at the time, but a shift was taking place. The NBA was the example. I remember guarding Detlef Schrempf in a preseason NBA game vs. the Seattle Supersonics back in ‘95. At 6’8, he was a “3”, but, like me, could shoot and post-up as well. We were an example to the NBA of the versatility that came with international talent. Detlef paved the way for guys like his countryman, Dirk Nowitzki. Today, is there a better example of how thinking has changed than the NBA All-Star ballot which has eliminated voting by positions? It went from guards, forwards and centers to guards and frontcourt. A sign of the times!

Dalhousie University’s perennial All-Canadian, Dean Thibodeau was the toughest person for me to guard in my University years.  At 6’8, Dean could score from anywhere.  Richard Bella (St. F.X.) was a distant second.  With guys 6’7+ like Brian Thompson (SMU), Curtis Robinson (UPEI), Troy Jones (CBU), Ted Byrne (ACA) emerging as versatile players in the AUS, it was a clear sign that the skill-set of traditional big men was expanding. When the Nationals came to Halifax, the talent pool was on full display with guys like Eric Hammond (Guelph), Norm Froemel (Winnipeg) and Gord Wood (Brock).

Many versatile big men in the past 30 years have gone south of the border, accepting NCAA scholarships. I could have been one but chose to stay close to home.  The NCAA opportunity has changed the landscape of Canadian University sports, not just basketball.  It has changed the type of athlete we are watching in the CIS.

There are very few Dean Thibodeau’s or Richard Bella’s playing CIS basketball anymore, if any at all. For 10-15 years now we’ve been watching players, not positions.  We are seeing a style of the game I was seeing emerge in Europe 25 years ago.  Big men are shooting 3’s, and guards are posting up.  Coaches are both blessed and challenged to win with well-rounded, skilled athletes.

What we have in abundance is potential.  That potential is vast as our country is wide and resides in all of us.  How we develop potential is equally as important as why.  The growth of Canadian NBAers is an example of how we’ve shifted player development from provincial teams to AAU squads where everyone tries out all positions so maximize their potential.

I enjoyed my era. I’ve been told it was very competitive and exciting basketball, but I’ll admit the play was somewhat predictable.  I like what we see now as well.  It’s fast, dynamic and unpredictable.  Not quite the Golden State Warriors, but still enjoyable for fans.  This year’s tournament will once again showcase the abundance of talent and potential right here in Canada.

Basketball talk is entertaining when we talk about stars and elite players.  But the conversation deepens when we talk about teams.  I’m proud to have had the privilege of amazing teams, teammates and coaches, the support of my friends, family, and fans, and the determination of my competitors to bring the best out of me.  I’m sure the teams competing for this year’s National Title feel the same.  In that way, nothing at all has changed.

William Njoku

Halifax, Nova Scotia