By Alexandra Mehl
Port Alberni, BC - It was a neck-and-neck battle between the Vancouver Outsiders and Alberni Valley (AV) Thunder in the final game for the men’s division of this past weekend’s annual AV Thunder tournament. Both teams battled it out with fierce offense and an even fiercer defense for a captivating and close game where AV Thunder, the host team, ultimately took the win.
“The strategy right from the get go was to just come out strong,” said Kevin Rush, a Tseshaht member and coach of the Alberni Valley Thunder men’s team. “Play really smart basketball, focus on our passing and driving and shooting altogether.”
Of the AV Thunder team, Mike Lange and Jacob Thom were named All Stars while Jess Black was named MVP. Kevin Rush acknowledged Lange, Thom, and Black, as well as Jason Fortin, as key players to bringing the team victory.
“Our core players… they know each other really well,” said Rush.
“It was really great to be able to go out… with that focus of just give it our all; giving it our all as a whole team,” added Rush. “Each and every one of us throughout the whole weekend pitched in on the floor.”
The day prior, AV Thunder lost to the Vancouver Outsiders.
“I lost my confidence after the first game,” said Eddie Rush of Tseshaht, a player on the AV Thunder. “One of their main players, on the Vancouver team, had just lit up at the end.”
“Coming into this game… I kind of refocused,” he added. “[It] gave me that confidence back that I need to contribute more on defense.”
The weekend's tournament was dedicated to the late-Bill (William) Surry, former manager of the Alberni Athletic Hall. Since 2016, when the AV Thunder tournament first started, the former basketball player had an instrumental role in organizing the annual competition, Kevin Rush told Ha-Shilth-Sa.
“He would come out and he would cheer us on many times,” said Kevin Rush. “This weekend was really about Bill Surry.”
For Kevin Titian Jr. of Tseshaht, he remembers watching the finals for the AV Thunder tournament with Surry last year.
“He was yelling at the refs because it was really unfair; I could still hear his voice saying, ‘Come on!’,” said Kevin Titian Jr. “I can still hear him here and there throughout games.”
“He played a big role in our lives for the last… 12 [or] 13 years,” he added.
For Kevin Titian Jr, Eddie Rush, and Kevin Rush, they considered Surry family.
“So for me it's very important that we came out on top and it's amazing,” said Kevin Titian Jr. “I think he was alongside us the whole time.”
“It was a top-level competition the whole time,” said Outsiders captain Bill Mackinnon, who is from the Tallcree Nation in Northern Alberta. “I think everybody got to just really enjoy the game of basketball.”
The weekend was also about bringing communities together, promoting health and building connections alongside strong competition.
“It's great to see basketball… on the go again in the valley; it's been really stagnant the last couple of years in tournaments,” said Eddie Rush. “It's all about keeping basketball alive in our community, because… tournaments, especially First Nations tournaments, have been really quiet.”
“It's always nice to see how much the community comes together and how rich the basketball community is in Port Alberni,” said Mackinnon. “It's a really kind of binding thing for the culture in Port Alberni, especially for the Nuu-Chah-Nulth culture.”
The tournament hosted teams from throughout Nuu-chah-nulth nations and beyond.
“[It was] awesome to be able to host such a great tournament,” said Titian Jr., “to watch everyone have fun out there, play their hearts out, play the game we all love for everyone we love, and showing what we love to do.”
The AV Thunder basketball tournament was held Oct. 27-29 at the Alberni Athletic Hall, with the host team claiming the top spot in the men’s division. (Alexandra Mehl photos)
Alexandra Mehl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Ha-Shilth-Sa