In 1994, the Government of Canada sent then-RCMP corporal John Buis on a six-month assignment with the United Nations policing in the war-torn state of Croatia.
As he prepared for the trip, Buis wondered how he would connect with the people in the troubled Balkan country. Drawing on his long experience with the game of basketball, Buis approached Spalding Canada representative Bill Field about bringing some balls along on the trip. Buis offered to pay for the balls but Field insisted on donating them and soon the RCMP officer was puzzling about how to fit 24 basketballs into his quota of luggage.
"When I got to Croatia, there was a basketball court right in front of the building where I was stationed," recalls Buis, now a Staff Sgt.-Major with the Burnaby RCMP. "The people in Croatia didn't have a lot because they had been subjected to a number of trade embargos and one of the things that was in short supply was new rubber products. So when I pulled out those basketballs, guess who was everybody's new best friend?
"I ended up playing and talking to the kids there and I was able to do that because of basketball. There was an avenue where I was able to use basketball just to get to know the community, which I needed to do with my policing role. Soon those 24 basketballs disappeared and that was great because the kids used them."
Buis's Croatian adventure is just one example of how his career in the RCMP and his love of hoops have come together to make an impact on the lives of others.
Last Saturday night at the Langley Events Centre, Buis's years of contributions to the hardwood game were recognized when he was inducted into the B.C. Basketball Hall of Fame. In his acceptance speech Buis, now 58, took time to thank the "starting five" people who helped make the evening possible - his parents Jim and Betty Buis, high school coach Stan Stewardson, long-time high school tournament official Ken Winslade and, of course, Buis's wife Kellie.
Throughout the evening, Buis proudly wore his RCMP red serge uniform as a nod to the proverbial "sixth man" on his home team.
"The RCMP gave me the opportunity throughout my 35-year career to help with sports," Buis said. "I had supervisors who were knowledgeable and who wanted to make sure that we, as an organization, helped with the youth of our community. It just so happened that basketball fit well with that goal. I had a lot of assistance not only from my supervisors, but from my co-workers as well.
"That's still the goal with the RCMP but it can be a challenge, particularly when officers are only in a community for a short period of time. I've been lucky because I've stayed in my home community for 52 years, and that's very rare."
Buis's rŽsumŽ is impressive - 35 years in the RCMP; 38 years as a member of the high school AAA boys'' provincial tournament committee including 12 as tournament director; 16 years on Basketball BC's board of directors including nine as president; five years as Canada's representative on the FIBA (International Basketball Federation) Americas board of directors; induction into the Delta Sports Hall of Fame with the rest of the 1972 North Delta Huskies; the Sport BC President's Award in 2001; Canada basketball Provincial president of the Year in 2007; plus two international policing stints, first in Croatia and later in East Timor.
He fell in love with basketball in 1966 and played high school hoops at North Delta where he was a member of the Huskies' 1972 provincial championship team. After high school he played two seasons with Vancouver Community College before hanging up the sneakers in favour of a career as a pilot.
"I was very fortunate when I played," Buis says. "I was an OK player but I had great teammates in Stu Graham, Mike McNeil and Dave Coutu and an outstanding coach with Stan (Stewardson). I was in the right situation at the right school at the right time. All of those things had to come together and if you take one component out, the rest of it would not have worked."
As he trained to be a pilot, Buis regularly drove out to the airport in Langley along a route that took him past the Surrey RCMP detachment. On a whim one day, Buis popped in and asked if the RCMP was hiring pilots and suddenly his career plans took a turn. He joined the national police force and while the pilot gig did not materialize, Buis was fortunate to be assigned a posting right back in the Lower Mainland where he could continue his volunteer work in basketball. When he quit playing, Buis did not abandon the game and immediately joined the committee that organized the annual senior boys provincial hoops tournament and has been a member ever since.
His work there led to other opportunities at the executive levels of the game in this province and, eventually, in the international arena with FIBA - the sport's governing body.
Through it all, Buis marvels at how often his work in the RCMP has meshed fortuitously with his love of the game of basketball. One of the strangest started with a violent encounter with a car thief and ended 30 years later with a backstage chat with one of the greatest international basketball centres.
In 1979, Buis was involved in a nasty incident when he and his partner stopped what turned out to be a stolen car from the U.S. The routine traffic stop went haywire when the driver pulled out a shotgun and opened fire on the two RCMP officers.
Buis and his partner were both wounded in the incident and Buis ended up undergoing a series of operations. One of the specialists he was treated by was a physiotherapist named Alex McKechnie. The Burnaby specialist later became a favourite of NBA basketball players, especially members of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Years later in his role with FIBA, Buis had the opportunity to meet with the new president of the Serbian Basketball Federation - former L.A. Laker Vlade Divac.
"I spent 15 minutes talking with him and we were talking about mutual friends," he recalls.
Buis adds with a laugh: "It's funny because my work with the RCMP and with my time spent with basketball has taken me around the world but where am I now? I'm probably 1,000 feet away from where I grew up."