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Inspiring the uninspired

Alpha Secondary grad Desi Collinson is leading tiny Queen Charlotte against the best quad A basketball teams in the province in a David and Goliath showdown at the B.C. high school championships in Langley, beginning Wednesday

Back in 2002, retired Burnaby teacher Mike Jones was sitting in his office in the first week of classes at Alpha Secondary, when he first heard of Desi Collinson.

“I remember a young boy come running in and saying, ‘Mr. Jones, you have to see this guy playing in the gym,’” said Jones.

That guy was Collinson, a First Nations student transfer to the North Burnaby school from what was then called the Queen Charlotte Islands before the Reconciliation Act of 2010 renamed the North Coast archipelago “Islands of the Haida People.”

Matt Rachar, who was an up-and-coming junior post on the Alpha senior boys’ team, also remembers the first day Collinson walked over to Confederation Park and singularly took over a game of pickup basketball.

“(Collinson) dominated the games,” said Rachar, who went on to set a B.C. high school record with Alpha for most field goals in a provincial tournament before embarking on a successful five-year hoop career at the University of B.C. and later turning pro in Austria. “We were ecstatic to hear that he was moving to Burnaby and would be attending Alpha. That was a huge turning point.”

Alpha head coach Wayne Best remembers Collinson and his buddy Duane Alsop, who followed his friend to Alpha in 2003, as “tough and passionate.”

“He’s always looking for the positive. … I’m just beaming with pride,” Best said of his commitment to the youth.

Collinson, a first team Lower Mainland all-star, helped Alpha to its first AAA provincial tournament and a top-eight finish in 2003, averaging more than 18 points per game and placing fourth in overall free throw percentage, potting 21-of-24 in four games.

After graduation, Collinson attended Langara College but returned home before finishing his studies.

“Basketball and sport in general, is just atool to bring you somewhere else,” Collinson said in a recent long-distance call.

Collinson, now a First Nations youth worker on Haida Gwaii, is making a return trip to the Lower Mainland this week.

The 28-year-old will be leading the Queen Charlotte Saints single A basketball team to perhaps the biggest, single challenge that any provincial high school team has ever attempted.

The Saints, which even by single A standards is considered tiny, will be attempting the near impossible when they enter the B.C. high school quad A boys’ basketball championship against the No. 4-ranked and defending provincial champion Walnut Grove Gators today (Wednesday).

The team is led by two of the best players in the province, 6-6 forward Jesse Barnes and guard Nathan Vogstad, who recently committed to Simon Fraser University for next season.

“Our kids are tough, playing against men makes you tough and playing on Haida Gwaii makes you tough,” said Queen Charlotte Secondary instructor Dave Wahl, who played varsity basketball at SFU in the late 1990s.

For Desi Collinson, basketball has, and continues to be, the key to opening up doors.

He is a three-time MVP at the All-Native basketball championships and the winner of the men’s war dance competition at the island’s museum anniversary celebration for the last five years running.

“Desi works his kids hard - like he plays,” said Wahl, who helps out Collinson on the bench. “Just last week, he broke his hand in the opening quarter of a game, but he just played on it. He’s something else. The kids really look up to him.”

Collinson is well rooted in his Haida culture and uses myth and song as a complement to his on-court strategies on the recreation centre’s old-growth log floor or when running with his team along the stony beaches of the rugged north coast.

“Culture is just so strong,” he said. “Finding who you are is going to make you a better player and a better person.”

The long journey to the provincial championships in Langley is likely as much about finding that place as winning to Collinson.

“It’s about inspiring the uninspired. It makes a better community, in the end,” he added.

Win or lose, the Saints will no doubt return to Haida Gwaii with a greater understanding of what it means to meet a challenge that an entire community has actively backed you on.

Collinson remembers the anxiety of his first time at the provincials. He got over it by believing, “This is what I came down for.”

Wahl says, the story that is being written by these young men is less about basketball and more “about the four years they’ve spent together.”

After these provincials, the 12-member Saints squad from Haida Gwaii will surely agree with Collinson, when he says, “This is the place I want to be.”

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