If you happened to wander into the Harry Sayers Elementary School gym on a Wednesday night during the last few months, you might have witnessed a very strange scene. It may have looked a little like the above picture, with UFV Cascades men’s basketball coach Adam Friesen sitting cross-legged on the floor among middle school children, or it may have included 6-6 Cascades forward Nate Brown shooting hoops with kids barely half his size!
Either way, it’s all in a week’s play for those involved in the Rising Stars Basketball Academy, a new program for middle school students in the Lower Mainland that is committed to ‘no barriers’ access for each and every child in a school community. The founder of RSBA, Upkar Tatlay, began the program only a year ago, but has seen it grow explosively in west Abbotsford.
“The first week we started out with 10 children,” Tatlay remembered, “but by the next week we had a line-up down the block around the school, just by word of mouth!” Since that incredible start, Tatlay has had to limit enrolment to 50 kids for each of his locations in Abbotsford and Surrey, and yet RSBA still has a waitlist approaching 400 kids. His secret, if it can be called that, is to make the camps as accessible as possible, free of charge, and safe for all kids (RSBA is also an LGBTQ safe site).
“We want to engage all the children, altogether at the same time, participating in sport, learning good ethics, values, and just knocking out all the barriers,” said Tatlay, who so far has financed the program largely from his own pocket.
It was this dedication to RSBA, and Tatlay’s commitment to the kids he coaches, that deeply impressed UFV coach Adam Friesen during his first conversation with Tatlay in late 2013. Invited to Harry Sayers simply to give a ten-minute speech on sportsmanship, Friesen happily obliged, and then stuck around for the rest of the session to help coach! Tatlay was impressed, and the two formed a mutual respect that paved the way for further collaboration.
After Christmas Friesen invited Tatlay to bring his program to a UFV home game, free of charge. A few weeks later the Cascades coach was back at Harry Sayers Elementary, a trip that he and UFV players Kevon Parchment and Nate Brown have made at least once a month since. Their impact as coaches and as role models is something that Tatlay just finds astounding.
“Adam and a couple of his players have been so amazing coming back at least once a month and working with the kids,” said Tatlay. “[Friesen’s] involvement has been so great that at the session last Wednesday I asked the kids, joking around, ‘Who’s your favourite coach?’ and a couple of them put up their hands and said ‘Coach Adam!’”
The relationship built between the children and the Cascades has been powerful on both sides. “I just learned to respect [Tatlay] and the fact that he’s doing this non-profit for kids,” said Friesen. “He treats the kids so nicely, and the support workers he brings with him are great people. It’s not just basketball, each week there’s a theme and lessons, and they talk about respect or whatever the theme is for that week … it’s something I’d never really seen before, and it caught my eye and I really enjoyed it.”
By all indications, RSBA is going to expand significantly before the ten month program begins again in September, and both Tatlay and Friesen are hoping to continue their cooperation moving forward. Tatlay has only good things to say about the Cascades, whether remembering a speech given by the soft-spoken Parchment to the camp, or even the time Brown dunked on him during a one-on-one match in front of the kids.
So if you had wandered into Harry Sayers on a Wednesday night during the last few months, you would have witnessed an amazing program for Abbotsford kids learning about basketball and character at the same time — and a couple of Cascades working hard to enrich that learning by sharing some hoop knowledge and some life skills!