“Let’s make it a race!”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, that sentence was a posture-changer for a group of the Grade 7 students in the gym at Colleen and Gordie Howe Middle School. If there had been any slouchers in the crowd, there weren’t any longer – they were instantly crouching, balanced on the balls of their feet. And smiling.
The speaker was Jaslyen Singh, an alumna of the University of the Fraser Valley women’s basketball team. She’s the lead organizer and head coach of the Books and Basketball after-school program, a partnership between Abbotsford’s Howe Middle School and the UFV Cascades basketball squads.
On this particular day, Singh was overseeing a group of 26 students with assistance from Sasha Otanga, an incoming recruit with the UFV men’s basketball team. The kids were organized in four lines, each with a row of orange pylons stretched out before them.
The kids wove their way around the pylons, using crossover dribbles while doing their best to keep their eyes up and avoid staring at the ball, as per the coaches’ instructions.
The cheering built as the relay reached its conclusion, and a mild argument ensued over who won – one group said their last dribbler was across the line first, while another insisted their entire group was sitting down first.
Singh defused the dispute with a smile. Back when she played for Al Tuchscherer, UFV’s longtime women’s basketball coach, she thought coaching looked relatively easy. Turns out, the hyper-organized Tuchscherer just made it look that way. Now in her second year running Books and Basketball, she’s got a far greater appreciation for the planning necessary – not to mention the charisma required to keep middle schoolers’ attention.
“It’s such a rewarding experience,” she said. “It’s something to look forward to every Tuesday and Thursday. I just love seeing improvement in kids.”
What happens in the gym only represents half of the program. And in many respects, it’s the less-important half.
Upstairs in the library, a group of Grade 6 students are reading or getting a head start on homework under the watchful eyes of Jenika Bannerman, who is heading into her sophomore season with the UFV women’s basketball team, and Selyen Singh, Jaslyen’s younger sister who is finishing off her Grade 12 year at nearby W.J. Mouat Secondary.
After an hour, the two groups switch locations, with the reading group racing downstairs to lace up their basketball shoes and the erstwhile hoopsters sinking their teeth into a good book.
Books and Basketball was developed and launched by Singh and her father, Howe vice-principal Jasbir Singh, in 2014. The elder Singh had taken note of his students’ incredible passion for basketball and wanted to harness it to inspire academic progress. His daughter was looking for a way for her UFV team to give back to the community.
“I’m always thinking, ‘How do I get our students to learn?’” Jasbir Singh said. “I realized I needed someone more engaging than myself – an old guy – to connect with them.
“These young people who are at university, they’re leading the path we want these kids to strive towards. They have the work ethic, they understand how to balance life, they’re doing academics and athletics, and they’re living a healthy lifestyle and giving back to the community. These are values that we want our kids to have, and what better way to model it than through these young people, who the kids just adore?”
That adoration manifests itself in several ways. Kadeem Willis, a high-flying 6’4” power forward with the UFV men’s basketball team, was utterly exhausted after his first Books and Basketball coaching session. The kids were so enthralled by his dunking ability, they asked him to do it again … and again … and again.
Other Cascades student-coaches find themselves inundated with friend/follower requests on social media.
“They treat you like a celebrity – ‘Add me on Instagram!’” Bannerman said with a chuckle. “They’re great kids, and it’s nice to give back.”
Jasica Bhairon, a Grade 6 student, said she enjoys getting to know the Cascades athletes.
“Teachers don’t understand us as well as kids do,” she said. “It’s fun. I like reading a book, because in class we don’t get as much time for that … and it improves us in basketball.”
According to Jasbir Singh, Books and Basketball yields multiple benefits. To start with, it gives kids something to do between the end of the school day and suppertime, which are the peak hours for them to engage in high-risk activities. And the more time a student spent on schoolwork, the higher their chance of academic success.
“If it wasn’t for the basketball – that’s the hook – they wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “The research tells us that the more time they devote to academics, the higher the success they’ll achieve at it. It’s just practicing, right?
“And the kids are connecting with adults that care about them. Once they develop that trust, then our community grows. That’s why we do these community programs. I think the whole of Abbotsford benefits from this.”
The program has been more popular than Jasbir Singh had imagined. He’d initially hoped for 20 students to sign up; he ended up trying to cap it at 40 this year, but didn’t have the heart to turn kids away. There are currently 54 kids involved, with more on the waitlist.
Books and Basketball not only provides UFV athletes an avenue to give back to the community, it also gives them a feel for middle school education and whether that might be a career path that interests them.
For Jaslyen Singh, the program is a great way to stay involved in the basketball scene. After winning a B.C. AAA high school provincial title with the W.J. Mouat Hawks in 2011, she played two seasons with the Cascades (2011-12 and 2012-13) before a devastating knee injury forced her to hang up her hightops. She’s working towards her kinesiology degree at UFV, and served as the colour commentator on Cascades webcasts this past season.
“It’s pretty exciting to think that we’re role models for kids through Books and Basketball,” she said. “You work hard to get to university and to play there, and you forget how much you looked up to older players.
“I think we’re definitely making a difference.”