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Making a World Team - Keyano College Basketball

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The multinational aspect of Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region is all so obvious wherever you look. The schools have at least 75 different home languages listed apart from English and French, while the Multicultural Association identifies more than 100 different nationalities.  This diversity is reflected in every facet of the community, and nowhere more so than in the Keyano College sports teams, basketball in particular.

The women’s Huskies team, by way of example, has only one home town player in Stephanie McLellan. The rest are from across the country, and almost half of them are first generation Canadians. 

The two ‘foreigners’ on the team are here for their education, naturally, but they are also here to play the best basketball they can. Kika Greenlee, originally from Milwaukee, is forever moving onward and upward. She has played college ball in the USA, and came here to extend her time eligibility and to learn and play. She’s a good fit with Coach Dwayne Vigilance, another first generation Canadian. He appreciates players who work hard at their skills, like Kika and her Irish compatriot Stephanie O’Sullivan. 

Basketball is not traditionally Irish and neither is Stephanie. Back home her family run a personal protection company, and it was not uncommon for her to bump into some of her parents’ clients on tour. Bruce Springsteen once, Jay Z, and others too numerous to mention. But she’s here because, like all the others on the team, and besides getting an education, she wants to play. More than that, she needs to play, and Fort McMurray is the best place for her to do so.

The men are even more of a polyglot group. The Nationals will be here in March - the 2016 Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Championships to give it its correct name – and if the Keyano men are any indication of what the visitors will be like, it will be a veritable United Nations in the change rooms. Indeed just the coach and one player cover about half a dozen languages between them. Lunzaya Nlandu played for the Canadian national team. From the Congo by way of Montreal he speaks Linga, French and English, understands Flemish, and is learning Portuguese for fun. Number seven Rami Ghanem was recruited while playing in Luxembourg and is Swedish of Egyptian parentage. Elsewhere on the team Weverton Santana, sitting out this semester, is from Brazil and there are also three Australians, Cory Richardson, Orlando Mein and Blake Gallatly. 

The Aussies bring a lot of skill and talent to the court, as do those Canadians who are one generation away from their ancestral home. Yusuf Barak is of Turkish origin, Kevin Dia’s family is from the Ivory Coast while Demaine Nelson is of Jamaican descent. 

The only non-immigrant, really is Jesse Brave Rock, whose ancestors have been here, well, since before Canada was Canada. And he even he is from somewhere else. Jesse comes from the delightfully named Standoff, which is south of Lethbridge. 

“The benefit of coaching such a diverse group of athletes is that each player and coaching staff member brings something unique to the team,” says Lunzaya. Nlandu played Division 1 College Basketball as well as semipro. Closer to seven than six feet tall, he has the presence to dominate a room if he wishes yet he is a quiet, soft-spoken and thoughtful man. The team has been playing well under him, yet there is a sense that results aren’t all that matters to him. He thinks his way through coaching and you sense that he sees his role is as a teacher as well as trainer. Witness his favourite quote from Maya Angelou. “Diversity is not about how we differ. It is about embracing one another’s uniqueness.”

Nlandu loves winning, something this season’s team is doing a lot of. And he loves the way they are winning. “There is beauty and strength in diversity, and this enhances the teamwork. Their style of play reflects their differing life experiences.”

Recruiting is an important part of the College sports process today. Basketball, as a true world game offers opportunities to players that weren’t necessarily available ten or twenty years ago. But once the players are together, getting them to work as a team takes knowledge, understanding and sometimes a bit of compassion. Communication is the key to that understanding, and having coaches able to reach across cultural divisions is an essential part of the modern game.

“We might have a language barrier at times, and I may have to repeat myself to get my point across on the court, or find another way. But we all share the same passion of playing the game of basketball with pride and respect. Winning brings honour to the players, the coaches, and Keyano College”.

And learning how to do that is what College is all about. 

Demaine Nelson, Lunzaya Nlandu, Kika Greenlee, Jesse Brave Rock, Cory Richardson, Stephanie O’Sullivan and Rami Ghanen.