Basketball was first introduced to Nova Scotia as early as 1895 but in the past thirty years the popularity of the sport has really taken off. The high concentration of universities in the province, the tradition and esteem of the high school programs, and the continued support from a large and knowledgeable basketball community have made the game a staple of Nova Scotia life, culminating with the capital city of Halifax becoming known as the basketball capital of Canada. When you talk about basketball in the Maritimes you can break it down into different levels of competition. There are the club systems throughout the province, the regional and provincial teams, then high school basketball, then you have to look at intercollegiate basketball, and finally pro basketball that was here for a short period of time. Another way of looking at how the sport has come along in the past thirty years is by focusing on the people who have been an integral part in its development. People such as Bob Douglas, Mickey Fox, Ritchie Spears, Brian Heaney, Steve Konchalski, and Bill Robinson, who through different roles have made and continue to make an impact on basketball in this province. Others who will not be discussed as much but whose role was just as important are those who laid the groundwork for all of the aforementioned. People such as Stu Aberdeen who created a legacy at Acadia University and in the process developed some of the best coaches this province has ever seen. Others like Al Yarr, Terry Symonds, and Frank Baldwin, whose tremendous efforts at the minor, high school, university, and national levels earned him the name Mr. Basketball. The foundation that was set by these people has allowed basketball to flourish in Nova Scotia on every level.
In the 1970s basketball in Nova Scotia was starting to gain popularity and in the minor system, the community YMCA and the Halifax Martyrs started basketball programs that provided children with an opportunity to play. At the high school level the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation took control of administering interscholastic athletics in 1971 and made many changes which improved the league. One of the improvements was to change the provincial format to qualify eight teams instead of just four, which allowed for more excitement as underdog schools had a chance to upset higher ranked teams en route to the championship. This led to many first time winners as teams from around the province such as Liverpool and Amherst Regional won the championship in the early part of the decade. Another first time winner was Halifax West as traditional powerhouses from Queen Elizabeth and St. Patricks faced greater competition. Another sign of the games popularity was the fact that it was being played in the summer time. After watching rare broadcasts of NBA playoffs, in which one of the halftime events was pitting the greatest players in the game one on one, this format was adopted in Halifax and tournaments were held with the winner gaining bragging rights throughout the city. At the university level, Brian Heaney took over as coach of the St. Marys Huskies. The former Acadia superstar took over the Huskies in 1971 and for the next eight years under his reign St. Marys replaced Acadia as the premiere basketball squad in the province. During the decade St. Marys won the national championships in 1973, 78, and 79 respectively and reached the finals on two other occasions. The Axemen remained highly competitive and won the nationals in 1971 and 1977. They were a formidable opponent for the Huskies, which resulted in one of the greatest intercollegiate rivalries in the provinces history. The two strong teams made the Atlantic Universities Athletic Association the strongest conference in the country for the first time as Acadia or SMU captured five national championships during the decade. (1) Some of the star university players during that time period were Mickey Fox, Steve Konchalski, and Fred Perry, all of whom are still very active within the Nova Scotia basketball community. Konchalski is presently coaching the St. FX X-men and has had a legendary career while Fox and Perry have been instrumental in developing the game in different communities throughout the province. Although it is not specific to basketball it is worth mentioning that after the 1971 Canada Games in Saskatchewan, premier Gerald Regan, aware that something had to be done after a poor performance, organized a committee, which came up with legislature that resulted in a department of recreation. It was the first of its kind in Canada because it was an independent body responsible for the promotion of sport, culture, and recreation.
The Terry Symonds Tournament
Another event that started in the 70s was the first Provincial Black Basketball Tournament. It began in the summer of 1973 at the St. Pats gym in Halifax with hardly any publicity but it continued the next summer and has grown into what is now called the Terry Symonds Invitational Basketball Tournament. It was named after the man who devoted his time and effort not only to basketball but also to the black community as a whole. When Symonds died in 1990 from leukemia the tournament was named in his honour with the majority of the proceeds going towards charity. The event will be in its 28th year of existence this summer and it attracts some of the best basketball talent ever seen in Nova Scotia. Teams from N.S., all over Canada, and the U.S., compete in different divisions with the A division consisting of only players who have played at the university level or pro. The tournament is more than just a sporting event, though. Its a social and cultural event as well, with dances and other activities supplementing the games. (2) Another contribution is the motivation that the tournament provides for the kids of the different communities. Coaches have been known to attend games for scouting purposes and it is a way for talented athletes to get recognized and possibly attend university because of it.
The strength of the AUAA in the seventies was not carried through to the 80s, as the University of Victoria were the undisputed champions of university basketball in Canada from 1980-1986 followed by three consecutive wins by the Brandon Bobcats. The talent pool in maritime university basketball seemed to be at least temporarily dried up. With the western schools having a lock on university basketball many critics questioned the amount of talent in Nova Scotia saying that the wins by Acadia and St. Marys in the 70s were largely due to the fact that a lot of the star players were not home grown products. This placed a lot of pressure on the 1987 Canada Games team to show once and for all that Nova Scotia was rich in basketball talent. Bev Greenlaw was chosen as the head coach with Mark Parker assisting and the NS team featured Augie Jones and Wade Smith who were St. FX stars at the time, along with three front line players from Acadia University. The team gained important victories over Manitoba and Ontario in the preliminary round. Since the games were held in Nova Scotia there was a lot of support as 1200 people packed the gym at Breton Educational Centre to watch as Nova Scotia dominated the Quebec team in the final on their way to a 91-76 victory. The victory was a defining moment for the development of the game in Nova Scotia because we were able to prove to the rest of the country that our minor league and high school teams could produce high quality players. At the high school level during the 80s, QEH was the dominant force as they won several provincial titles and also tournaments all over the country. Bob Douglas who has become a local legend coached the team; his coaching success at QEH spanned three decades and has coached or influenced almost all of the best players that ever came out of Nova Scotia. In the 80s alone the QEH Lions won four consecutive provincial titles and Douglas was recognized with the National Association of Basketball Coaches. The high school league in general was very competitive and by the mid point of the 1980s basketball was the most popular sport by both girls and boys at the high school level. All throughout the province great teams were being developed along with outstanding individual players. Some of the strongest teams during the 80s along with the Lions were the Windsor Warlords under Ian MacMillan and Roger Caulfield, the Horton Griffins under Tim Kendrick, the Dartmouth High Spartans, the Cobequid Cougars, the St. Patricks fighting Irish, the Parkview Panthers, and the Halifax west Warriors under Nick Morash. Also, for the first time in the 1980s people were able to watch via cable NBA and NCAA basketball games. This provided athletes with heroes like Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, and it also turned them into more knowledgeable basketball fans. University basketball clinics became very popular during this time span and basketball became a year round sport as kids became more dedicated to the game. As a result minor programs saw participation levels skyrocket and kids who were coming out of them to join high school teams had a greater understanding of the fundamentals and were ready to take it to the next level. Some of the other changes that occurred is that you saw athletes with better physical attributes. By training, dieting and practicing the athletes were able to jump higher and run faster and changed how the game was played throughout the province.
CIAU Final 8
The CIAU (now CIS) final 8 tournament is the national basketball championships for Canadian Universities. Since 1986 the tournament has been held at the Halifax Metro Centre and has met great success. Before that it was held at different locations throughout Canada with varying results but no city came close to Halifax. The fans showed incredible support throughout the years, even when Maritime teams werent in contention.
The growing participation of the 80s continued through to the 90s and in 1991 Halifax saw its first professional team, the Halifax WindJammers. Halifax was first considered for a pro franchise back in 1984 when the CBA was looking to expand. An executive that represented the CBA noted that Halifax would be an ideal place. There are certain things the CBA is looking for and Halifax fits everything. There is an adequate market, more than enough people to support a team, the location is excellent, the facility is there, and there is a good chance of local ownership. (3) Despite the appeal, Halifax was never awarded a team until a group of investors was awarded a World Basketball League franchise. The team was coached by Ian Macmillan who was assisted by Mickey Fox and Richie Spears and they received great initial support as they sold out their first game with a crowd of 9,700. Although the team was mediocre the fans continued to attend, as the average attendance was over 6,000 people per game. Many of the teams players became local celebrities and kids would flock to Jammer practices, as they had never seen basketball of that quality before. The entire city of Halifax caught basketball fever and many had high hopes for the teams future. Although the team seemed to be doing fine, the league as a whole was struggling as financial difficulties threatened its existence. The World Basketball League was founded in 1987 with teams from all over the US and Canada, one of its unique characteristics was that it only allowed players under 67 to play. Although it was received well in Nova Scotia the World Basketball League came to an end during the midpoint of the 1992 season. People all across the province were devastated and this led to a group of businessmen coming together to form the National Basketball League. This league seemed to be a solution to the problem as ten teams were formed and the league commenced play in 1993. The league also provided Nova Scotia with a second team as the Cape Breton Breakers were formed. The Windjammers went 20-26 but once again fan support was consistent as they led the league in attendance. The Breakers didnt do quite as well but the support in Cape Breton was also formidable as they led the league with a 30-16 record. The following year the league was reduced to six teams and once again during the middle of the season the league disbanded for financial reasons. This was the unfortunate end to professional basketball in Nova Scotia and it left many people disappointed. The provinces inability to have a long-term franchise was not a reflection on the fan support or the viability of the idea but rather the unsuccessful leagues of which they have been a part. The positive side of the Breakers and the Windjammers story is that it introduced the province to higher quality of basketball than was ever seen before. This led to an even further increase in the participation of the sport and the quality of basketball in the province improved accordingly. Another factor from the demise of the Windjammers was that some of the players stayed in Halifax and became part of the community. Players like Steve Benton, became an integral part of the basketball community and was personally responsible for raising the level competition and the profile of the game in the province through coaching, directing camps, and playing in different events. This also had an effect on the high school and minor ranks as more high calibre players were produced in the 90s than ever before. Universities in Nova Scotia didnt have the need to look outside of the province for recruits so much. St. Marys, Dal, and UCCB took full advantage of the indigenous talent recruiting high school stars from throughout the province who ended up having major impacts on their programs. Players like Tim Maloney, Jonah Taussig, and Steve Nelson who all played on the same QEH team. In 1993 St. FX finally captured the national title as it marked the first time an AUAA team had won since 1979. The strength of the AUAA was, and continues to be recognized, as teams from all across the country come to the province to participate in annual tournaments that are named for some of the provinces greatest ambassadors of the game. The Stu Aberdeen tournament is a tradition in Wolfivlle just as the Rod Shovellor tournament is at Dalhousie. Although it seems as if it is done everywhere, Nova Scotia is renowned for remembering those who contribute the most to the game of basketball by naming tournaments, divisions and sometimes gymnasiums after them. The success of the AUAA (now the AUS) was capped at the end of the 90s and the beginning of the new millennium as St. Marys won the national crown in 1999 followed by two consecutive championships by St. FX. All you have to do is look at those teams to see how basketball has developed in the province since the 70s. The best players on the St. Marys championship team were Jonah Taussig and Cory Janes, both Nova Scotia high school stars. The coach of the St. FX Championship team is Steve Konchalski, who starred at Acadia University under Stu Aberdeen, and two of his star players Croucher and Oliver played minor and high school ball in Halifax.
Basketball in Nova Scotia has definitely changed over the past thirty years. In the 70s we saw intense AUAA competition and for the first time were able to boast that the best university basketball in the country was being played in our province. In the 80s as university basketball declined some, minor leagues and high school competition flourished. Although the teams of the AUAA were not the best in the country the CIAU still decided that Halifax should become the host for the Final 8 tournament. The 90s brought professional basketball and along with it, increased interest in the game, as participation levels reached new heights. As we move into 2002 basketball is still very much a marquee sport in this province and its rich heritage ensures that it will be treasured for a long time to come.
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