From outside the civic centre in Prince Rupert, B.C., it looks like any other small town basketball tournament. Vendors sell 50/50 raffle tickets out of a Ziploc bag, a concession dishes out French fries and buses spill teams from around the region into the parking lot. But the lineup of people looking to buy passes and tickets, which stretches almost out the door, hints that this particular tournament is a whole lot more.
Begun as an inter-village rivalry-turned-annual game, the All Native Basketball Tournament has grown into one of the largest First Nations cultural and sporting events in the country. Attracting teams from rural communities across the Pacific Northwest—each carrying a large chunk of their town along with them—the tournament floods Prince Rupert every February, bringing with it more than 3,000 participants and fans, jamming the stands with upwards of 1,000 people during big games and pumping $4 million into the local economy.
“Fifty-five years ago, when the tournament was starting, [the region was operating on] a resource-based economy,” says Peter Haugan, the president of the ANBT. “So in the winter basically people weren’t working, and the sport of basketball took over.”
Teams travel from southeastern Alaska, central and southern B.C., and even as far as northern Washington to play at the event. In the past, the tournament has allowed teams from southern Alberta to play as well, but they don’t anymore, partly because the trip to Prince Rupert was too far for fans to travel with their teams.
“[The competitors from Alberta] are wonderful players, but there was no excitement,” says Haugan. “The place was full, but you could hear a pin drop during the final game.”
This year, ANBT organizers turned away teams from Saskatchewan and Quebec.
“There are similar tournaments [across North America], and some of our players have played in big tournaments,” says Haugan. “But there are only 300 or 400 people in the stands there. This place is noisy. It’s exciting.”
Exciting is an understatement. Games are shockingly loud, even when the stands are only half-full. During championship contests, players have to learn to read each other’s lips to communicate plays.
That celebratory environment can be felt throughout Prince Rupert during the week of the tournament. In the lead up, entire communities arrive on the incoming ferries and flood the downtown core, and even when fans don’t personally attend, they can catch the action on CFNR, a First Nations classic rock radio station that sends four anchors to cover games.
The same inter-community rivalry that fuelled the ANBT in its infancy is still palpable, even though a number of teams have developed into powerhouses—dynasties that have developed into community institutions over generations. Skidegate, a small reserve town on the western Haida Gwaii island chain, has won the Seniors league three years running and the Metlakatla women’s team had an eight-year winning streak that was only recently broken.
But more important than any rivalry is the annual reunion the tournament provides, bringing together communities that otherwise find the distances that separate them hard to overcome.
“We used to all know each other through work, but that’s not part of our life as much today,” says Jason Alsop, a player on the Skidegate Saints. “Basketball’s the reason that a lot of us know each other. Without the good money in fishing and logging, there is a void. Basketball fills a bit of that.”