Nunavut hamlet celebrates 15 years of high-calibre basketball
"I’m in this position today because you pushed me and because you were there for me"
CAMBRIDGE BAY — This September marks the 15th anniversary of the biggest organized basketball program in western Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region.
“I’m always excited for [Wolverine] basketball to start again,” said Kean Niptanatiak, a Grade 12 student at Kiilinik High School in Cambridge Bay. “It’s all I really look forward to about school.”
Basketball is one of the most popular activities for Cambridge Bay residents and the Wolverine program allows about 120 kids to play on organized teams.
“A few of the old players have come up to us and thanked us,” said Terry Aknavigak, one of the Wolverine founders and coaches. “They say, ‘I’m in this position today because you pushed me and because you were there for me’.”
Aknavigak started the basketball organization with his wife, Daisy, one year after he graduated high school. They turned the Kiilinik Storm high school team into a traveling basketball dynasty.
“We started with not even a full 10-person roster,” he said. “And for the first two or three years, it was very sporadic who would show up.”
But within a few years, the players got used to the travel and the Wolverine basketball organization took off.
“We knew we had to get to as many tournaments as possible,” said Aknavigak. “The more we got the kids out, the more exposure they got.”
It paid off. Three former Wolverines now play basketball at a post-secondary level.
On top of that, this year, five of the Wolverines were handpicked to play in the North American Indigenous Games in Regina this past July.
Aknavigak, himself, was the last basketball player to go from Cambridge Bay and that was about two decades ago.
The NAIG tournaments takes place every three years and host indigenous athletes from across North America.
“It was a lot of fun,” said the 17 year old Niptanatiak, who got back to Cambridge Bay the first week of August. “I was surprised to see that it was bigger than the Arctic Winter Games.”
The exposure the Cambridge Bay athletes received at NAIG was a huge step toward their goal of playing college basketball.
“They know what it takes: hard work and practice,” said Aknavigak, a father of three. “That’s always been a part of our goals, we want to see our kids play college basketball. That’s what we strive for.”
It’s especially important in a town where kids start playing basketball on the outdoor court as soon as they’re able to walk.
“I feel very proud and lucky that I’m one of the chosen people to represent Cambridge Bay,” said Linda Howard, 14, one of the Wolverine athletes who participated in the NAIG tournament.
And in return, the Wolverines are well-supported throughout the community.
“People support us through radio bingos, cake walks, teen dances, all of our fundraisers,” said Aknavigak. “We get a lot of community support.”
That money helps the teams attend about two out-of-town tournaments per season.
“It was hard at first to take these kids away from home,” said Aknavigak, who coaches the senior boy’s team. “Some of them had never left Cambridge Bay.”
But once athletes got used to traveling and the intensity of the competition, the coaching staff were able to add more away tournaments.
“Now we can barely keep the kids here during the summer,” laughed Aknavigak. Not only did four of his senior players attend the NAIG, one more was invited to play at the nationals.
The Wolverines started off as just the senior team almost 15 years ago, but with increased demand, the organization now hosts players from Grade 2 all the way to Grade 12.
Aknavigak and his wife, along with all the other coaches, helped mold the young Wolverines into great basketball players and great people.
“I’ve learned that you should trust what your coach gives you, you should trust your teammates and I learned that sportsmanship is the most important,” said Niptanatiak, the only male athlete from Cambridge Bay to be invited to NAIG.
Niptanatiak’s coach, Aknavigak, had glowing words for the blossoming young athlete.
“He’s a good kid,” said Aknavigak. “Basketball is always on his mind, he’s always asking when there’s practice. He just enjoys the game.”
But Niptanatiak knows he wouldn’t have been successful were it not for the support of his community.
“I credit Terry, my teammates, I credit my other coaches, and I credit my family,” he said, “because they’ve supported me throughout my entire basketball career.”