Waki-Ya Charging Bear Diablo started playing basketball with his father as a way to spend time together outdoors.
Now, the Secwépemc and sylix 14-year-old is heading to Mi’kma’ki to play for Team BC as part of the 2023 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG).
“Basketball means a lot to me. It is the thing that has never let me down,” Diablo said, noting he’s been training daily for close to four years.
“When I play, it’s like I have a level of focus where everything else is irrelevant in the moment.”
Hailing from Tkemlúps te Secwépemc, Diablo is starting as a two-guard and a wing for the U14 men’s basketball league. He is one of 10 teens hand-selected from 25 contestants from both regional and provincial tryouts held in “Langley” in December of 2022.
There are nearly 800 Indigenous athletic teams and coaches travelling to “Nova Scotia” to participate in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) 2023 between July 15 and 23.
“Waki-Ya is the most talented player on our team,” Team BC’s U14 head coach Mark Neufeld said. “He’s got everything anyone like me (coaching) could ever want. He’s tough. He’s hard working and he’s really skilled.”
The NAIG is a multi-sport event that allows Indigenous athletes to compete in 16 different mainstream sports as well as three traditional sports — which includes categories for canoeing/kayaking, lacrosse and 3D archery.
This year’s public event will take place with 21 venues hosted across Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Dartmouth, Millbrook First Nation and Sipekne’katik.
Neufeld said the biggest challenge as a coach for NAIG is having less than five practices before competing against four teams in the upcoming tournament. If the team succeeds, they’ll secure a spot to the quarter finals this summer.
He’s confident that 40 years of experience as a coach combined with the characteristics of a “talented team” will bring positive results at NAIG.
He added most basketball teams typically get about 10 practices in before competing. In this case, the teens on the team are scattered throughout the province.
“I’m a big fan of playing hard defense. That’s a role that anyone can play if they work hard enough. If we really run teams and defend well, then we’ll be really tough to beat,” he said.
Humility is key
Neufeld believes Team BC is set up for success despite the challenges of getting everyone together for team practices — and especially with help from Diablo.
“He’s the guy you want to have the ball in his hands when you really want a basket to happen, but even Michael Jordan didn’t do it alone,” Neufeld said of his Tkemlúps starter, “and we have some really skilled players, so they’re going to be a great team to make it work.”
He added that humility and hard work are both key to a successful team.
“I want the players to get the most out of this experience,” Neufeld said, commending the families for being incredibly supportive.
“They’re a really special team and if we can pull them together in a really short amount of time, we can do something really special that I think they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
Team BC’s U14 men’s basketball team is participating in a training camp at the Richmond Oval, starting July 13, before their departure to the Maritimes.
“We’ve got to do the most training in the shortest amount of time possible and make some magic out of it,” Neufeld said, “but what an incredible experience to coach kids and be a part of their journey.”
Support from family and community
Neufeld, along with the team and several families, will be travelling east on July 15 in anticipation of the tournament beginning on July 17.
Diablo and his mom, Daylin Manuel, are departing from Tkemlúps te Secwépemc for the Lower Mainland to attend this week’s training camp prior to that.
“I’m so beyond proud of the human being that he is,” Manuel said about her son. “He is truly special. When I think of him, it just makes me smile and my heart explodes. I’m such a proud mom.”
Manuel fondly remembers when Diablo wanted to play basketball in the Sk’elep School in Grade 3, but wasn’t old enough to participate. The primary school league begins in Grade 4.
“He practiced really hard all year long, then played as the point guard for the school team in Grade 4,” Manuel said, adding he’s gone on to play basketball for the King’s Northern Bounce, three-on-three teams, and the Junior All Native Basketball Team.
She is grateful for all of the basketball coaches that her son has had, going all the way back to Grade 4, for making a positive impact in both of their lives.
In addition, the Tkemlúps te Secwépemc community recently recognized Diablo for his athletic achievements for competing in the USA and has provided sponsorship for him to attend the NAIG 2023.
“One of my old coaches is supporting me financially, but I know that my community is supporting me financially as well,” Diablo explained of his dream to get a Division 1 spot in the USA in the future. “There’s a lot of family and friends that are encouraging.”
Most recently, the family traveled to Spokane, Washington to play at a tournament in Gonzaga University.
“He’s had the opportunity to play in Las Vegas, Vancouver and Kamloops,” Manuel added. “It’s really amazing.”
In the last school year, Diablo had the rare opportunity to play for two teams: the U13 and the U17 teams at the Nanaimo Junior All Native tournament.
“It was his passion, and I just knew in my heart that if I fed his passion, he would do wonderful things,” Manuel said, proudly saying his report cards have been top tier, as well.
“It’s so good for his mental wellbeing and it keeps him out of trouble.”
Competing against the best
In anticipation of the NAIG, Diablo has been doing cardio, strength training and plyometrics. He balances school work, friends and family and practices to get in the zone.
“I look forward to playing against some of the highest-level basketball players,” he said. “NAIG gives me the opportunity to get to know more athletes who also share my passion for basketball.”
Diablo’s goal is to do his best at school and in sports in hopes of trying out for Div. 1 basketball in the USA in the future. He also participates in several club teams at home in Tkemlúps.
He plans to go through the tryout process to be on Team BC when the NAIG runs again in three years in 2027 and hopes for the opportunity to compete at home. Tk’emlups te Secwepemc has entered a bid to host the 2027 NAIG with the support of the City of Kamloops, which includes up to $500,000 of in-kind support provided through the use of facilities and staff time if the bid is successful.
“I think Tkemlúps should hold the 2027 NAIG because Kamloops is the tournament capital and it would be nice to see all the people who can’t afford to travel far to be able to watch and learn while taking in the skills of all the talented basketball players,” Diablo said of the internationally-known sports hub that fosters athletic development in the community.
“When I turn 18, I will go through the tryout process again and I hope to be playing for NAIG 2027 in my home community for the second time. It would be amazing for all the Youth to come out and be inspired to find the sport that they’re passionate about.”
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