NPH Trailblazers: Howard Kelsey, British Columbia Basketball Legend

NPH Trailblazers is a segment being introduced to Canada that will illustrate the careers of influential figures of the past, who have paved the way for the present and future of Canadian basketball.

Howard Kelsey
Canada’s Howard Kelsey plays basketball at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. (CP PHOTO/COA/J. Merrithew)

VANCOUVER,BC–When you think of Canada Basketball, the name Howard Kelsey might not be the first to pop into your head. When it comes to basketball in British Columbia, Kelsey might be overshadowed by some guy named Steve Nash. The Los Angeles Lakers point guard might be the biggest name to come out of BC –and Canada for that matter–, but its people like Howard Kelsey that helped open the world’s eyes to basketball coming out of The Great White North.

One area Nash can never top Kelsey was during their High School careers. Howard still holds to this day the best points per game average in BC High School Basketball history at 34.5; an incredible feat when you consider how long that record has stood up.

Kelsey’s international resume also trumps Nash’s. Howard donned the Maple Leaf on his chest for over a decade (1977-88), appearing in over 400 games for his country, including winning gold at the 1983 World University Games, and representing Canada twice at the Olympic Games (1980, 1984).

Presently, Kelsey is still involved heavily with Canada Basketball as the executive vice-president, a role that he has filled now for close to two-years.

On September 20th, 2012, Howard was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame. After receiving this prestigious honour, NPH caught up with him about various topics including his career as a player – internationally and professionally–, some of the legends he had a chance to play against/with and the current state of Canada Basketball.

NPH: Congratulations on getting inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame. Describe how much of an honour this is for you.

HK: It was a huge honour. I was joined by some of my (national team) teammates including Lars Hansen, Greg Wiltjer – the father of Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky) -, Karl Tilleman plus Ken Shields and Wayne Parrish (President and CEO) from Canada Basketball came out from Toronto as well as many others from our basketball community. It was a tremendous honour and more importantly it’s the next step in making sure all of our deserving teams and honourees are honoured. We haven’t had anybody inducted from the basketball category since 2003 which was Bev Smith, so hopefully I will break some of that logjam and open the door for more people.

NPH: You played against some big time players both internationally and professionally. Who are a few of the top players you have faced over your illustrious career?

HK: I had the honour of playing against Isaiah Thomas when he was in high school playing on the USA national team; also Ralph Sampson was on that team. Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan and Alvin Robertson were all on the 1984 US National Team in the Olympics. We beat Charles Barkley and Karl Malone at the 1983 University Games. Sidney Lowe, there are so many to list but obviously Ewing and Jordan would be on the top of that list.

NPH: How about some of the best guys you played with?

HK: There were many. Of course the players I mentioned earlier Hansen, Wiltjer and Tilleman. (Jay)Triano, (Gerald) Kazanowski, Leo Rautins, Eli Pasquale,  Billy Wennington, Danny Meagher who went to Duke. Stu Granger who was one of the best point guards to ever play for Canada. He played at Villanova and went on to play in the NBA. Billy Robinson and Martin Riley, we had, you know, some of the most outstanding players in that era from the 1976 team which finished fourth place in Montreal, to the 1980 team that tied for first in the Americas, but boycotted the Moscow games. We finished fourth in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, losing to Yugoslavia by six in the bronze medal game. We also lost to Spain – who went on to win the silver – , by just one in the group stage at those games.  In the 1988 Olympic Games we finished in sixth place, so we had a very strong run of good Canadian basketball, especially on the men’s side.  The women also finished fourth in Los Angeles, but we (the men’s team) were very strong under coach (Jack) Donohue.

NPH: You rattled off some of those legendary names who played for Canada. Do you feel that where we are now, in terms of player development and player exposure, that maybe back then there may have been a better chance for yourself or maybe some of the guys to have got a shot at playing in the NBA?

Kelsey is currently the Executive Vice President for Canada Basketball | Courtesy: VGBA
Kelsey is currently the Executive Vice President for Canada Basketball | Courtesy: VGBA

HK: Well especially from the bigs. It’s pretty safe to say that many of those bigs would have probably made it now, because of the sheer numbers. There weren’t nearly as many teams back then. For example, in Lars Hansen’s case, I saw him score 19 points against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was on the Seattle Supersonics roster that won a NBA championship in 1979. There is way more teams now, and not to belittle guys that are making it now, but it was a lot more difficult back then.

NPH: You played professionally down in Mexico. Did you ever feel that you could play with those (NBA) guys and that you should be in the NBA?

HK: I was invited to a Sonics free-agent camp, but the chances of me making the roster were very slim back then, so I took the sure thing. I never wanted to sit on the bench. Playing back then wasn’t the same. Salary was around $65 000 per year, it was not the multi-millions now that one gets just being on an NBA roster. I was reasonably content with my decision. It would have been nice to have the title of making an NBA roster, but I liked to play, and never wanted to sit on the bench just to say I played in the NBA. I would have been a marginal player (in the NBA) at best. The financial difference wasn’t that huge, like it is now.

NPH: Now that you are a part of the National Program, do you talk to these players about maybe not just going for the money, but rather looking at other places to play where they might develop better than sitting at the end of an NBA bench?

HK: Yes, but most of the nurturing of the players falls on people like Rowan Barrett, Jay Triano and Steve Nash who are running the men’s national team. I’m in a senior management position which is a different part of the organization, where we’ll building the organization; they are building basically the technical delivery of the team itself. We can always give tips. I’m very close with Kyle (Wiltjer) obviously because of Greg. I know Phil Scrubb well because of his dad Lloyd. Rob Sacre played in our HSBC/Telus tournament since he was in grade nine, but personally they are going to do what their agent(s) tells them generally on the NBA level. I don’t want to be meddling with too much unless they come and ask for specific advice. I will always tell them go to where you will become the best player.

NPH: Even though going over to Europe might give them more playing time, in terms of someone like Sacre, playing with the Lakers and practicing with Dwight Howard everyday might improve his game more, even though he might not get a tonne of game action.

HK: Correct. People are different. Some people play great when they are in a backup role with better players playing ahead of them, whereas some flourish when they are a small fish in a big pond. If Steve Nash had played at maybe Duke or North Carolina in his first two years he may have been sitting on the bench and got discouraged, but instead he went to Santa Clara where he blossomed into the great player that he is today.

NPH: The NCAA is the obvious route for Canadians wanting to make the NBA, but do you ever see a day where the top-tier Canadian players will choose to stay in Canada and go the CIS route and still have a viable chance at getting recognized?

HK: Well during my era, working with Ken Shields at the University of Victoria we had several players get drafted. Gerald Kazanowski being one, Eli Pasquale being another, the level of play back then was not that far behind (the NCAA). We actually played at the Thomas and Mack center when UNLV was number one in the country and came within 10 on their court, so the answer is, yes it has happened. Recently you’ve seen Carleton compete; I think Phillip Scubb could get a look at a draft pick. I can’t answer exactly what they’re looking for, but I think the main difference is the delivery and the level of pressure. We were talking about Kyle Wiltjer, he’s played in an NCAA Final Four, in a stadium that holds 60 000. There is an art to shooting a ball in a stadium of 60 000. It’s not that easy. You are playing in front a large amount of people, millions of people on television, it doesn’t change the game itself, but it changes the delivery. That experience you have to have. The CIS doesn’t have a university (that holds) more than 7000 a game, which would be in a very rare game. Whereas in NCAA Division One, or top 20, your regularly 15-20 000 per night, plus being on national television. The level of pressure maybe a little bit different, but there are players in the CIS that can compete, and they have.

NPH: You mentioned that you are good friends with Phillip Scubb’s father Lloyd. Phillip must have gotten lots of NCAA offers. Did you perhaps have a conversion with the Scrubb’s about which route was best for him to take?

HK: He did (get offers) but he was already signed to Carleton by Dave Smart. It was a mood point, but if you’re asking me if he’s Division One material? Well ya, he’s 6’4”, he’s quick, long, and he’s shown what he can do in his first three years at Carleton that he can compete against them. The question is, can he start day-in-and-day-out at that level, because it’s a totally different schedule. It’s a different level of pressure. The NCAA Final Four, the Sweet 16, that’s major pressure. We can’t fabricate that in Canada. At this time we have our own championships, but you’ve watched the Final Four it’s a sports icon of its own.

NPH: Ok let’s talk about the National Team program now. Obviously Steve Nash coming in was massive for the program and of course Jay Triano returning as the Head Coach is big too. What further steps is the National Program taking so that they can compete one day soon and possibly medal at an Olympics?

HK: You got to go back to the very beginning. Bryan Colangelo financially supported Canada Basketball with $300 000 dollars from the (Toronto) Raptors and MLSE. Bryan allowed Maurizio Gherardini to be in our program. Wayne Parrish brought Rowan Barrett, myself and obviously Steve and recently Jay in and we have more people coming on board. On the court, Allison McNeill did a great job coaching the women’s team that finished in the top eight this year in London. Our job is to build the dream team off the court. We need sponsorship at the highest level, something similar to the Hockey Canada model. They have hosting expertise with some of their sponsors. They have Nike, Esso, RBC and Telus whereas we have Bell .We’re beginning discussions with those types of sponsors. We also have to find other ways to make it prestigious and fun to be involved with this program.

NPH: Taking a look at the training camp roster, nothing is set just yet, but it looks as though Sacre, (Tristan) Thompson, (Cory) Joseph and those types of young talents are buying into the program.

HK: And we’re very glad. Normally when you get that level of player and that many of them there are several primadonnas, there were none. Every kid at that camp was deserving. We had NBA stars. Joel Anthony was there, he did not have to be there. Jamaal Magloire didn’t have to be there. Tristan didn’t have to be there, so you have very good quality leadership and that’s what it comes down to. It’s almost as important as talent, so we have a very good group to come from.

NPH: Why do you think Steve (Nash) separated himself from the program for so many years?

HK: I can’t answer that; you would have to ask him. I wasn’t involved with the program at that time myself. All I can answer is going forward where are we? And every time Steve’s been involved it’s been good so, put two-and-two together I can’t see it not being a positive experience going forward.

NPH: It must be easier now for the program to get the younger kids involved after seeing Steve get on board wouldn’t you think?

HK: I agree. Based on the camp I saw and the turnout. Now we got momentum moving forward for next year. Next year won’t just be a camp; it will be preparing for the World Championships and playing in stand up paddle boards to qualify for those games the following year in Spain. And then we’ll be going for 2015 pre-Olympic qualifier for Rio. Hopefully we qualify and hopefully in 2016 both men and women are in Rio.

NPH: How about the junior camps. What players do you have your eye on?

HK: I wouldn’t throw out any names right now, all the kids that were at the camp in Toronto, every single one of them wants to play for Canada. It’s too early to bring up names, there are a lot of household names that are thrown around, but I don’t want to pinpoint any one. The coaches are who pick who’s best for the team. It’s not just based on your press clippings, they are important, but at the end of the day it comes down to what’s the best chemistry for those 12 individuals.

Howard Kelsey was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame, September 2012 | Courtesy: Rebecca Bollwitt
Howard Kelsey was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame, September 2012 | Courtesy: Rebecca Bollwitt

NPH: So what you’re saying is all politics aside, just let them play?

HK: You can’t have a team that is all all-stars.  You got to have lunch bucket guys. You got to have blue collar guys.  You got to have guys that want to sit on the bench and play less minutes and not necessarily start or worry about their playing time.

NPH: Speaking of lunch bucket type players. What’s holding back Matt Bonner from joining the National team?

HK: To the best of my knowledge, he is supposed to have all the paper work completed to be able to become a Canadian citizen this year. His wife is Canadian and he’s lived (in Canada) for the required amount of time.

NPH: And if that happens will he play for Canada?

HK: I believe he wants to play for Canada. It’s up to the coaching staff whether or not he would be on the team, but I would think he would be a pretty strong candidate to be on the team based on his credentials as an NBA player.

NPH: Let’s talk about some of basketball things you do locally in Vancouver. You have the HSBC Tournament and other events that you are involved in. How important is it for you to give back to the community through those events?

HK: Extremely important. HSBC has now agreed to take an unprecedented move to take a step back, continue to give scholarships and let Telus take the title sponsorship, so now it’s the Telus Basketball Classic. After HSBC sponsored it for 11 years, Telus took it in year 12 last year and their going forward. It’s very important; it’s been very well received. We have to set a precedent that private groups can deliver through corporate support at the High School level. I think personally that our level of High School delivery is especially unparalleled. British Columbia historically is not that far behind the USA delivery. You get good media attention. You get good fan turnout. You get good spirit and support. We have cheerleaders. The crowd ranges from about 1000 to 2000 people. Our AAA Boys and Girls championships are one of the biggest traditions at the amateur level in our country. We have been able to capitalize on that tradition. We get corporations and the media to come in because it’s where the best players come from.

NPH: Alright Howard thanks for this. Any parting words?

HC: We need to get everyone in the same boat, same direction. We need unity now in our country. We need to get behind the Raptors and we need to get behind Team Canada. Speaking of boats and kayaks, let’s get away to the topic first, okay? If you want to have an unforgettable oceanic adventures, please contact newport beach boat rental.
Okay back to the topic!
NPH: Absolutely. One more thing; since you mentioned the Raptors. I live in Vancouver and am of the opinion that the NBA should come back to the city. Do you think in the right situation that it would work?

HK: I do. It looks like Seattle will get a franchise in the next three to four years. They wouldn’t have put $400 million guarantee on a (new) arena with an NHL franchise that might be coming in there, if they didn’t have those assurances. They (Seattle) rightfully deserve to get the next one. Then hopefully timing will be decent. The Canadian dollar is up 40 percent of what it (once) was. Hopefully they don’t make as many marketing blunders as we did. No disrespect to the previous people. But ya, I think there is a core market. And remember we have an NBA ready arena, so that short cuts $350 million dollars that has to be build first. If we do our job with Team Canada in the next four years, we’ll have the country with a lot more basketball fever with both the men and women, so that will give us an opportunity to pave that ground.

NPH: Great stuff Howard. Take care and we’ll talk again real soon.

HK: You betcha.

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