PRINCE RUPERT, B.C. - Frank Parnell says the spirit of the long-running All-Native Basketball Tournament in Prince Rupert on British Columbia's north coast never left his body even though the last time he was on the court was almost 50 years ago.
Parnell, 67, said he was 19 years old when he last played in the tournament. But it's amazing he was even able to play in one of the top indigenous sporting and cultural events in Canada.
"I was born with one hand, so I was kind of unique to the tournament," he said.
Up to 4,000 people are expected to attend the tournament, which starts Sunday and concludes Feb. 18. There are 51 men's and women's teams and about 600 athletes.
Parnell said despite economic and social hardships among indigenous peoples, basketball has endured as the heart and soul of indigenous sporting culture in B.C.
He recalled basketball becoming a huge part of his life when his family moved from Masset on Haida Gwaii to Port Edward, south of Prince Rupert, to work in what was a thriving fishing industry.
"Everybody used to live in Port Edward for fishing and cannery work," said Parnell. "We played basketball at the elementary school. We played outdoor basketball and eventually the church there formed a team and we entered the tournament as young kids."
Fishing is no longer a major employer, but basketball remains a major community activity in the remote indigenous villages.
Parnell said the tournament's roots, which date back to the late 1940s, were about building community and competition among the area's indigenous groups.
"The competition was mainly for the purpose of our people coming together and enjoying each other and at the same time showcasing the kind of basketball players we are putting on the court," he said.
Parnell will be inducted into the All-Native Tournament's hall of fame during a ceremony honouring his achievements as a volunteer tournament builder and administrator. He received an honorary doctorate last summer from University of Victoria for his work providing loans for aboriginal business ventures.
Tournament president Peter Haugan said isolated First Nations villages along the northwest coast empty out as people come to cheer on their teams and for those who can't attend the tournament, many of the games are broadcast live on radio or over the Internet.
Competition between the teams is fierce with rivalries that have lasted decades and bragging rights at stake between teams and communities, he said.
"There's no cash prizes or anything," Haugan said. "There's just the pride of winning this thing. It's like a bright light for First Nations. If you talk to anybody in the villages, they can't wait for that week. They save their money all year to come to the All-Native."
He said it's the largest basketball tournament in B.C., and the largest indigenous cultural event in Canada.
"It mushroomed very quickly into a social event where once a year everyone could come together," said Haugan.
But the tournament has not been without controversy. Last year officials refused to allow a 22-year-old man who was adopted by an aboriginal family as a child to play for his home village on the grounds he didn't meet rules for family-line origins.
Haitian-born Josiah Wilson said it was discriminatory to bar him from playing for a team from Bella Bella where his adoptive grandparents live.
This year, tournament officials banned teams from wearing politically-sensitive attire after the Skidegate Saints senior division champs wore T-shirts with "No LNG" slogans, referring to the development of liquefied natural gas plants in the area.
The same team members wore their anti-LNG shirts to greet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when the royal's arrived at Haida Gwaii in a war canoe.
Parnell said the tournament celebrates communities and the sport of basketball in those communities.
"It was something we grew up with," he said. "We had our own stars to look up to."
-- By Dirk Meissner in Victoria.