After losing beloved coach Wade Smith, team determined to win gold at Canada Games
Smith was diagnosed with cancer in April and died during the lead up to the Canada Games
As he began his packed TEDx Talk at a Halifax university in early March, high school principal Wade Smith reminded the audience he was a member of Nova Scotia's gold medal-winning basketball team at the Canada Games in 1987.
He mentioned it because things had come full circle for him. By summer, he would be coaching the Nova Scotia U-17 boys team at the Canada Games in Winnipeg.
"We're going to win a second gold medal," he said with a steady, confident voice that was met with applause from the audience.
That may still happen, but Smith won't be there.
Smith was highly regarded in his roles as a teacher, coach and principal of Citadel High School in Halifax.
On Thursday night, the journey to fulfil the dream begins when 12 boys, hand-picked by Smith, board a plane for Winnipeg. The team's first game is against Team Manitoba on Saturday.
Thoughts of Coach Smith won't be far behind, especially for one of the younger players, Jaxon Smith. He is Smith's youngest son.
"We had to pull together, just to make sure we didn't fall apart as a team," said Jaxon.
Even though the team had just been selected, the coach's connection with many of the players went back years because he'd mentored them. He coached many of the players on previous teams.
Bonding through tragedy
After Nova Scotia grabbed the national U-17 title the past two years and the U-15 championship last year, this squad is entering the Canada Games as the No. 1 seed.
All eyes are on these boys.
Every weekend since April, the players have travelled from their homes across the Halifax region, Pugwash, Windsor and Antigonish to play together.
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Their first practice happened the first day after Smith's cancer diagnosis and since then, they've bonded through tragedy.
At Smith's three-hour funeral packed with mourners, the players sported team jerseys and sat somberly side by side, front and centre on the stage.
Jaxon, who's just 15, is grateful for what he's gained amid his deep loss.
"When I'm in my darkest time, these guys have always just lifted me up so much, and I can't ask for anything else but that," said Jaxon. "They're like another family to me."
This is a basketball brotherhood trained to press on.
'He's still guiding us'
"He's put in place so much to help this team do well, and ... he's still guiding us," said Jaxon.
Antigonish is a northern Nova Scotia town that held a special place for Smith. It's where he was an all-Canadian shooting guard on the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in the 1980s and earned a teaching degree.
Smith's eldest son, Jaydan, will be attending the Antigonish university this fall.
Team Nova Scotia member Jack Pittman, 17, said he's known Smith "forever" because Smith would return to the university town to run camps at St. FX each summer.
"Every single shot I put up and everything was to make this team. All the hard work paid off," said Pittman.
He said he's honoured to have been coached by Smith and play with teammates who each had their own connection to him.
"Before he passed, he thought he would be able to come, and everyone wanted him to come," said Pittman.
In Winnipeg, the players will wear warm-up jerseys with #wadestrong on the back, which was a hashtag that appeared on social media as people publicly grieved Smith's death.
On the team's game jerseys, there's a black stripe in memory of him.
One of Smith's brothers, Thane, has stepped in as head coach. And Wade Smith's good friend, Shawn Mantley, who followed him into a teaching career, is an assistant coach.
Mantley said he'll be continuing Smith's coaching philosophy, the essence of which is captured in a phrase Smith often repeated.
"Keep it simple, keep it smooth, keep it moving," said Mantley. "That means he would want us to continue on even though we do have heavy hearts."
Even as the top seed, winning it all won't be a slam dunk. The Nova Scotia players are smaller than the competition, but they're fast and smart and on the court.
A 'big summer plan'
The youngest player on the team, North Preston's Jasha'jaun Downey, 15, said he's motivated by Smith's guidance.
"He told us [to] work hard no matter what happens to him, just work hard," said Downey.
"We're going to do what we've been told to do and work and get gold."
Jaxon said the championship would be a fitting tribute to his father who brought together a group of boys to win as brothers.
"We had this big summer plan, you know, we were going for gold," said Jaxon. "It would be great to come back and have that in honour of him."