Coby Felsman beats the odds at North American Indigenous Games
B.C. basketball team remains undefeated so far, as shortest member of squad aims high
He drives to the hoop, changes direction, then sinks his shot. Standing at five feet six inches tall, 16-year-old Coby Felsman moves with the speed and dexterity of a hummingbird.
A week ago, Felsman was shooting basketball using an old net outside his house on the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C.
This week he’s in Regina, playing on the U-16 boys Team B.C. basketball team that is competing in the North American Indigenous Games. The team remains undefeated so far and plays Manitoba at 4 p.m. local time Tuesday.
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The North American Indigenous Games is a multi-sport event drawing 4,500 aboriginal athletes from across North America this year. Athletes compete in sports such as basketball, softball and soccer, as well as canoeing, volleyball and wrestling.
Families and supporters aren't the only people who will be watching the athletes compete at the games. College and university coaches are watching with an eye to possibly recruiting some athletes.
"There's a couple of athletes we're watching right now," said University of Regina wrestling coach Leo McGee.
"Where kids finish at the games isn't a big determinate. We want kids who are passionate about the sport and want to succeed. We've had success with kids who have little experience but a lot of desire."
Making the U-16 boys team is no small accomplishment for Felsman, who is the shortest member of his squad.
Life was hard for Felsman from the start. His parents separated when he was a child and he was raised by his paternal grandmother, Peggy Tatoosh.
"We’re his only family and this is the only home he’s ever known," Tatoosh said.
Felsman first learned to play organized basketball at age 10. But his uncle, Earl Tatoosh III, a former standout high school basketball player, tutored him on the game's finer points at the old hoop outside their house every day after school.
Earl Tatoosh is a decade older, half a foot taller and more than 100 pounds heavier than Felsman.
He (Tatoosh) never let me win. I always wanted to win, and playing against him made me more competitive.- Coby Felsman
The uncle played hard against his nephew. Felsman learned how to play the game, but he also learned to always stay in the fight.
"He [Tatoosh] never let me win. I always wanted to win, and playing against him made me more competitive," said Felsman.
"When I started to beat him he said it was because he was tired and wanted to go back inside the house."
Felsman maintains good grades, made the school's honour roll this year and plays the drums in jazz band. But it's basketball that gives him a sense of fulfilment.
"It gives me motivation and a sense of success, and ultimately an option for a better future," he said. "Without basketball, these things wouldn't come as easy as they might otherwise."
Academics come before hoops, his grandmother said.
"If he wants to play ball then he has to do well in school; that’s the rule," she said. "If he slips then he's off the team and I'll home-school him, and it's not cool to be home-schooled by your grandma."
At the senior tournament in January, Felsman's grandparents and uncle watched him play from the bleachers. But his father and mother weren't there.
His father just finished serving a nine-year prison sentence in Utah and because of parole conditions, he can’t come across the U.S.-Canadian border.
In December, Felsman found out about NAIG tryouts for the B.C. boys U-16 team and decided to go for it. He was named one of three alternate players.
Then in May, Team B.C. coaches notified Felsman that he would be one of 12 starters.
"I was at the skateboard park hanging out with my friends and my grandma came and told me. I was pretty ecstatic," he said.
The competition is going to be tough at the games, but he hopes it leads to being recruited to play for a college or university in the United States or Canada one day.
"It’s a big step, but I’m used to that."