After 1 last championship, basketball legend Linklater now turns full attention to creating positive change
'Winning a championship was a priority but having Indigenous kids be inspired was the goal'
As the confetti flew, fans waved towels and the Saskatchewan Rattlers celebrated a first-ever Canadian Elite Basketball League title at centre court, Michael Linklater raced into the Sasktel Centre stands.
That's where he met his mother, Maria Linklater, with a hug that seemed to last forever. It was a hug representing so many different things in that moment.
"This past year we lost my father. He was a big supporter of me," Linklater said. "My mother was here in her physical form and I know my father was here in his spirit form."
Before Sunday's championship game, Linklater made it known he'd be retiring from basketball when it was over. As he prepared to step on the court for the final time in the city where he learned to shoot a basketball, Linklater reflected on everything leading to that moment, including giving thanks to his late father, Walter.
"I said a prayer before the game. Had a nice little chat with him. It was good. This was a very, very special moment," Linklater said.
After hugging his mother, Linklater was lifted up by his teammates at centre court. He raised his hand to the sky as fans erupted — the 36-year-old is going out on top.
"I just took it all in. I remember being young winning that first university championship and how crazy it was. This time I really soaked it in. It was like slow motion for me," Linklater said.
Linklater, who is Nehiyaw (Cree) from Thunderchild First Nation, Sask., grew up in Saskatoon. He started playing basketball when he was 11 and went on to play for his high school team, the Mount Royal Mustangs.
Growing up Linklater had three goals: play post-secondary basketball, play professionally and wear the maple leaf for Team Canada. He's accomplished all three as he was also a member of Canada's 3x3 World Tour team for years, dominating the league at times.
He was captain of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies team that captured the school's first-ever national championship in 2010.
His father was there alongside his mother to celebrate that win.
"My dad was very quiet. He would come to games and just sit there and watch. He wouldn't critique me or anything. Just having him there was very meaningful. I know that he was here [Sunday]," Linklater said.
Basketball has always been more than just a game for Linklater. It's been an outlet for him to create change. He's the father of two young boys and has wanted to show them how to be a leader both on and off the court.
Linklater is recognizable for his long hair, a braid that stretches down his back. He doesn't remember the last time he cut his hair — something he was bullied for when he was younger. So when his sons were also bullied for their hair, Linklater knew he needed to do something.
He started Boys with Braids, an online collective that celebrates Indigenous boys and their hair. Linklater wants to raise awareness of the cultural significance of why many Indigenous boys and men wear braids.
"I believe I was put on this earth to make it a better place. I want to make things better for Indigenous youth and Indigenous people," Linklater said. "We see so much negative press on Indigenous people and the struggles. I want to be a platform to change the narrative."
This is why Linklater is stepping away from the game. He wants to be able to put more of his energy into helping in the community.
"As cheesy as it sounds, I'm focused on making the world a better place. How can I do that? How am I impacting the world?" Linklater said.
At age 11, Linklater made the decision to live a life free of drug and alcohol, having witnessed the destructive effects they can have. It's been a lifetime of leading by example. That's why, despite not knowing how well he'd fit in on the court with the Rattlers, he wanted to play this last season.
"I told coach Jockims at the beginning of the year I had nothing to prove. All I wanted to do is come in and help the team," Linklater said.
"But I also wanted indigenous youth come to these games and see someone look like them playing at this level. And I got so many messages from kids saying that they aspire to play in the CEBL now."
After all the confetti flew and the fans filed out of the arena Sunday night in Saskatoon, Linklater settled at the podium for the post-game press conference. Media continued to ask him questions about what this all meant to him. In typical Linklater fashion he deflected attention and praise, pointing to his family, the coaching staff, the players, even the Rattlers' supporting cast.
"Family is everything. It's important. And when you can get a group of guys together and form a family on the court it's magical," Linklater said. "These are the guys who did it. To be a part of this team is something that's really special. I'll remember this for the rest of my life. These guys are just like family."
This is a basketball player who has always understood success was so much more than winning. Linklater knew people were watching him closely throughout his career and he used the court as a catalyst to create change. Now he'll do the same as he walks away from the pro game for the final time.
"Gratitude. So extremely grateful for everything," Linklater said. "Of course, winning a championship was a priority but having Indigenous kids be inspired was the goal. And I believe I've achieved both of them."