It had been almost 40 years since these men had played together as teammates.
But they were still a team.
That camaraderie, still evident as they gathered roughly four decades later to renew old ties and reminisce, was perhaps one of the reasons they had helped produce the greatest period of success in Kodiak men’s basketball history.
The return of Frank Willis, one of the members of those Lethbridge Community College Kodiak teams of the 1970s, was what prompted the recent reunion of former Kodiaks of that era. Now living in Florida, Willis hadn’t been back to Lethbridge since leaving in 1976 to start down the road to becoming an air traffic controller. When he made plans to pay a visit early in the new year, former teammate Jim Ralph got the wheels in motion and spread the word to other ex-Kodiaks, some of whom came from Calgary and as far as Regina to rekindle memories of the good old days.
And what glorious memories they are.
The Kodiaks, coached by the late Ben Brooks and later Tim Tollestrup, ran off a string of five straight Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference men’s basketball titles starting with the 1972-73 season. The men who attended this recent gathering included members of the 1975-76 Kodiaks, who captured the ACAC title, then won the 4-West championship, and finally earned a bronze medal at the first Canadian college basketball championships in 1976 in Windsor, Ont.
They did so with a wide-open, run-and-gun brand of basketball that was both entertaining for fans and devastating for opponents. Willis, who came to Lethbridge after playing college ball in a much more regimented system in Montana, felt like “a kid in a candy store” after joining the Kodiaks, where he was actually encouraged to shoot the ball.
One of the team’s biggest weapons was speed, featured in abundance in the guard trio of Ralph, Don Yuill and Don Mehew. When they weren’t pestering opponents and creating turnovers, they were spearheading a fastbreak that struck like lightning, or getting the ball to teammates for good shot opportunities . . . players like Willis, Glen Novak, Bruce Hamilton, Glenn Schuler, Larry Simpson or Don Brown, all members of that ’75-76 squad who also attended the reunion. The Kodiaks came at the opposition in waves, with every team member capable of contributing offensively. As Willis noted as the players recounted their playing days, the Kodiaks featured a balanced scoring attack that didn’t depend on any one or two players being the star.
I got my first glimpse of the Kodiaks in that ’75-76 season while I was attending SAIT in Calgary and covering basketball games for the student newspaper. I had never seen basketball the way it was played by the Kodiaks, and it was the most amazing, exciting style of play I could imagine.
A year later, as a member of the Lethbridge Herald sports department, I had the pleasure of covering the Kodiaks, who still featured several of the players from that Kodiak squad I had witnessed in Calgary.
The Kodiaks of that era were a talented bunch, but they had more than talent going for them. They played with heart and they played as a team, characteristics that were inspired by Brooks, who seemed as much a mentor and father figure as he was a coach. The ex-Kodiaks spoke fondly of Brooks and the lessons he taught them, not just about basketball but about life. Fittingly, they invited Ben’s wife, Sharyn, to the reunion, and she not only expressed her gratitude for being part of the event, but shared how much these men had meant to her husband. And it was evident among the players that the feeling was mutual.
Several of the Kodiaks who came in 1976 or later were there, too — players like Rod Schmidt, who made the drive from Regina, as well as Barry Mehew, Robert Heggie and Dave Adams. Adams gave credit to the group from the mid-’70s who established the Kodiaks’ championship legacy for others build on. “They were the guys who started it,” said Adams.
It was indeed a special time in Kodiak basketball history, and these men clearly treasured being part of it. As they talked about big games, shared humorous stories and laughed about some of hijinks, the years melted away and they were once again members of the Kodiak basketball squad. Some 40 years may have passed, but they were still, and will always be, teammates.