Old friends, now coaches, meet again at Telus Basketball Classic

Thursday, December 8, 2011 – Submitted by Yvonne Zacharias, Vancouver Sun


Winston Brown and Rick Lopez (right) will receive Tom Tagami award for coaching excellence at the Telus Basketball Classic high school basketball tournament. Both previously played high school on a community team called the West Side Warriors.
Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Steve Bosch
VANCOUVER — Sometimes, the magic young men discover playing on a football field never dies.

It fades for a while, vanishes under the detritus of daily life, but then it resurfaces unbidden, when you least expect it, to shine brightly like a star out of nowhere in a new place, a new time.

Rick Lopez and Winston Brown can tell you that however fanciful this notion might sound, it is true.

These aren’t particularly fanciful men. They are two basketball coaches who formed a bond so long ago, a bond that lingers in the sweaty, pounding, heart-swelling, sometimes ear-spitting pantheon of high school sport, a place of hope and promise.

They once played on a legendary community football team called the West Side Warriors. Each still carries around a photo of the team, a memento of a time when the world was a wide open vista, a place of endless dreams.

One teaches girls at an independent school; the other boys at a public school. Yet “our coaching arcs have been almost mirror images of each other,” said Brown.

Now after so many years, they have once again crossed paths out of the blue at the Telus Basketball Classic high school tournament where both will receive the Tom Tagami award for coaching excellence.

Lopez, 39, and Brown, 38, talk about their old football days as if they were yesterday.

Brown, who coaches the senior girls basketball team at York House School, has to admit that Lopez, who coaches the senior boys basketball team at Sir Winston Churchill, was once his idol.

Besides being a year older, “Rick had this confidence about him. First, he was a phenomenal athlete and there was a cocky swagger about him.”

It was disarming if you were going up against him, but reassuring if you were on his side.

“It was comforting to know that Lopez was on the case, Lopez was going to take care of it,” recalled Brown. “It was infectious. On a football field, you never want to be scared and having Rick around and his kind of demeanour, there were no opportunities for that.”

Lopez, who was a defensive back, and Brown, who was a wide receiver, clicked on the field along with many other talented players, some of whom went on to careers in football. It didn’t hurt that former B.C. Lion Tyrone Crews was one of the coaches.

The team won a provincial championship in 1990. There it was, that magic.

That wasn’t the only bond between the two men. Both were students at Prince of Wales high school. As Brown pointed out, there weren’t a whole lot of black guys in the school in the mid-1980s when they were students there. Brown, whose parents are from Jamaica, and Lopez, whose parents are from Trinidad and Tobago, became friends almost by default. They ran in the same circles.

And beneath it all simmered a competitive rivalry. “I always looked up to Rick as an athlete,” said Brown. “He was always what I wanted to be.”

It’s a bit hard to imagine all this when you meet Lopez as he walks down the school hallway with more of a saunter than a swagger, greeting you with a friendly handshake and smile.

And later comes the admission. Back then, his dream was to become a professional athlete, perhaps a professional basketball player. But he wasn’t big enough. He’ll tell you now that he simply wasn’t good enough.

It wasn’t written in the stars. Instead, he has gone on to become one of the classiest acts in the Vancouver high school basketball scene. Walking through the school with him, you get the impression the students seem both to like and respect him, a winning combination. He has taken a Churchill team from the middle of the pack to becoming a solid city basketball contender.

Roughly the same thing has happened at York House, an independent girls school within shooting distance of Churchill, in roughly the same time.

Like Churchill, there was a time where York House barely won games. With Brown as coach, they have gone from being a AA to a AAA team and have won a string of championships.

Suddenly, both teams are contenders in the Telus basketball championship finals that take place Saturday.

Two winning schools. Two winning coaches from a winning football team from a distant past. Pure coincidence?

Lopez and Brown think not.

“I think maybe the people who influenced us growing up are the same people so there are things about our philosophies that will be very similar whether we articulate it or not,” said Brown. “It’s something ingrained in the DNA of our young coaching careers.”

Talking to the two of them, it’s as though each has torn the same page from the book of coaching.

“I think we both have that same passion for doing well,” said Lopez.

“If you are playing the best you can and we are losing by 20, I am going to be so happy. I’ll be high-fiving you coming off the court. If we are winning by 20 and we’re playing really bad, I am going to be pushing you to try to play to your potential. I think that’s what I took from football from our coaches — really pushing us to play to the best of our ability.”

Brown has the same idea.

And that mirrors what the Telus basketball tournament is about. Yes, it is about winning, about bringing together some of the best talent in the province, but it is also about promoting values in teenage athletes.

For both coaches, the rewards come not so much from winning but from seeing students come back for alumni games years after they have left high school.

“Do you remember the time when …?”

And there it is, the magic.

That bright shining moment.

Funny how sometimes, you never knew it was there, but it has been all along.