“This is where it all began,” Neal Randhawa tells me, a boyish grin spreading across his face as he surveys the basketball court outside Lady Grey Elementary School.
Randhawa recalls how, as a young Grade 4 student, he wouldn’t be allowed to play ball with the big boys until they eventually saw his skills in action.
Saje Gosal, Randhawa’s former teammate with the Golden Secondary School (GSS) Eagles and, as it turns out, his future teammate at the next level, emerges from the school with a pair of basketballs; props for a photo op. He reminisces about the intense games of ‘bump’ they’d have in the school yard and how, during actual games, he and Randhawa would be forced to play on opposite teams. It simply would have created too big of a mismatch if they were paired up.
They’ll be aiming to create that kind of a mismatch once agin when they take to the court next year in Prince George, the pair of them having committed to the University of Northern British Columbia after a spring full of recruiting trips across the country.
Between them, they visited schools such as UBC-Okanagan, Mount Royal and the University of Toronto.
In the end, UNBC and the Timberwolves turned out to be the perfect situation for both.
“The undergraduate school is really good there and the assistant coach is one of the best optometrists in Western Canada, which is what I really want to do,” Randhawa explains. “The campus is really nice and everyone was really friendly. It’s all just a positive vibe around there.”
“I went to big schools and I went to small schools to see what the differences were…at UNBC everyone was really welcoming…that really stuck out to me,” Gosal adds.
The Timberwolves will field a veteran team full of seniors when their season begins this fall, making playing time tough to come by. Gosal and Randhawa know that the first year will be all about improving enough to set themselves up for future success, while also staying focused on their academics.
“One, it’s an opportunity because when they graduate it’s our time to step into their roles. And two, it’s good to come up under them and learn from them, so that definitely played into the decision,” Gosal says.
It’s that academic focus that drew the attention of Wolves head coach Todd Jordan. He got a chance to see them play at Provincials and came away impressed when he met Gosal and Randhawa when they made the trip north to Prince George for a series of workouts.
“Both of the boys are outstanding students and that for me is definitely a big factor. When you’re looking at bringing an athlete into your program, number one you want character people,” Jordan said.
Most excitingly for Jordan, however, is that both boys appear poised to further develop their skills over the coming years.
“They’ve got really big upside, big body types…I’m really excited to have those guys come into our program and to help develop for the next five years.”
For them to get to where they need to be, it starts with off-season training before they head up to Prince George towards the end of the summer.
“All the guys (at university) are really quick so I’d say quickness is a big thing to work on. Quickness and being able to take contact, so strength,” Randhawa says.
“For me it’s foot speed and strength. Talking to coaches and stuff you kind of learn what skills you take from high school to the next level and I think my skills that I can take to the next level are my basic fundamentals…now what we need to work on is being faster and stronger,” Gosal says.
Back at the court behind Lady Grey, as I’m figuring out where I’d like to set up the photo, the boys make themselves at home on the court once again, firing jump shots and shooting layups. When I’m ready for the pic, I feel guilty taking them away from the game, as if I’ve just teased a dog with a juicy steak.
Once we’re done they get right back to playing, just as they’ve done through their years in the Golden Basketball Association, playing for the Eagles, and on club teams in Calgary.
And just like they will next year in Prince George as Timberwolves, matching up against the best university-level players in the country.