Tuesday, July 23, 2024

‘It’s more than a sport’: Ottawa’s BGC Thunderbolts making big noise through basketball

Must read

By Adam Beauchemin & Dan Plouffe

Lightning is striking both on and off the court for the BGC Thunderbolts.

The Thunderbolts’ charge first formed out of a desperation for recreation during COVID, when a group of young players began playing and training together at the Ron Kolbus Clubhouse on Dumaurier Ave. off Pinecrest Rd.

The force grew under the coaching and mentorship of Kian Nejad over the past couple years, and the energy exploded in 2023-24 as the Thunderbolts struck gold on several occasions during a season full of triumphs.

But mirroring the mission of BGC Ottawa – which has worked for over a century to help many local children/youth, primarily from low-income communities and challenging backgrounds – it’s not just about winning basketball games for the Thunderbolts.

As point guard Lucky Lubangi puts it: “It’s more than a sport – it’s a brotherhood.”

The Thunderbolts are one of eight teams participating in the second-annual Shayok Summer Showcase tournament on Saturday at the Taggart Parkes Family Clubhouse in Heron Gate.

Tickets for the games are $15, with all proceeds going back to the participating teams. The Showcase is organized by pro basketball player Marial Shayok, who’s played for the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA, as well as in the NBA G League, in Turkey and now in China, and is expected to represent his parents’ birth country, South Sudan, in this summer’s Olympic Games.

The Showcase also includes a Friday combine at St. Patrick High School, where the 28-year-old Shayok starred for the Irish. Getting top local players exposure to university recruiters and eventually scholarships is a key goal of the event. Shayok’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, is attending, along with North Carolina State, among others.

Those type of objectives align with the vision Nejad has for the Thunderbolts, whose players have received several university offers already as they’ve emerged as a force on the local basketball scene.

Nejad knows well that many local youth don’t have the means to access high-level basketball opportunities, along with the academic and life support required to obtain post-secondary scholarships. He experienced that first-hand, having moved to Canada when he was in elementary school and being raised by a single mom.

“I love being there for the youth, because I was that youth,” Nejad reflects. “I love underdogs. I love kids who are underdogs. There’s just something about that story, you know?”

That’s where the longshot Thunderbolts found themselves initially. Basketball has a lengthy history at BGC Ottawa, but only recently have the Thunderbolts begun playing among the region’s most competitive clubs and prep programs.

The push began during COVID, when Nejad wanted to keep players occupied at a time when many other extra-curricular opportunities were being shut down.

In a few shorts years of competition, Nejad says he’s seen the team grow from castoffs into respected competitors and champions.

This year, the Thunderbolts won titles at the QC Hoops Summit and the ONL-X Capital Classic, they made it to the finals of the National Senior Circuit, and they recently went 8-3 to tie for fourth in the standings of the Toronto-based North Pole Hoops Showcase League.

BGC Thunderbolts. Photo: @bgc_thunderbolts Instagram

From their start as a group of west-end kids looking to keep busy, the Thunderbolts had almost 100 players register their interest in talent ID sessions this season.

“We were underdogs, we were kind of like a joke,” Nejad recalls. “Then we started being very successful, and that’s when all the cool kids go, ‘Can I join your program?’”

The Thunderbolts are built on the pillars of commitment, personality and respect, and the players chosen for the team reflect those ideals, Nejad explains.

“At the end of the day, they are representing BGC Ottawa,” he notes. “How are you on the bench? How are you with your friends? Are you here in open-gym every day trying to get better?”

Alongside on-court prowess, the BGC program aims to empower players in all aspects of their lives. The clubhouse offers after-school food and a safe place to hang out with friends at night, plus additional educational and volunteering opportunities.

“Basketball is important because of everything it comes with,” Nejad underlines, noting that players must maintain a minimum grade point average to play with the team.“But we’re not going to challenge you and not provide the help. So, if I’m going to say you have to get the grades, I’m offering you tutors.”

A strong network of community support has been vital to the Thunderbolts’ success, he adds.

“If you watch any of our games, you’ll see on the sidelines that we’ll have numerous people that are supporting us – the staff of [BGC], the other members,” Nejad signals. “Everyone supports everyone here.”

Lubangi, who has just graduated from Woodroffe High School and will now move on to study human kinetics at the University of Ottawa, has experienced that welcoming environment in his three years with BGC basketball.

“It’s like I’ve grown an identity as the Thunderbolts have grown,” indicates Lubangi, who recently appeared in the National Capital All-Star Classic at uOttawa. “The more the Thunderbolts grow, the more I grow.”

Lucky Lubangi. Photo: @bgc_thunderbolts Instagram

Having the chance to play in a highly competitive environment alongside his teammates has only helped the players’ bond grow stronger, he adds.

“I love finals matchups – that’s my favourite thing in the world. I love the intensity,” highlights Lubangi, noting that competitiveness runs high in training as well, where trash talk is a favourite motivator.

“No one’s nice at practice,” he smiles. “If some random person walked in, they’d think we hated each other. But as soon as we walk out the gym, we’re all buddy, buddy. We’re all hanging out.

“We usually overstay our welcome after practice, but that’s because we just want to talk with each other. We love each other as brothers.”

Point guard Aryan Kumar is dealing with mixed emotions at present. He is about to complete his final year of eligibility with the under-19 team, but he has no intentions of leaving basketball behind.

“I want to be around the sport as much as possible,” emphasizes Kumar, who is headed into his second year of business analytics studies at Carleton University. “Even in 10 years, if I’m not dribbling a basketball, I want to see people dribbling a basketball.”

That’s the type of outlook Nejad is keen to inspire.

Aryan Kumar. Photo: @bgc_thunderbolts Instagram

“He doesn’t just care about the sport, he cares about our lives,” Kumar says of Nejad. “His long-term vision isn’t just winning a basketball game. It’s seeing us win in life and seeing us become good men — that’s his ultimate goal.”

Nejad always keeps a keen eye on the future of the Thunderbolts. On top of the U19 boys who put them on the map, a girls’ team joined the Eastern Ontario Basketball Association’s competitive ranks this season, and there is also a Thunderbolts junior boys’ team.

Much like the Shayok Showcase, Nejad wants to spread a pay-it-forward philosophy, to continue offering more opportunities to youth, and to develop more leaders to help make it happen.

“It’s almost a cycle, right?” Nejad highlights. “Someone did this for me — in different ways — but, I’m hoping a few of them grow up and do this for the next generation.”

HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.

Latest article