Bearcat plays to redeem a broken dream

Former CBC coach Tamara Larson suits up for Bearcats basketball team.

Former CBC Bearcats coach Tamara Larson is returning to basketball after a long hiatus.

Former CBC Bearcats coach Tamara Larson is returning to basketball after a long hiatus.

Tamara Larson jabs right and drives left, pulling up at the top of the elbow to release a flawless jumper that just kisses the mesh. It’s a beautiful play that seems utterly meaningless in the grander scheme of things, as her team, the Columbia Bearcats, are losing 47-22 (now 24) to the Quest University Kermodes deep in the third quarter.

Last year, Larson wouldn’t have taken that shot. Not because she couldn’t have hit it – the veteran shooting guard is the most experienced player CBC has on roster – but because last year Larson was the Bearcats’ coach. This year she’s moved from bench boss to floor general, to lead a team that, more than any other, makes her remember her love for the game of basketball.

Larson’s story is an unusual one. In 2000 the Ontario-native signed with the NCAA Div. 1 University of Indiana Sycamores, before transferring to the University of Windsor Lancers for the following two seasons. After a long hiatus from the game and a continent-spanning move to B.C. she agreed to coach the PacWest conference CBC Bearcats in 2012 while pursuing a Masters degree from Trinity Western University.

The Bearcats have struggled in the PacWest conference, although their level of play has improved in recent seasons. Before Larson took over the team was almost cut from CBC Athletics, and during her two-year tenure the team won exactly one game (over Kwantlen on Nov. 22, 2013). Yet while the team that Larson built might not have had a winning record, CBC Athletics director Matt Kaminski says that her example helped turn the program around.

“Tamara brought a competitive desire to the team, and a belief that they could be competitive on the court,” recalls Kaminski, who also credits her with stressing the importance of spiritual formation to the program. This season the Bearcats are a veteran squad with the potential to compete for a spot in the PacWest playoffs under new coach Angela Booy, and yet a lot of the credit is due to the culture Larson helped build.

“I’ve never in my entire life, whether on teams that I’ve coached or teams that I’ve played on, experienced team chemistry like I’ve experienced with these girls,” says Larson, who is one of only two Bearcats who weren’t on the roster last season.

In fact, strange as it may seem for a woman who once competed at the highest level of university ball, Larson isn’t playing primarily to win. She’s playing to redeem a broken dream that she turned away from more than a decade ago when the pressure to excel at basketball began to outweigh her love of the game.”

“I walked away from university ball after realizing that basketball had become my identity and I really didn’t have much of a clue of who I was outside of basketball,” says Larson. “Stepping into this position and the love from the girls on the team, the whole entire experience and the dynamics of the team was actually life changing.”

These days Larson is done her masters degree at TWU and works as a drug and alcohol addictions counselor in Maple Ridge. She is taking several classes at CBC, including classes on spiritual transformation, voice lessons, and a directed study helping her prepare for a book she hopes to one day write about her basketball journey and identity transformation.

While transitioning from coach of a college basketball team to a player on that same team may sound difficult. Larson says that the process was very smooth.  The team understands that she doesn’t care about scoring or starting, but instead simply wants the chance to play again.

“I needed to put the shoes on again,” she says. “I needed to play again. I had this revelation that I had never played basketball just to play, I was always trying to prove something or be someone.”

The Bearcats lost 79-48 to the Kermodes (the defending PacWest champions) on Friday, and Larson finished with 11 points, three steals, and a smile that transcended any numbers on the scoreboard.

“It’s just the opportunity to lace up again and play a sport that I love,” she says. At the end of the night, win or lose, she and her teammates walk off the court “as sisters,” and for her, those relationships make the sport all the more beautiful.