While Baltimore was burning last April, Umbori Watson and Kevin Davis were feeling the heat – literally.
A state of emergency was declared in the city limits of Baltimore in the spring of 2015, with clashes between police and protesters, after 25-year-old African-American Freddie Gray died shortly after being arrested and held in police custody.
Hundreds of people were arrested, businesses were damaged, fires were set, and the Maryland Army National Guard was deployed to control the unrest.
Playing basketball for the Community College of Baltimore County Dundalk Lions, Watson and Davis were directly in the heart of the tumult.
It was a long way from Abbotsford and Columbia Bible College (CBC), where the pair now star for the Bearcats basketball team.
“We were right there when it all went down,” Watson said. “It was a month full of anger on the streets. We were right down the block from it.”
“We saw the riots, the fires, and police cars getting flipped,” Davis added.
Watson said he remembered the uncertainty in his neighbourhood and the curfew implemented by the city.
“They had vans coming out with sirens telling us to be in our houses by 10 or we will be arrested,” he said. “And they were forcefully arresting people on the street. It was like [the movie] The Purge.” “Shopping malls were being raided, but we just stayed out of it.”
“It was a build-up of frustration,” Watson added. “I saw people turn on themselves and damage their own roads, homes and stores. I even saw an old folks home that was just built get destroyed.
Watson and Davis used some of that uncertainty to focus inward and work on their games. They finished up strong seasons for the Lions and eyed Canada as a way to get an education and continue playing the sport they loved.
They were only eligible to play one more year in America, but in Canada they could play an additional three. They began knocking on the doors of literally every Canadian college and university available, but ended up hitting a number of dead-ends. When Watson got in touch with CBC, the institution still didn’t have a head coach for its men’s program.
“I told them to call me once they got their coach,” he said. “Coach Boulton offered me a scholarship and I began Googling everything I could about Abbotsford and the school.”
Davis said it was pure luck that he and his Lions teammate ended up in Abbotsford.
“I was going to go to a school in Massachusetts and he was going to one in North Carolina, but they didn’t work out,” he said. “After Umbori talked to the CBC coach, he told me they were looking for another player and I got in touch with the coach the next day – it felt a little like a package deal.”
It was an arrangement that worked out perfectly for Bearcats returning player Elijah Calhoun.
The Brooklyn native was a standout on CBC last season, finishing in the top 20 in the Pacwest in points, rebounds, and assists. His individual talents didn’t lead to team success last year, as the Bearcats finished with only two wins. Calhoun said it’s been a big boost to have Watson and Davis in Abbotsford.
“I finally got some help,” he said, laughing. “Last year, it felt like a whole bunch of individuals, and there wasn’t much desire to get better as a team. This year, Coach Boulton is installing a culture and he wants to make it long-lasting. I feel he’s going to have success and we’re on the right track.”
Watson and Davis are roommates on campus at CBC, and Calhoun is right across the hall. The trio want to shake up the Pacwest.
“Our team is growing and becoming stronger every day,” Watson said. “We’re like the older brothers on the team for some of these 18– and 19-year-olds. They’re pushing us and we’re pushing them. We want that winning attitude here.”
The Bearcats sit at one win and six losses in Pacwest play, but the playoffs aren’t out of the question. The trio said Boulton has willed the entire team to be better.
“He pushes us and he expects a lot of us,” Calhoun said.
“He’s a good communicator and is letting us learn out there from our own mistakes,” added Davis.
The eventual goal for the three players is to continue gathering credits and transfer to a higher-level CIS school basketball program, but they want to make the most out of their time at CBC.
“We want the second half of the season to start off with a bang, and we want to leave our CBC pawprint in the VIU gym (a rival Pacwest team) on Jan. 8,” Watson said. “It starts with them.”
The Bearcats hit the road for the first two weeks of action in the Pacwest, and then return home on Jan. 22 to take on the Quest Kermodes.