George Bergen caught the coaching bug fairly early on.
Still a high school student at Abbotsford’s MEI Secondary — and a standout basketball player — Eagles coach Jake Braun suggested that Bergen and his teammates, if they had any interest, work with some of the local elementary schools.
“I really enjoyed teaching these young players and also just watching them get so excited about learning to play,” Bergen said.
This was in 1969 and 43 years later, he is still going strong.
On Saturday night (April 21), Bergen was presented with a Coaching Award of Excellence from Basketball BC at their Best of BC banquet, which was held at the Langley Events Centre.
“These awards are a means of recognizing the outstanding level of dedication to excellence that has been demonstrated by these individuals,” said Lawrie Johns, the executive director of Basketball BC.
Bergen was one of four recipients, along with Brittannia Secondary coach Mike Evans, UBC women’s coach Deb Huband, and Barnaby Craddock, the men’s coach at the University of the Fraser Valley.
For his part, Bergen shrugs off the honour, saying that longevity is bound to be rewarded.
“I always think if you have been doing it for as long as you have, someone along the way is going to recognize you with something,” he said.
This past season, the Gators finished second at the B.C. AAA senior boys’ provincial championships, losing by a single point in the finals to the Terry Fox Ravens, the best-ever finish for a Langley school at the tournament.
It is a far cry from when he arrived at the brand-new high school in 1991, and had to coax players to come out to join the fledgling basketball program.
That first season, there were eight players and they managed a meagre four victories.
Prior to that, Bergen had spent a decade building a powerhouse basketball program at Aldergrove Community Secondary.
The key is commitment, both from players and coaches.
“It is always a good situation when the level of commitment that a coach has is equalled by the players or is right up there,” Bergen said.
“If the coach is not committed, then you can’t expect the players to be committed.”
Bergen’s former players speak of his dedication, commitment and his passion.
“He is the most dedicated guy I know and he loves the sport and seeing us improve,” said Ethan McKean, who played for Bergen these past two seasons and will suit up for Douglas College in the fall.
“He is always in the gym in his free time when he can be spending it with his wife, or whatever.”
“What stood out about him was how much he cared about the game, his players and all the fans that came out to watch,” said Kevin Jackel, a Gator under Bergen from 2005 to 2008.
“The amount of time he put in was amazing to see.”
Jackel went on to play two years at Douglas College after graduation.
McKean said that without Bergen’s push, he would not have become the player he is.
“Basically, all my improvements from Grade 8 until now are on his shoulders,” he said.
“I had to put in the work, but without him I don’t think I would be nearly as good as I am right now.”
Dan Cooper played for Bergen from 2003 to 2007. By the end of high school, he had scholarship offers to play basketball, but chose to focus on his education, attending UBC.
“He cares fiercely about his players,” Cooper said.
“He expects hard work and execution but would never put-down or belittle a player.
“He would force you to be humble in victory and proud in defeat.”
Cooper also credited the coach for his improvements.
“What made coach Bergen such a positive influence was all the countless hours he would spend with any player (who) was willing to improve their game,” Cooper said.
“In the early years of high school, when I was a turnover machine, he would patiently teach and coach me … always stressing that hard work would eventually pay off.”
Bergen, who turns 60 later this year, sees plenty of similarities between his playing and coaching styles.
“I was a passionate player,” he said. “That was a definite rub off of how I played.”
He remembers his Grade 12 year, after the MEI Eagles won the Fraser Valley championship.
“After we were done celebrating, I told the guys, ‘This is it, we are going to go all the way,’” he recalled.
“I think the tone in my voice must have said to them, ‘Yeah, we are going to do it.’”
Sure enough, the Eagles won the B.C. high school title.
Following graduation, Bergen went to the University of Manitoba to continue playing the game. During his five years in Winnipeg, he also stuck with coaching, working with a local school’s Grade 8 team.
Coaching is much like parenting.
“You see your kids develop and grow up,” he marveled.
“To see a kid pick something up and start practising it, there is something special about that. There is something about the development of a young child that is pretty special.”
With more than 40 years coaching under his belt, Bergen said there are countless stories that have made him proud.
“The most memorable stories are stories of successes where players developed in spite of adversities,” he said.
“Kids who accepted the challenges and resolved themselves to believing they could do it.”
Bergen has also coached two of his three sons at the high school level, and the youngest, Jared, is now a Gators assistant coach.
Bergen also credits his wife, Gaye-Lynn, for all her support.