For so many nights, as a teen, Amir Ali would pack his homework into his backpack and schlep on down to a St. Vital elementary school to shoot hoops.
Ali's parents hail from Ethiopia, where soccer is king and so basketball wasn't the focus at first. It was just a fun thing, a chance to hang with his friends. But during those endless young nights on the court, under the guidance of Boys and Girls Clubs managers, he started to get good.
Flash forward to now, and Ali is a fourth-year University of Manitoba basketball standout, a rock-solid point guard and the team captain. Still, those youthful nights at Victor Mager School haven't faded into the rearview mirror. Indeed, after graduating from St. Paul's High School, Ali became a Boys and Girls Clubs volunteer. He wanted to give kids the same sense of a place to go, and have fun, and escape the pressures of teen life.
'It's bigger than basketball. You look at kids, and you can't help but get attached. That was me, five years ago'
"It's bigger than basketball," he said. "You look at kids, and you can't help but get attached. That was me, five years ago."
So yes, Ali is pumped that the Bisons basketball team is hosting the Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg Invitational Tournament this weekend, a two-day blast of youth and university hoops that kicks off today at Investors Group Athletic Centre. The tournament features four university teams, including the east's top-ranked Western Mustangs and Windsor Lancers, and 12 youth club teams from across Winnipeg, who will play at St. Paul's High School.
This is the second year for the Boys and Girls Clubs tournament, and the first time the Bisons have hosted a pre-season competition since 2006.
The squad was focused on building other parts of the program, head coach Kirby Schepp said, and when tournament organizers approached the Bisons about taking the Boys and Girls Club tournament to the next level, the university hopped right on board.
"This was the next step in our growth," Schepp said. "We were kind of looking for an opportunity to partner with a group like this, so it was just kind of a natural fit."
Besides playing in exhibition games for the young fans, the Bisons athletes will also offer a basketball clinic and on-court event.
"Our goal is we can introduce them to a university setting," said Schepp, noting that the Bisons have had at least one or two Boys and Girls Club alumni each year.
"They can see that this is an achievable path. And by bringing Amir to that too, they can see that one of them went (to the Bisons)."
As for the kids, they're buzzing about the chance to play in the tournament.
"It feels great," said Hasmir Sesay, 14, who started dropping by the Boys and Girls Club at Victor Mager a few years ago. "We work really hard so we can be a good team. We're doing good, we're starting to work as a team."
Like Ali years before, Sesay now comes almost every night to shoot hoops and hang out with friends.
"The first time, my friend told me to come because all the people are so nice around here. They really do care about the kids that come here. Then I started coming more and more, and it's fun."
The 2013 Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg Invitational Tournament's university games kick off at 6 p.m. tonight at Investors Group Athletic Centre, where the Windsor Lancers will take on the University of Winnipeg Wesmen. At 8 p.m. the Bisons will face off against the Western Mustangs. The tournament continues on Saturday, when the Wesmen will play the Mustangs at 5:30 before the Bisons wrap it up at 8 p.m. against the Lancers.
Tickets each day are $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. Donations are welcomed for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg.