Dolphin Classic organizers Tony Wong-Hen and Bruce Watson.
Photo by Chung Chow
Dolphin basketball a Classic tale
By Don Fennell
Published 6:45 PDT, Tue July 11, 2017
Last Updated: 2:12 PDT, Wed May 12, 2021
Fans of the classic television series Cheers will remember the gang sauntering up to the bar following a hard day’s work. It was the place “where everybody knows your name.”
The annual Dolphin Park Classic is like that. For one weekend each summer, the basketball community gathers to play or watch some playground hoops and swap stories—new and old.
From its origins at an inconspicuous playground on Dolphin Avenue, the four-on-four tournament has spawned a tradition that extends over four decades. And as it has grown, the Dolphin Classic has morphed into one of the largest and most popular outdoor hoopfests on the West Coast, prompting its eventual shift to the more spacious South Arm Community Centre. Still, organizers remain steadfast to the roots established at its inaugural home—family, fun and basketball.
Tony Wong-Hen, Bruce Watson, Taj Johal and Bira Bindra all advanced their love of hoops as teammates with the Steveston Packers. Graduating from Steveston High School in 1985, they (outside of Bindra who played college basketball) continued to play in the local men’s basketball league while the idea of a summer tournament grew in their minds. Finally the following year, joined by another Steveston friend Garth Robertson, they invited the basketball community to come together for what was then a one-day tournament. There was no fanfare, and the only thing on the line were bragging rights. And the large crowds commonplace today, were limited to family, friends and neighbours, as the Express edged the Force 48-46 in the first,1986, final.
But the seeds were now firmly planted for an annual tournament that, on the weekend of July 14 to 16, will celebrate its 31st anniversary.
“We’re proud of how far afield (the Dolphin Classic) is known,” says Wong-Hen. “We take our tournament seriously, and Bruce is in contact with hundreds of people each year to ensure we get some of the best players. The amount of hours he puts in is just ridiculous.”
For Watson, basketball is clearly a labour of love, a romance that blossomed when he was nine-years-old. Sitting with his dad watching a college game on television, he was mesmerized by an elite match-up between Indiana and Michigan. It was for the 1976 NCAA championship, which Indiana (coached by Bobby Knight) won 86-68 in the last Division 1 to become the last team to complete the season undefeated (32-0).
“I frequently sat with him to watch all kinds of sports, but this time I was transfixed,” he says.
Watson recalls thinking: “That’s what the best basketball looks like.”
From that point forward he was hooked on hoops, digesting as much basketball as he could stomach. Known for his encyclopedic basketball knowledge, he routinely pored over the copies of Sports Illustrated that arrived each week; a subscription he received as a gift from his dad.
Watson is equally adept at knowing who’s who at the Dolphin Classic, whether the player is a seasoned pro or a relative newcomer. While this knowledge helps to ensure the level of play is consistently top-notch, he’s most proud that the participants—from the local graduating youth player still getting their feet wet to the NBA’s Jamal Crawford—have embraced the tournament with equal enthusiasm.
He’s also thrilled that a women’s division, which started in 2010, has continued to flourish with the talent pool never greater.
“Breanne Watson and Rose Bindra deserve much credit,” he says. “They were so eager and willing to help (to see it get off the ground).”
The participation by Seattle’s Crawford in 2004 also represented another milestone moment at Dolphin. Drafted eighth overall by Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2000 NBA Draft, Crawford was the first NBA player to play at the tournament. Joined some of his friends from Seattle on a makeshift team, they not only dominated play but consistently left the large crowds gobsmacked by their athleticism. Now 37, the six-foot-five Rainier high school graduate is still making a strong contribution in the NBA as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers.
In addition to creating memories, the Dolphin Basketball Classic has also made legends. None bigger than perennial slam dunk champion Josh Masters.
A talented, high-scoring forward during his high school playing days at Richmond’s Matthew McNair Secondary, Masters’ creativity was unsurpassed at Dolphin Park. Blessed with generous natural skills, he routinely out-performed his winning dunks of previous years in the popular contest. Save for two years, he was king every year from 1995 through 2005, and reclaimed his title again in 2010.
The first winner of the dunk contest, which was a drawing card from the very start in 1986, was no slouch either. Ron Putzi, who captained the powerhouse Richmond Colts to back-to-back provincial high school championships in 1987 and 1988, was one of the greatest basketball players the local community has ever spawned. After scoring a record 61 points in the final of a tournament game at Vancouver College in his senior year, he accepted a scholarship to New Mexico State. As an Aggie, he helped the team win a Big West Conference championship and reach the Sweet 16 (U.S. college basketball championship tournament) in 1992. He also played two summers with the Canadian national team, and later suited in both the World Basketball League and NBA Summer League. He also played professionally in Europe for 10 years.
From modest beginnings on a small, one-hectare park in a quiet South Arm neighbourhood, the Dolphin Park story continues to be one of community. Where family and friends come together to share their love for basketball.