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The Luyken Legacy For this father-daughter duo, building community through the game of basketball is a lifelong calling

Ball is life.

It’s an ethic, a hashtag, a mantra that reflects the passion of basketball enthusiasts for their favourite sport.

But when you stop and think about it, the phrase can seem misguided at best and unhealthy at worst.

There’s more to life than basketball, after all . . . isn’t there? Surely there are more important things to care about and invest in than throwing a ball through a hoop?

For some people, though, the passion for basketball extends beyond the simple hype of the game and becomes so all-encompassing and pure that it becomes a conduit for things in life that truly matter: Relationship. Community. Purpose.

It’s in this sweet spot that Anthony and Aieisha Luyken live.

For this father-daughter duo, basketball is so intrinsic to their lives that should you examine their DNA under a microscope, you’d half expect it to be composed of orange pebbled leather, with rubberized channels for grip.

Yet their vision for the game goes beyond generating numbers on a scoreboard. They’re prolific community-builders, and over the past 15 years, the UFV women’s basketball program has been a fortunate beneficiary of their collective efforts.

This is a story about what Ball is life can truly mean.

* * * * *

Anthony Luyken grew up in Guyana, a nation connected physically to South America but culturally more closely aligned with the Caribbean, and basketball was not a big part of his life.

He was peripherally aware of the game – he recalls shooting a leather ball at a netball-type backboardless rim on occasion, and he remembers watching a Guyanese national men’s basketball team practice. But there was no one to teach him the game. Instead, he participated in soccer, cricket, and track and field – and he was a natural, with fast-twitch athleticism to spare.

The basketball bug didn’t truly sink its teeth in until the summer of 1973, when he stepped into a gym in Seattle, Wash. Anthony was 16 years old at the time, going into Grade 11 in the fall. He’d moved to Canada with his family the previous year, settling in Calgary, and was eager to try his hand at the new sports available to him. His initial foray into basketball had been a mixed bag – he could jump out of the gym, but his ballhandling skills were incredibly raw. His first coach instructed him to run the floor and crash the boards, but once the ball was in his possession? Don’t dribble, don’t shoot. Get it to someone who can.

That trip to Seattle, though, changed Anthony’s life.

One of his good friends from school invited him along to a basketball camp run by Lenny Wilkens, the longtime head coach of the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics who was in the midst of a storied career that would see him inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

Under the tutelage of Wilkens and NBA players like Donald “Slick” Watts, Anthony learned the fundamentals of the game, learned how to train effectively, and grew exponentially in confidence. His Grade 11 year back in Calgary, his game took off. He went on to play varsity basketball throughout his university years, suiting up for the Calgary Dinos and Alberta Golden Bears. During his time in Edmonton, he got his first taste of coaching a team, joining the staff at St. Mary’s High School and helping guide the senior boys to a city championship. And once his Bachelor of Education degree was complete, coaching fit hand-in-glove with his teaching career.

“I realized I enjoyed working with people,” Anthony says. “It just became infectious.”

* * * * *

Anthony Luyken’s tenure with the UFV women’s basketball program began with a phone call from out of the blue.

It was the spring of 2006, and on the other end of the line was Cascades head coach Al Tuchscherer, offering the opportunity to be his lead assistant coach. It was essentially a cold call – Al didn’t know Anthony very well, apart from crossing paths a couple of times at various regional team practices. Anthony’s reputation as a program builder was self-evident – since arriving in 1995 at Mission Secondary, where he taught science and headed the physical education department, he’d coached the Roadrunners girls basketball squad and slowly grown it into a contender.

The timing wasn’t perfect for Anthony to take on a new challenge. He and wife Irene had two teenage kids, Aieisha and younger brother Nakai; both were burgeoning basketball talents. Moreover, Anthony’s Mission Roadrunners program was something special; he would continue to invest countless hours in the MSS gym, culminating in a provincial AA championship in 2008 with Aieisha running the point.

Al, for his part, needed a lot from his lead assistant coach. The program was poised to move up from the college circuit to the top university level in the nation, then known as Canadian Interuniversity Sport (now U SPORTS). The travel was much more demanding – this was no bus league, they’d be flying as far as Winnipeg during Canada West conference play – and building a collegiate powerhouse into a university-level contender would require colossal amounts of time and effort.

But after pondering Al’s offer for a couple weeks as the Roadrunners’ season wound down, Anthony said yes.

“What excited me was the chance to work with athletes at a higher level,” Anthony recalls. “I also felt I could learn a lot from Al. I didn’t know him very well, I didn’t know what the program was all about. But all I knew was that I could take the expertise I got there and take it back to our high school program. One of our goals at MSS was to produce athletes who could go on to the next level, and that was really, really important to me. I wanted to make sure they were prepped to do that.”

Anthony Luyken and Al Tuchscherer worked side-by-side for a decade, building the Cascades women's varsity team and the Junior Cascades youth club.

The Tuchscherer-Luyken coaching chemistry took time to catalyze. Al was an intense head coach with a very structured approach to the game, whereas Anthony brought a relaxed, adaptable mindset and emphasized drawing creativity out of his athletes.

“We balanced each other out,” Al explains. “I came a long way in learning from Anthony, and we kind of met in the middle, I think, on a lot of things. Especially the creativity of the game – I try to get that out of kids a lot more than I used to, and being more adaptable. Those are all traits from Anthony.”

* * * * *

Yet even as they grew together as coaches, Al and Anthony saw they were falling behind in terms of recruiting.

When the Cascades played at the collegiate level and were contending for national titles every single year, Al had no problem drawing elite players to UCFV, as it was then known. After moving up to Canada West/CIS, it became a tougher sell. Though they could now offer student-athletes a chance to play at a higher level, the prospect of finishing towards the bottom of the standings in a loaded Pacific Division, which at the time featured perennial national championship contenders SFU, UBC and UVic, was less enticing to recruits.

After making the Canada West playoffs each of their first two years in the league with a core of standout veterans from their years at the college level, the Cascades suffered through a 4-19 record in Year 3 after that cohort graduated, and missed the post-season entirely.

Finishing towards the bottom of the standings was no more palatable to Al and Anthony than it would have been to a potential recruit. So they tried something a little different, and established a youth club program called the Junior Cascades.

Today, you can hardly crack the door of a gym without finding a basketball club or skills trainer at work with young athletes. But at the time, club basketball was in its infancy in B.C.

“We knew we needed to do something – we weren’t getting the athletes coming into the system who had a sense of who we were,” Anthony says.

“The cool thing about the Junior Cascades from the get-go was, the philosophy . . . the idea of working with the community and really developing the game. When you look at all the women who went through that program, a lot of them are now doing wonderful things in the community because it was more than just basketball. They learned about serving, working together, the whole nine yards.

“We did some crazy things just to put ourselves in the right place,” he adds. “Not only were we organizing it, we were the coaches. . . . You’re just so immersed in it, you don’t think, ‘You know what, this is literally eating up every moment of my life.’”

Indeed, with the advent of Junior Cascades, Al and Anthony were now in the gym year-round. When the Cascades’ season ended, they’d take a week off, and then dive into Junior Cascades, dashing between high school gyms in the Fraser Valley and the United States throughout the spring and summer.

While the investment was exhausting, the payoff was immense.

* * * * *

Despite the fact that Anthony was his lead assistant coach, Al Tuchscherer never imagined he’d have the chance to coach Aieisha Luyken at UFV.

Aieisha, he felt, was such an elite prospect, she’d no doubt be ticketed for the NCAA Div. I ranks. At 5’8”, she was strong and explosive and could get to the rim at will; she could stroke it from beyond the arc; and the basketball IQ she brought to the point guard position epitomized the “coach’s kid” cliché.

Yet in the spring of 2008, an unfortunately timed knee injury opened Aieisha’s mind to what UFV could offer.

The previous summer, she’d played on the Basketball BC U17 team, despite being a year younger than the age limit, and she was expecting to be on the squad again. But the knee issue sidelined her for the tryouts, and while she had the opportunity to reserve a spot on the team and suit up when she’d healed, she didn’t feel that would be fair to the rest of the girls who’d tried out. So she found herself in search of a summer squad, and that led her to the Junior Cascades.

Aieisha ended up on an absolutely stacked Junior Cascades U17 squad that summer, featuring the likes of Tessa Hart, Courtney Bartel, Sarah Wierks, Kayli Sartori and Sam Kurath – players who would go on to form the core of the next generation of Cascades.

Having experienced her dad’s free-flowing offence at MSS, and the extremely structured system at Basketball BC, she found that Coach Tuchscherer’s approach, which balanced structure and creativity, was just right for her.

“Dad never really forced the idea of UFV – sliding me pamphlets at breakfast or anything like that,” Aieisha says with the chuckle. “I never even thought about it until I played for Al that summer. It was an amazing summer, probably the most fun I’ve ever had. There’s something about the way Al motivates you as a player. He makes you feel like you have all the skillsets you need to figure out the situation you’re in.

“The more I thought about it, I realized I just want him to coach me (in university).”

* * * * *

Aieisha’s university basketball career unfolded like a storybook.

It opened with some adversity; her highly touted rookie class, which also featured Hart, Bartel and Nicole Wierks, suffered through a baptism-by-fire debut in 2009-10, finishing last in the Pacific Division with a 2-16 record.

“We set some pretty big goals after that first year,” she recalls. “We’d always have a post-season debrief, and I remember that meeting vividly – us all putting our foot down and being like, ‘We’re not losing like this anymore, Coach. Whatever we have to do, we’re all in, because we don’t want to feel like this anymore.’”

Those words would prove prophetic.

The next season, the Cascades went on the road to open the Canada West playoffs and scored a stunning sweep against a Winnipeg Wesmen squad that had finished second in the CW regular-season standings and was ranked No. 9 nationally. That breakthrough marked the start of a dizzying ascent: They would advance to the CIS regionals that year and the next (2011 and 2012), earn a pair of Canada West medals (bronze in 2013, silver in 2014), advance to the CIS Final 8 national championship tournament twice (2013 and 2014), ascend to the No. 1 national ranking, and win the program’s first CIS medal, a bronze, in 2014. Along the way, Aieisha was twice named a Canada West conference all-star.

That national tournament run in 2014, Aieisha’s senior season, was a thriller. After seeing their championship hopes derailed with a hard-fought semifinal loss to the powerhouse Windsor Lancers – who were on their way to their fourth straight national crown – the Cascades bounced back in the bronze medal game to defeat the Saskatchewan Huskies 69-57 to clinch the podium finish.

Aieisha registered eight points and five assists in her final university game, and Anthony calls it the best-managed game he and Al ever coached together. Beyond that, he’d had his usual courtside seat to watch his daughter put the finishing touches on a playing career that is unquestionably one of the greatest in UFV women’s basketball program history.

“There were so many proud moments over the five years, not just with our team, but watching her maturity and how she carried herself throughout those years,” he says.

“Not many athletes at the university level can say their parent was at every one of their games for five years, and he got in for free!” Aieisha echoes with a chuckle. “It was amazing that he got to share that with me.

“When you’re in it, you don’t really realize how special it is. But I feel very, very fortunate.”

* * * * *

From the moment during her Grade 12 year when she decided to sign with the Cascades, Aieisha always knew she wanted to join the coaching staff one day.

“I never envisioned going to a university for five years, and then never coming back,” she explains. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could become a part of a community, and keep giving back after I’d graduated.”

So after wrapping up her athletic eligibility in the spring of 2014, Aieisha was back on the Cascades’ bench that fall while completing her kinesiology degree, joining her dad on the coaching staff. While Anthony stepped away from the program in 2015 after investing a decade in the Cascades (both varsity and Junior), Aieisha has continued the family’s ongoing legacy of building the program.

She hasn’t been an official member of the coaching staff for all of her seven post-playing-career years – she took a two-year break, for instance, as she earned her registered massage therapist (RMT) credentials. But her impact on the program has been uninterrupted – even when her schedule did not allow her to be at practice, she’s served as a mentor for Cascades point guards, available to chat or break down game tape at any time.

In recent years she’s rejoined the coaching staff on a more formal basis, even reorganizing her professional life to do so. She lives in Vancouver and works there two days a week; the other three weekdays, she runs her RMT practice out of Iron Cycle Club in Abbotsford, and structures her appointments around Cascades practice times. While she hasn’t been around the varsity team as much this year due to COVID-19, she’ll be a key part of the relaunch of the Junior Cascades club program this spring after a multi-year hiatus.

“When I look back at the life I’ve had and all the people in my life, the one common denominator is basketball,” she says. “I’ve seen so much of the world because of basketball, and I’d say 90 per cent of my friends I met playing basketball or within the community somehow. It’s such an integral part of my life, it would be weird not to be involved and just kind of let it go. I just want to keep giving back and making that happen for someone else.”

* * * * *

In discussing the Luykens’ contributions to the Cascades, Al Tuchscherer tends to circle back to the word ‘mentor.’

That mentoring hasn’t just been limited to the student-athletes, either. Al considers Anthony a role model in the area of parenting – Aieisha is 10 years older than Deanna Tuchscherer, Al’s eldest, and during their many in-depth personal chats on airport layovers or club-team bus trips, Al would pick his coaching counterpart’s brain on what worked and what didn’t at certain ages as he’d raised his daughter.

The Luykens’ influence at UFV also underscores the impact of diversity on a coaching staff. Anthony, for instance, took it upon himself to connect with Black players in the Cascades basketball program, both from the men’s and women’s teams. Thanksgivings at the Luyken household, in those days, were an open-door affair, with Cascades athletes from out-of-province dropping by the house throughout the day to grab a plate of turkey and mashed potatoes, and hang out with ‘Pops’ Luyken and the family.

“I just felt that oftentimes they were looking for some level of mentorship – looking for someone to bounce a few ideas off of,” Anthony explains. “Culturally, as Black people, you tend to acknowledge each other and drift together, and you tend to communicate on things that are going on in your life that it’s hard to describe to someone else.

“A lot of them were far away from home, far away from parents. They just needed, I guess, that Pops view. And I was willing to do that, because I thought it was important.”

In similar fashion, Aieisha shared powerfully with the women’s basketball team last summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minn. and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests. In team Zoom meetings, athletes and coaches shared how they were educating themselves on systemic racism, reflecting on books and films they were engaging with to broaden their understanding. In that context, Aieisha spoke up and shared with the group her unique perspective as a biracial woman, and how Floyd’s murder had caused her to re-evaluate how her racialized identity impacted her on a day-to-day basis.

A BIPOC individual on that Zoom call contacted Aieisha as soon as it was over: “I feel the same way you do.”

“One, that made me feel normal, and two, it made me realize that this is the reason why we have these conversations, because you don’t know who else is feeling the same things,” Aieisha says. “It was just really cool that our team has an environment where a coach can feel comfortable sharing that with a player, and players can feel comfortable sharing amongst themselves. It was a really powerful time.”

* * * * *

In 2017, Aieisha and Anthony travelled to the Nis'gaa Valley together to deliver Basketball Canada coach training.

Anthony stepped away from the Cascades in 2016, and retired from the Mission School District in 2018.

But while the 63-year-old isn’t sprinting at the same pace as when he was with the Cascades and Roadrunners simultaneously, you can’t keep a basketball lifer out of the gym.

Over the past few years, he’s served as a coaching facilitator with Basketball Canada, traveling far and wide (during pre-COVID times) to deliver National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) clinics throughout B.C. and occasionally in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

“I’ve gone to Kitimat, I’ve gone to the Nis’gaa Valley, I’ve gone to Bella Bella, Bella Coola,” he says. “Ball is life in some of these First Nations communities, and you have an opportunity to come alongside them and talk about ways of coaching, ways to approach skill and all those things. They’re appreciative and have fun, and the kids are wonderful. It’s just another opportunity to be involved in a community.”

A couple years ago, Aieisha joined her dad on a coaching trip to the Nis’gaa Valley in northwest B.C., just south of the Alaskan panhandle. For three days, they worked with different age groups of kids and coaches from morning to night, sharing their love of basketball.

“I think the game is just a tool, really,” says Anthony, who also works with Basketball BC’s Centre for Performance and runs municipal basketball academies in the Tri-Cities. “It’s more about that human sharing, that human spirit. And the game attached to that makes it bigger than it is.

“There are times – and I know Aieisha feels this way – where you’re standing there and you’re coaching, and it doesn’t feel like you’re doing any work. It just feels right, if that makes any sense.”

It does make sense.

Ball is life.

* * * * *

Aieisha Luyken has been calling her dad ‘Pops’ since she first learned to talk. The honorific morphed into a full-fledged nickname as Anthony coached his daughter with the Cascades. She called him Pops; soon everyone else did, too.

A couple months back, Anthony pulled up to a drive-thru window. As he waited for his burger, he was stunned when the worker inside pulled down her mask momentarily to reveal a huge smile.

“Hi, Pops!”

It was Sydney Fraess, a Junior Cascades kid from back in the day currently in her first year with the UFV varsity squad.

This type of thing happens to Anthony all the time.

“Coaching, it’s interesting,” he muses. “You just don’t know the impact you have on athletes, and you don’t ask for that. You’re here for that moment, and then you move on. Later on, you hear those stories, but…”

He pauses, and chuckles.

“I’m from the Caribbean, man. I just flow.”

Credits:

Top and bottom photos courtesy the Luyken family; Action photos by Bob McGregor / Tree Frog Imaging; Words by Dan Kinvig / UFV Athletics