Howard Kelsey’s search for the perfect fit for a venue to host his prospective basketball tournament was a tale in itself, the hardwood version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
“We walked every single venue in the Greater Vancouver Regional District and … we couldn’t check all the boxes,” said Kelsey, one of the organizers of the upcoming Vancouver Showcase, an NCAA tournament featuring some of the best basketball teams in the world.
“It was too far east, too far west, not on a transportation route, subject to traffic jams, too big, too small, not iconic.”
It was only after returning back to the Pan Pacific Hotel that he and the others in his party had a revelation.
“We were literally at the end of the tour, and we were down there staying at the hotel and we said ‘hey, didn’t they play tennis here? Let’s look.’ And boom! That’s how it went.”
They couldn’t find the perfect venue, so they created their own.
The cavernous confines of the Vancouver Convention Centre, a building that hosted Davis Cup tennis in 1990, will be converted into a 3,100-seat arena overlooking the same hardwood floor the UBC Thunderbirds used to host the USports nationals in 2016.
“This checks every single box. It’s very unique, because nobody has a venue like this anywhere,” said Kelsey. “We could have used another one, but there would have been an Achilles heel to every single one. It’s going to be electric.”
The Langley Events Centre would have been too far east and difficult for many to get to. War Memorial in Point Grey? The same, except west. The Pacific Coliseum? Too big. Ditto for Rogers Arena.
Kelsey was courtside when Gonzaga played the University of Hawaii in a 2011 exhibition game at Rogers Arena, and while the on-court product was great, the rows of empty seats seemed to project an air of indifference the city had toward the event, when it was, in fact, the opposite.
The city still craves high-level basketball, born out by the packed house at Rogers for the Toronto Raptors’ exhibition games, and more recently, the Canadian men’s national team friendlies. All that was needed for Kelsey was a more intimate venue.
The VCC provides that, plus everything else.
“It’s the absolute best location in Vancouver, one that was on all the transportation routes, and one that everyone knows, literally, all over the world,” he said. “The most iconic building known worldwide in British Columbia is The Sails … that building is one of the most iconic buildings in all of Canada.
“You get off the SeaBus, and you literally walk up the stairs. You get off the SkyTrain, and you walk up the stairs. Everyone in the downtown core can walk across the street (to get there), and there’s plenty of parking.
“And I don’t think we have to give anyone directions to the public to get there. You’ve got the Sails, you’ve got the great location, and I can tell by the tickets (sales) we’ve got the perfect storm.”
Everything is in place to make his prediction come true, but it will all come down to the quality of the experience and on-court product.
The men’s four-team bracket (Nov. 18-20) will see No. 24-ranked Washington, Steve Nash’s alma mater Santa Clara, SEC powerhouse Texas A&M and Big 10 bruisers Minnesota.
The women’s field (Nov. 22-24) — which saw six of the teams make last spring’s March Madness tournament — includes No. 1-ranked Notre Dame, 2017 NCAA champ and No. 10-ranked South Carolina, along with Pac-12 power and No. 8-ranked Oregon State and three Hall of Fame coaches.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs, which counts former Brookswood star and 2017 provincial MVP Louise Forsyth among its ranks, are also in action.
The Irish are led by star Arike Ogunbowale, the ESPYs darling much-respected by Kobe Bryant, who was prominently featured by the Bleacher Report on Friday.
“We didn’t just want it to be a men’s tournament. We’ve got the best tournament outside of the Final Four for women,” said Kelsey.
“If they (both) don’t get upset, our final Saturday night will be No. 1, and the defending champion, against No. 2, and the defending champs from 2017. And that’s just unheard of.”
The former Canadian national basketball team member and Olympian is confident the Vancouver Showcase can eclipse the Rainbow Classic, the NCAA men’s tournament annually staged in Honolulu, as the benchmark for university tournament outside of March Madness.
“I’m an athlete,” said the 61-year-old, laughing. “I won’t celebrate until the whistle blows.”
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