Former NBA player shares life lessons at basketball camp for Yukon kids
Channing Smarch was not a Boston Celtics fan until this week. Now, a few days after meeting former Celtics player Damen Bell-Holter, Smarch dons a brand new Boston baseball cap while shooting hoops.
“I mean, Damen is cool…he’s a nice guy. He’s definitely not an intense coach,” Smarch said.
Smarch attended a March Break basketball camp with Bell-Holter in Whitehorse this week. The camp is a collaboration between the Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) and the Council of Yukon First Nations. It is aimed at boys and girls aged 8 to 12.
Bell-Holter may not be a tough coach, but Smarch’s regular basketball coach is. If you want to play for the team at Khàtìnas.àxh Community School in Teslin, Yukon, you’ll be doing laps as punishment. Bell-Holter just gives you a warning and then makes you hold a plank. Planking is easier.
While basketball skills are part of the camp, Bell-Holter says it’s not the point. Culture is. That’s been the focus of the camps he’s offered since retiring from pro basketball at age 27.
Bell-Holter grew up in Hydaburg, Alaska. He is of Haida, Tlingit, and African American descent. He was always skilled as a basketball player, he says, but it was the support he had in his community that helped.
“I was lucky,” he said as he stood in the gym of the KDFN multi-purpose building. “My mother, she made me understand everything from a historical context. My father is black, so she made sure I understood where I came from on both sides of the spectrum… she made sure that when I left my community [at 14, to play ball]I knew exactly who I was.”
That is the starting point for his basketball lessons. To play on a great team, you have to be a great team member. And if you can be a great team member, you can be a great community member. So how do you do that?
“Listen,” Smarch said. “That was definitely the most important word of the week.”
When you listen to your coach, you learn to listen to other people you have relationships with, he says. That includes respecting boundaries when people have them.
Bell-Holter adapts his teaching in this way, especially for young men. He has experience with abuse, depression and toxic masculinity.
When he left basketball, he had a lot of time to think about and process that experience. Then he decided he could fill a need he saw unmet, especially when it came to addressing those issues for Black and Native men.
He knew his sports reputation would open the door for him if he wanted to do something with it, like start a skills camp. But he also knew exactly what he wanted to advocate for and what he had to say about life skills.
“My biggest thing is, I lead with vulnerability. I’m honest about my depression, I’m honest about my anxiety, I’m honest about my traumas,” Bell-Holter said.
“Because if they could see me and look at me and say, ‘oh wow, you’re so strong,’ I explain to them, it’s because I’ve been through so many battles and I’ve had to go through so many things to come to this place to be confident, to be safe in myself.