Sport

Linklater carries his culture into 3-on-3 hoops clash in Saskatoon

Saskatoon’s Michael Linklater keeps his culture close at hand as he bounces around the globe.

The Saskatoon basketball player, who is from the Thunderchild First Nation, will do this weekend what he’s done his whole life — take his long, braided hair onto the basketball court, and attack the hoop.

Linklater — whose three-on-three basketball team is one of the world’s best as they head into this weekend’s FIBA 3×3 World Tour Masters tournament in downtown Saskatoon — doesn’t cut his hair.

He’s the founder of Boys with Braids, which seeks to create awareness of the braid’s cultural significance to Indigenous men and boys.

“Even when I was playing at the university level (with the Saskatchewan Huskies), there was some things I had to deal with, with spectators shouting derogatory things about my hair,” Linklater says. “Growing up in sport, always having long hair, was a bit of a challenge. Some opponents would even pull my hair, especially when I was younger.”

That’s presumably not a problem now, as he prepares to play alongside teammates Michael Lieffers, Nolan Brudehl and Steve Sir against a deep international pool.

Linklater says there’s still “stigma and teasing and bullying” for many young First Nations men who wear their hair long, which is why he’s glad to have a basketball platform to explain just why it’s so important.

“It’s not a fashion statement,” Linklater says. “For us, it’s a belief that it’s where we get our power from. It’s an extension of our spirit; an extension of our soul; of our central nervous system. We believe our hair is living, and traditionally, our ancestors never killed anything for no reason. If you were to take down a tree, or if you were to gather berries, you were taking that life, but you also gave offering for it. When you hunted, it was to survive, and none of that animal went to waste. To just cut your hair, to kill it for a fashion statement, didn’t make sense to our ancestors.”

Linklater does a lot of public speaking and works closely with First Nations youth, and he’s grown into a role model. He starred with the Huskies when they won the Canadian championship in 2010, earning a national-tournament all-star nod in the process.

“The sport is growing in Indigenous communities,” Linklater says. “A lot of the places I’ve traveled to and done basketball camps at, the talent is there, but the coaching needs to find these communities. A lot of these kids are looking for things to do, and one of the cheapest sports is basketball. If the right instruction is out there, there’s a lot of kids who have thrived with the right coaching.”

Linklater, who is the world’s ninth-ranked 3-on-3 player (Brudehl is 10th and Lieffers 18th), expects to see a lot of those faces in the crowd as his team tries to win this weekend’s tourney in front of a partisan audience.

Lieffers and Linklater hooked up on their 3-on-3 quest half a decade ago, after their Huskie careers had wound down. They quickly became enthusiastic boosters of the hybrid sport.

“Until I graduated, until I was done, I had no idea about 3-on-3,” says Brudehl, another ex-Huskie who joined shortly after. “Then the boys told me about it.”

The sport has grown quickly under the FIBA umbrella, and last month was granted Olympic status for 2020.

That Olympic nod, says Lieffers, has generated tremendous buzz both in and out of the game.

“I don’t think it’s changed yet. But I know it’s going to,” Lieffers said. “The competition’s going to get a lot better, I think the prize money’s going to go way up, and more recognition for the sport. We’ve been talking about it. We’ll focus on this year, then talk about it come the end of the year and decide what we want to do — talk to our families and decide our next move. The Olympics is a game-changer. We all have full-time jobs, so you have to account for that: Do you make a really good jump for it? You don’t want to go halfway.”

As it stands, players juggle jobs, family, mortgages, and basketball while traversing the globe. They had a handful of extended treks through Europe last season, coming home for a week after a month away, then heading out again.

“It’s a lot of fun. But truthfully, and I guess this is a first-world problem, sometimes it’s a little much,” Linklater says.

“It’s a little bit tiring. But you really can’t complain — if you complain about how much you travel, then something’s wrong. We’re grateful we get these opportunities to play and represent not only Saskatoon, our community and families, but Canada.”

And this weekend, for the first time, they’ll play 3-on-3 hoops in front of a Saskatchewan audience. They won this same event a few years ago, when it was in Chicago, and they’ll take another crack at it here — playing international teams in a race to 21 points, with a 12-second shot clock, and feet moving fast the whole time.

“The game, from 3-on-3 to 5-on-5, is two completely different beasts,” Linklater said. “This is basically a 10-minute sprint, and when you play the top-level teams in the world, it’s going to come down to one or two possessions that will either win or lose the game.”

kemitchell@postmedia.com

twitter.com/kmitchsp

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