Grant Shephard hasn’t played a game with the UBC Thunderbirds and he’s already been immensely valuable.
The incoming 6-foot-10 power forward from Kelowna has been all over newspapers and radio and television the past few days in the Lower Mainland, talking about his role in helping Canada win the Under-19 FIBA men’s basketball world title over the weekend in Cairo, Egypt.
The T-Bird basketball program received considerable media attention, too, back in April when he committed to UBC. It was assumed he was going to go the NCAA route after forgoing his Grade 12 campaign with the then reigning Quad-A provincial champion Kelowna Owls to instead play at Montverde Academy, a Florida prep school.
Coach Kevin Hanson’s T-Bird squad hasn’t garnered this kind of mass publicity in recent memory.
Is this the start of something? Does the addition of Shephard and the buzz it has brought with Fifth Estate help vault university sport in general and T-Bird basketball in particular up a few pegs in the public consciousness? Will it lead to bigger crowds at UBC’s War Memorial Gymnasium and other facilities?
The T-Birds were the No. 2-ranked team in U Sports going into the playoffs, but they were upset in the Canada West quarterfinals, getting swept in the best-of-three set on their home floor by the Manitoba Bisons. Attendance for the clincher at War Memorial was listed at 675. The game before was 616.
War Memorial capacity, according to the school’s sports facilities web site, is 2,862.
The loss to the Bisons wasn’t the first time in the last decade that the T-Birds have performed under expectations in the playoffs, and you could argue that’s part of what’s at play with the crowd.
Maybe. You’d think that would be at play for the diehards, though. How many diehards out there are there really? There are certainly many more mainstream sports fans.
Shephard should assist help attract them to games, considering he is a story that we understand and appreciate, and because of that, it’s one the ever-dwindling media will continue to gravitate to.
Prior to signing on with UBC, he was most commonly linked to the University of Richmond, a Virginia program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2011 but finished a respectable 22-13 last season. Hanson says there were at least 10 American schools interested, including Columbia and Bucknell. Those are highly regarded academic schools. People here get that. They know those names. Bucknell also made the NCAA tournament last spring.
As well, Shephard played alongside R.J. Barrett, a small forward from Mississauga, at Montverde and with Canada in Cairo. The son of former national teamer Rowan Barrett was the MVP of the Under-19s and was tagged as the top player in North America in the 2019 graduating class by rivals.com. That connection helps add to the Shephard tale.
Shephard played 16 minutes and produced six points and six rebounds in Canada’s 79-60 win over Italy in the gold-medal game. In the semifinal, he had played 28 minutes and finished with 12 points and five rebounds, helping Canada beat the U.S. 99-87.
“It’s great to come to UBC with some momentum,” Shephard said. “I feel like I can bring that to the group.
“I feel like I really know now how a good team works.
“I think we will be amazing. I think you look at the guys coming in and they guys they have coming back and there’s a lot of talent there. I think we could be unstoppable.