On a brisk Thursday morning, Jeremy Speller rushes into the J.B. O’Keefe Fitness Centre with a ball in his arm and a St. Thomas Tommies backpack embroidered with his name, his number 13 and “men’s basketball” on the front.
He puts down his stuff, stretches a little, picks up the basketball that he carried all the way from his house and prepares to start the day with some free throws.
Speller, the six-foot-three, third-year co-captain and forward on the Tommies men’s basketball team, gave back to his community over the summer using the sport he loves. He raised money to send the team he coached from the Gesgapegiag First Nation – located along the south Gaspésie shore in Quebec – to the 2016 Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Summer Games in Cape Breton.
“I’ve been coaching these kids from my community for a couple of years,” said Speller.
“But this year, I wanted to take youth from my community, Gesgapegiag, and bring them to the [Summer Games] tournament for the very first time.”
The Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Summer Games were first held in 2009. The games have included seven basketball tournaments in different First Nations communities across Nova Scotia.
The goal of the games is to bring athletes from indigenous communities together and share Mi’kmaw cultures.
The 2016 tournament marked the first time the Gesgapegiag squad took part in the tournament, and Speller did his job to bring the boys on the team together through basketball.
“I’ve coached these kids in the past,” said Speller, “some of them since they were 10, 11 or 12 years old, so I’ve already had that connection with them.”
“[We had a] 10-hour drive [to Cape Breton], and we ended up winning the tournament. It was a big deal to my community.”
Before the games began, Speller created an Instagram page, called gesgapegiag_basketball, to promote the youth basketball team.
He fundraised with the help of his community, his friends and STU to cover the costs of food, accommodations and transportation for the trip to the games.
Speller’s job was to coach these kids and broaden their horizons, but more importantly, he was also responsible for the kids’ safety during the 10-hour drive from Gesgapagiag to Membertou.
Some kids had never been to Nova Scotia before, and Speller said he felt honoured and obligated to be responsible for them.
“It is the first time my community has been involved in the Mi’kmaq Summer Games,” said Speller.
“It is pretty cool for them to bring back the gold medals so the other kids from the community can see it, and the adults and the others can see how talented our kids are.”
Moving back and forth between New Hampshire and Quebec, basketball has been a part of Speller’s life since he was a kid.
But during high school, he chose not to play for the basketball team, even though he beat the high school coach in a 1-on-1 game and was told to show up at tryouts.
At that time, work seemed more important to Speller than basketball.
In fact, his competitive basketball career didn’t start until his second year at STU.
“After having the conversation with my family, friends and girlfriend,” said Speller, “I decided to actually try out and walk on, and I ended up making the team.
“I didn’t think I was good enough to make the team, but when that happened, I was like ‘wow, I am really here?’”
Next year, Speller said, he hopes his sports and fundraising work will include more people from his community and feature other activities, such as softball and track and field, among others.
“A lot of people feel the aboriginal field is growing right now, as we have one of the fastest growing demographics in Canada,” said Speller, “I definitely know that I’ll be helping out First Nations in the future.”