Down with the King: A tale of two Vancouvers and two basketball cultures

Arun Srinivasan

“You don’t know The Notic? Like, if you don’t know about this, man, you don’t know nothing.”

It’s a challenge Joey Haywood issues the viewer from the very start of Canadian director Ryan Sidhoo’s short film, Down with the King, documenting the star player of Vancouver’s legendary streetball team, The Notic, and the often-racist stigmas he experienced while playing professional basketball due to his style of play.

Haywood, better known by his nickname “King Handles” to some, was a dominant high school basketball player at Vancouver’s Magee Secondary School, starred at point guard for Saint Mary’s and is preparing for the upcoming season for the Fraser Valley Bandits of the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) after signing with the club in April.

“I had coaches tell me, ‘don’t play this jungle ball, that’s just terrible, we don’t want that style of play here,’” Haywood says during the film. “So by me hearing that, it’s like, ‘OK, you don’t want us to play like Black people?’ You got to move past it, you got to try to bury it. But still today, it sticks with me.”

The film explores the intersection of race and sports, how there are two Vancouvers, two basketball cultures and what Haywood and The Notic meant to a new generation of players. It certainly helps the story is being told by someone who’s been there from the start of Haywood’s career.

Sidhoo and Haywood are childhood friends, a bond formed through their participation at the Kitsilano Youth Basketball League, which helped them both feel accepted and understood in Vancouver. The league was run by former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis, spurring their love of streetball.

“What was cool about the Kitsilano Youth Basketball League is that basketball was always a community of outsiders in Vancouver. It wasn't that winter sport culture or hockey culture, it was really diverse and made up of people from all different walks of life. It was kind of our thing. So I met Joey there and we formed a brotherhood,” Sidhoo said.

“When I got into filmmaking, seeing his story and how it's gone so many different ways and just knowing about some of the things he had to deal with, I wanted to explore it on camera from the perspective of trauma, more from the perspective of how past experiences shape who we are today. I was going through some things in my life and me and Joey were having conversations about things in our childhood or things from our past that affected how we live today and that's how exploring his relationship with race became the forefront of the short.”

Haywood and The Notic are legends in the streetball community and while the rise of Canadian basketball is often documented through the lens of the professional circuit, it’s important that streetball, its culture and its impact on the modern era of basketball isn’t lost to history.

Vancouver, and by extension, its basketball scene often felt like two different worlds for Sidhoo and his friends. The Notic and Haywood were almost larger-than-life figures for those who felt their interests weren’t represented in the city’s mainstream.

“It all came to a head at these summer tournaments, at NBA Hoop It Up 3-on-3. I was down there and those were some of my most memorable moments from my childhood, watching Joey play, hearing music from a boombox. Everyone was out in their best, just kind of like a celebration of basketball and streetwear, rap and hip hop,” Sidhoo said.

“For me, as a young kid in Vancouver, you didn't get a lot of that. So it was a really special weekend to be a part of. Those events kind of shaped me in a way and having that exposure kind of shaped my childhood. It was a really special thing to experience in a city that's not like Toronto, in a city that's more segregated and less diverse. It was almost like Vancouver's version of Caribana.” 

Joey Haywood is a Vancouver streetball legend who has also starred at the professional level while fighting the stigmas associated with his style of play. (Ryan Sidhoo)

Rafer Alston is often seen by many as the most common bridge between streetball and organized basketball. Alston submitted a successful NBA career, spanning 671 games and 451 career starts. He’s also one of the defining streetball legends, known as Skip 2 My Lou from the AND1 Mixtape Tour, the video compilation series and subsequent tour which inspired a new generation of streetballers.

Haywood credits Alston, along with Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson, among his inspirations.

“From where I'm from in Vancouver, no one was really used to that during that time,” Haywood said.

“So I got looked at kind of funny like 'oh, that's just jungle ball' or 'oh, that's just rap ball he's playing' or ‘that cannot transfer into a real-game situation.’ But I saw Skip 2 My Lou play like that in an organized game. Maybe not super-street but you could see some of his moves weren't traditional moves. I'm like 'well, if he can do that, that means I can do it!' If Michael Jordan can do it, or Allen Iverson can do it, that means I can do it too. I kept on believing in myself.”

For many fans, the AND1 Mixtape Tour and New York’s world famous Rucker Park represent the extent of one’s lens into streetball, but Haywood and Sidhoo are adamant the roots of the culture are now inextricably linked to some of the faces of the NBA.

“If you go look at old Rucker Park tapes from New York, or even Allen Iverson, when he was doing that crossover, people have been doing that for a long time,” Haywood said. “But now I think the NBA has opened up more of that style of play, because people like that exciting style of basketball, right? And I think during that time, they had NBA TV showing Rucker Park games. People were seeing that and the NBA were seeing that like 'man, now we can open up the streetball game to the NBA.' 

“So now you get to see James Harden. You see Trae Young, all those guys, Steph Curry, all those guys who grew up in the era when street basketball was on the rise, with the AND1 tour, so all those guys watched those AND1 tapes. So you watch those guys now, right? They're influenced by that style of play.”

Sidhoo completed the film before the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and several others sparked global protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality. While focusing on the latent and overt racism Haywood faced throughout his career wasn’t originally intended to be a focal point of the film, it’s something the point guard believes will be seen as more resonant now.

Both Haywood and Sidhoo alluded to an incident where the former was ostracized after speaking up about the racist tendencies in Vancouver’s basketball community when he was featured in SLAM Magazine, considered by many as the mecca of basketball journalism from the mid-90s onward.

“I've been saying this way before the film, way before anything. Anything like what I started to feel in the eighth grade, it just felt racist. Some coaches were racist or biased, or just didn't like the style of play because it was not traditional basketball,” Haywood said. “And what they were saying, they probably didn't think it was racist, or prejudiced or whatever, but I felt it. And I said something back in the day in a SLAM article, where I was featured in the hype section.”

“I got hated on. By coaches, people didn't like me anymore. Like, they looked at me differently. And I've been saying this for 20 years, 20-plus years. But now I think with what's going on, if people go back and watch the film, I think they will understand what I'm talking about.”

“It's kind of ironic how Joey's style of play was frowned upon and now it's being taught. He's even teaching kids how to dribble, how to play the game, for something he once was a pariah for,” Sidhoo said.

Canadian basketball is booming and it’s no longer an outlier to see burgeoning stars like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kia Nurse play major roles on ascending teams in the NBA and WNBA. Leaving streetball out of the equation paints an incomplete picture, however, and Haywood’s fight against anti-Black racism, while navigating two different Vancouvers and two different basketball environments is something that ought to be highlighted as the culture of sports faces a reckoning.

Special thanks to Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, Kirk Thomas, and the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.