Joey Haywood, 35, earned the nickname “King Handles” on the basketball court at Kitsilano Beach. A wizard at street ball, he amazed onlookers by dribbling behind his back, through his opponents’ legs, and sometimes even over their heads at the age of 15 and 16.
He played with a level of joy and artistry unlike anything basketball fans had ever seen in Vancouver.
“That’s where everything started,” Haywood recently told the Straight by phone. “I felt like I was home when I was out there. I could do whatever I wanted to do.
“Nobody was judging me—not even judging my skin colour, because there was a lot of Black people out there,” he continued. “There was a lot of different minorities. There was everybody—Black, white, Asian—everyone is playing ball and trying to win. There was no division.…Everybody was one race. It was unity.”
Unfortunately, Haywood didn’t experience this elsewhere in Vancouver. This dichotomy is revealed in a recent short film, “Down With the King”, directed by his friend and former Vancouver resident Ryan Sidhoo.
It not only features archived video clips—from Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux and Kirk Thomas—of Haywood’s dazzling basketball prowess but also explores how his style of play was not welcomed by the basketball establishment.
As far back as Grade 8, Haywood was told by his coach not to dribble the ball through his legs because he wasn’t Michael Jordan. The coach was irritated. Haywood experienced similar difficulties later when playing at Langara College.
“People didn’t understand the Black culture here in the city because there weren’t many Black people,” Haywood explained. “When you don’t see a lot of Black people and you come with that Black style of play, people say, ‘What the heck is that? We don’t play like that.’ ”
He feels that if he had grown up in New York or Miami rather than Vancouver, his style of play would have been more accepted—and his life might have turned out differently. But he said that in Vancouver, his swagger and his on-court tricks were derided as “jungle ball”—outside of the comfort of Kitsilano Beach—when he was simply expressing who he was as a Canadian of Trinidadian ancestry.
As a young man, he sounded off about this in an interview in New York-based basketball magazine Slam, which only got him slammed in Canada, his country of birth.
“It felt like I ruined my basketball career,” Haywood revealed. “That’s how I kind of felt. Everyone was going against what I was saying. It felt like it was harder to make it.”
But at the same time, he knew that this was his truth. He transferred from Langara College to Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, where he immediately felt more comfortable, in part because of the city’s larger Black population.
“I played in an all-Black tournament and the coaches saw me play and wanted to sign me right away,” he recalled. “Because they understood—even the white coaches understood—that’s how we played. They understood it because they’re around Black people and there’s a Black culture there, and they understand Black culture.”
The film’s 30-year-old director, Sidhoo, told the Straight by phone that he also grew up playing basketball at Kits Beach and he and Haywood attended a basketball camp run by former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis.
“Pick-up basketball has always been a multicultural practice in a city that felt divided by race," Sidhoo said. "But the traditional world of organized basketball in Vancouver, growing up, it was clearly run by an older white generation who seemed out of touch with the evolution of the culture."
Because he’s known Haywood for so many years, Sidhoo felt that exploring the emotions behind that in a film would be really compelling.
Sidhoo had just came off doing a nine-part docuseries for the National Film Board called True North, which was about the rise of basketball in Toronto, where he now lives.
He’s seen firsthand how the white-dominated power structures and hierarchies in basketball are having an impact on kids at a very tender age, taking the innocence out of the game.
“In basketball, you’re starting to see a better representation of different background and ethnicities working in the front office,” Sidhoo acknowledged.
“But if you look at the NFL, it is disproportionately run by white people, yet the athletes who really have built the league and continue to build the league, are Black,” he added. “I think what we’re seeing with these protests now are a lot of these players are bringing attention to this.”
Sidhoo is of mixed heritage. His mother’s side are Ashkenazi Jews, who endured countless pogroms through the ages leading up to the Holocaust. His father traces his roots back to northern India, where the horrors of the partition of the country in 1947 were felt most deeply.
As a result of his family background and through study, Sidhoo has come to appreciate the long-term impact of intergenerational trauma.
He pointed out that the United States has a history of slavery and racism, which is practically embedded in the country’s DNA.
But because Canadians identify themselves as not being part of the United States, he feels that there’s a belief in some quarters that racism doesn’t exist in Canada to nearly the same degree.
“That really minimizes the trauma,” Sidhoo said. “It minimizes the history of racism and prejudice that we’ve seen here since the country was founded.”
By telling Haywood’s story, Sidhoo hopes that average people can become better educated about power relationships, including in professional sports, and how that can manifest itself in systemic racism.
After playing for St. Mary’s University, Haywood became a two-time all-star in the National Basketball League of Canada with the Halifax Rainmen. He was also an all-star in Denmark, and he recently signed with the Fraser Valley Bandits of the Canadian Elite Basketball League.
In addition, Haywood runs the School of Handles basketball training camps, which he offers across North America and in Asia.
Haywood said that he thinks things are getting “a little bit better” for Black people, but he still hasn’t seen a major change.
“I like how white people are coming out and saying, ‘We’re sorry.’ That’s great,” he noted. “But at the same time, we can’t just talk about it. We have to go out there and do something about it.”
To him, that means much more Black history in school and more Black teachers, lawyers, doctors, business owners, and politicians in legislatures and the Parliament of Canada.
“When a kid like myself sees television—and I see one race on television—I’m going to think, ‘Where are all the minorities?’ Where are the Chinese people? Where are the Black people?’ ”