South Africa is about as far from Whatcom County as you can get — both figuratively and literally.
But Lynden native Kent VanderYacht has taken Whatcom County basketball nearly halfway around the world and is making a difference in the lives of high school boys in his new homeland.
“It’s made me realize how blessed I was to grow up in Whatcom County,” said VanderYacht, who starred for the Lynden Lions in 1995 and ‘96.
“Having those (basketball) heroes to look up to, having the dreams and getting to play in a state tournament. Now I’m still having fun at 42 years old. I’m really loving it.”
VanderYacht’s story of redemption after a period of drinking, drugs and wrong choices is remarkable, and a renewal of his Christian faith led him to South Africa, where he met wife Lyndall and began a family. (You can hear his testimony at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8amS_cPj0tU)
In 2012, the VanderYachts started Hearts That Hope, a ministry to orphaned and destitute children in their hometown of Salt Rock. In addition to their own four children, the VanderYachts have taken in dozens of other children, providing a home with food, safety, educational opportunities and hope.
While involved in the children’s lives and in the community at large in many ways, Kent always dreamed of using his passion for basketball in a country where the sport ranks far behind soccer, rugby and cricket in popularity.
Then this past year, while enrolling one of their children at the all-boys Northwood School in the nearby large city of Durban, Kent met with the school’s athletic director and asked about helping with their basketball “program.”
“He said it’s terrible, but we’re looking to invest in it,” said Kent. “There was no organization to it; it was gym rat. They (the varsity team) hadn’t won more than one game a year.”
We’re not in Whatcom County any more
How big was the challenge? Here are just a few of the differences from our Whatcom County high school programs:
* Despite being one of the largest schools in a city the size of Seattle (Northwood would be a Class 4A school in Washington), the Knights have no gym, so they practice and play all their home games outside. One homecourt advantage: Being near the ocean. “We’ve played in the wind, and know how to adjust our shots,” said Kent.
* With a remarkable 120 players on the eighth-grade through 12th-grade teams, they don’t have enough equipment or facilities to practice every day. The varsity has two balls, but each of the other teams has to share one ball, and there are only eight basketball hoops for the school of 1,500.
* Because basketball has no tradition in South Africa, the adults have no experience playing or coaching, and there are no youth programs. Which means most of what Kent does is teach fundamentals. “We try to teach basics like dribbling with our left hand,” said Kent, “and some of the kids ask, ‘Why do we need to do that?’”
And then there are the cultural, economic and societal differences, which are even harder to overcome than teaching a new offense.
Some of the boys don’t have the $1 for bus fare to get to and from school. One player couldn’t afford food, so he would come to the afternoon practice not having eaten all day.
And then there is Northwood’s best player. His family fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, only to have his father die when his blood sugar spiked and an ambulance took more than 24 hours to arrive.
“To hear their stories … ,” marveled Kent. “We take so much for granted, and the things (bus fare and a meal) are such a blessing to these kids.”
VanderYacht brings winning attitude
Despite all that, Northwood has found success in basketball.
Win-loss records are confusing because the South African school year runs on the calendar year, which divides the basketball season into two seasons — fall through December and then January through March — with seniors graduating in-between.
But the improvement is obvious. When Kent first took over, the varsity’s closest game was a 28-point loss. But this year, Northwood was 5-5. One of the losses was by one point to the best team in Durban and another was by three points to the top-ranked team in all of South Africa.
One of the reasons is that four of his six best players are from the Congo, where they learned to play basketball at a young age. And according to Kent, his best player has the talent to play at a small college in the United States.
“It’s a different world for the Congolese guys,” said Kent. “They can get an education (at Northwood). It’s a good education. One of the kids wants to be a doctor and another wants to coach basketball. It’s giving them an opportunity in life.”
You can help make a difference
Kent’s hope is that the basketball program — like his Hearts That Hope ministry — can truly make a difference in the boys’ lives and not just in sports.
To do that, he is reaching out to the Whatcom County basketball community for help. Financial support would be gratefully used to buy uniforms, balls and other equipment.
Kent also mentioned his hope of having an American high school team travel to South Africa, play some of the local teams, perhaps even run a basketball camp.
“They think they’re going to be pros,” Kent said of his players. “There’s only one kid that’s good enough to start on a (Whatcom County) high school team. It would be great for them to see where they stand.”
Like so many around the world, Kent is waiting for schools to open again because of the coronavirus pandemic. But he is excited about the opportunity he has been blessed with.
“I’ve loved every second of it, investing in these kids, trying to be a mentor and a father figure to some of the kids,” he said.
“I’d like it to be a program that has coaches with more understanding of coaching, that teaches the basics of basketball, but also teaches the boys to be part of something bigger.”
To learn more about the basketball program, e-mail Kent at email@example.com
To learn more about the VanderYachts’ ministry, visit https://www.heartsthathope.com
Jim Carberry is a former Bellingham Herald sports editor and author of several books on Whatcom County prep basketball. Follow him on Twitter @whatcomhoops and visit the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page.