Extreme emotions taking Darcy Kulai from a dream basketball season to a traumatic injury still make him ponder the highs and lows of life many years later.
A Cobble Hill resident since 2002, Kulai was a big part of one of the greatest moments in B.C. high school sports history while growing up in Saltair and attending Ladysmith Secondary School. Ladysmith won the provincial AAA senior boys’ basketball championship in 1995 in a remarkable Cinderella story, moving up from AA to shock all the larger schools on the Lower Mainland.
But an industrial accident just two years out of high school cost Kulai his right hand and severely damaged his left.
Kulai endured the initial hardship of the loss to the best of his ability. “I think I put on a good face, but it was hard,’’ he said.
Kulai, now 33, had one amazing feat on his resume that residents of Ladysmith still talk about.
“I grew up playing soccer,’’ he said. “My dad was a big soccer guy and his dad before him.’’ Kulai got turned onto basketball in Grade 6.
With Randy Steel and Tony McCrory Sr. building a basketball dynasty in Ladysmith at the time, Kulai fit into the work ethic required perfectly.
Kulai also started playing in the Duncan Basketball Association where Keith Robertson and Tony McCrory Sr. were instrumental in helping him find his niche.
Kulai played on the Ladysmith team that won the provincial junior boys’ basketball championship in 1993, a sign of things to come.
“We had to go to Kelowna for the tournament,’’ he recalled. “We ended up beating Cowichan in the final. I’m very proud of that win because in junior you play everybody. There’s no Single A, Double A or Triple A.’’
After that incredible experience, Kulai was devastated by the loss of good friend and teammate Dave Forrest. He died from meningitis shortly after the team returned from Kelowna.
Kulai and company soldiered on. In his Grade 11 year, Ladysmith made the decision to jump to AAA and compete against the bigger schools despite being a smaller AA school. Led by Tony McCrory Jr., Ladysmith was rated as high as No. 3 in the province at one point.
The core of the team reached its peak in Kulai’s Grade 12 year and captured the B.C. championship by beating the Mennonite Educational Institute 74-70 in the final in front of 5,000 people at the Vancouver Agrodome.
“We had a ton of people come over from Ladysmith,’’ recalled Kulai. “It was an incredible atmosphere.’’
Steve Nash was one of the people watching and Jay Triano, another Canadian basketball legend and the current head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors, was announcing the game on TV.
Ladysmith had a thin but talented roster that year. McCrory was the tournament MVP and Kulai a first team all-star as part of the big three with Steve Lidgate.
Daryl Rodgers, Jason Robillard and Chad Bastian were the other key members of the squad that confounded the experts and put Ladysmith permanently on the provincial sports map.
“Coach Steel’s philosophy was just to try to improve every game,’’ Kulai said. “He didn’t care if we won or lost. Looking back on the whole experience makes me feel good. We were able to raise our games when it mattered most.’’
Kulai attended the University of Victoria after graduation, but took a break from basketball. During his second year he started back, regularly playing pick-up games at McKinnon gym with several Vikes past and present. Steve Nash even showed up a few times.
But any thoughts he had of playing varsity basketball came to an unexpected halt that August. He was working at a mill when his left hand got caught in a chain.
“I was stuck there for about 15 minutes,’’ Kulai recalled. “At the end of the shift, the guys found me and pulled me out.’’
But the damage was done. Kulai’s right hand was destroyed while trying to free his left hand from the chain. His doctor reconstructed his left thumb using bones from his right thumb. He underwent several surgeries during the next year, including grafting from his leg onto his left hand in an effort to increase function.
Spending time at a rehabilitation clinic in Richmond provided some perspective on his injuries for Kulai. “You realize you don’t have it as bad as some other people,’’ Kulai said.
Ironically, he had just met his future wife Christine Reid of Duncan a few short weeks before the accident. “It definitely made the dating part challenging,’’ he said. “But she stuck by me the whole way. It’s something I’ll never forget.’’
“It was very shocking, obviously not the typical start to a relationship,’’ said Christine.
“I didn’t know if he’d push me away due to the fact we hadn’t been together that long. But it didn’t change him as a person. He was still the same guy.’’ The couple has been together 13 years and married in 2002.
Kulai found further inspiration when good friend Ali Wilmott came to visit him in the hospital. “He brought me a soccer ball to the hospital,’’ said Kulai. “At the time, I didn’t think much of it.’’
About a year later, he began playing soccer again with a Ladysmith men’s team that started in Div. 2 of the Island Soccer League and eventually spent a few years in Div. 1 before folding.
After the Ladysmith team folded, he got a call from coach Glen Martin and, along with some of his teammates from Ladysmith, joined the Cowichan Div. 1 men’s side and played for four seasons.
Job conflicts eventually required him to quit playing, but he’s remained very involved in soccer. A few years ago, Brian Johnston and Kulai formed the Kerry Park youth soccer league that’s been in operation now for three years. Johnston serves as the technical director and Kulai as league coordinator.
Kulai coaches his own son Lucas, who’s now six. He’s also dug back into his basketball roots, offering coaching assistance to Liam Sullivan with the Brentwood College junior boys’ team, and co-ordinates a youth basketball program through Kerry Park Recreation where he works as an assistant programmer.
“I definitely had my highs and lows.”