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Thunderbirds Leaving the Nest

It’s a night where family and friends all come together—smiling wide and cherishing the moment that you step onto the court to play for the last time—and almost always, a night in which you’re recognized for representing your teammates, your team, and your school.

It’s Senior Night.

A night where Conor Morgan, Phil Jalalpoor, and Luka Zaharijevic will put on their white, blue, and gold jerseys and lace up their shoes for the Thunderbirds’ final home game of the season.

“It’s been a lot of fun. A lot of ups and downs because you’re coming towards the end and it’s kind of sad,” says Phil Jalalpoor, UBC’s fifth year senior guard from Germany. “But then you just kind of enjoy every game more and appreciate it more.”

Jalalpoor, like his fellow senior teammates, fell in love with basketball at a very young age.

“I watched the movie Space Jam at the age of five. My mom got it for me and I told my [her] the next day that I wanted to play that sport.”

Each one has their own tale of how they made it onto this team, but what they all have in common is the fact that this year will be the last they play as a Thunderbird.

“The last five years has been a crazy experience, in terms of just meeting all these guys, getting to know the coaches and building relationships with them,” says Luka Zaharijevic, a senior forward and local prodigy out of Kitsilano Secondary School.

As far as mentors go, Conor Morgan, the “dad” of the team, has helped lead the Thunderbirds for the past six years as their star forward/guard.

“The relationship that I have with all of the guys is the thing that I probably cherish the most,” says Morgan. “I’ve been all around the world with basketball. And with Coach Kev, even. I’ve been to Taiwan three times, once with team Canada with him, so I have a really good relationship with him. Overall it’s been a ride. It’s been so fun and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

Head coach Kevin Hanson has helped shape all three of his seniors into so much more than just a number on the back of a jersey: He’s given them the chance to find themselves through basketball.

“Those three guys are obviously the leaders. They’re the three leading scorers on our team and they’re the go-to guys that everybody looks up to,” says Hanson.

Hanson is in his 18th season as head coach with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds and describes this year’s team, lead by this group of seniors, as “one of the closest teams” he’s had the pleasure of coaching.

“The three of them are very unique individuals, different personalities, but yet they really play well together and they’ve started every game together this year.”

And each one has an untold ending to where their hooping will take them. Senior night represents the turning of the next page for Conor, Phil, and Luka, the three leaders who will inevitably leave the UBC nest after this season comes to a close.

Morgan, a Victoria native, will be completing his master’s degree in Kinesiology this year. And while Coach Hanson believes his basketball career will flourish, he also recognizes Morgan’s ambition off the court, as well.

“He has accomplished all he needs to accomplish at UBC. It is time for him to move on and start the next chapter of his life,” says Coach Hanson.

Hanson did not hesitate to tell us how much each one of his seniors meant to this team. He also had some final advice for the three boys who grew into their wings as a Thunderbird.

“Luka...he’s just the true, nicest person you’ll ever meet. My advice to him is to not be too nice all the time—stand up for yourself.”

Coach went on to praise Zaharijevic’s involvement with Drive Basketball, where over 100 kids will come from to show their support for him on senior night.

“That says a lot that the impact that he has had for that club basketball system, the loyalty that he’s got towards them, and his name is really part of Drive Basketball and the legacy that it has, so he will give back to the community and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do for this community after his professional career is over as well.”

As for Phil Jalalpoor, Coach says he’ll most likely have a career in basketball back in Germany, but hopes he’ll keep in touch with the family he created at UBC.

“He is an amazing person, a high achiever, and he will be successful no matter what path he chooses in life. He’ll have a great basketball career as well, and we’re looking forward to seeing what challenges and what area of life he’s going to go into because he has a lot to give back to basketball and a lot to society.”

Let’s not forget about the father of the team.

“Conor has had a lot of success on the court. We just wish him all the best in his pursuit of his basketball career, which he’ll have for many years, and the opportunities that will provide. And I know he’s going to be a great basketball coach one day.”

Senior night will be one to remember; one that will honour these three men for the outstanding achievements and success they have had at the University of British Columbia. Coach says there will be no dry eyes during the speeches – an opportunity for each senior to express how they feel about their team, coaches, and of course their biggest inspiration: their parents.

“It’s a tough one to say goodbye, but it really brings that family togetherness,” Hanson says. “We frame their jerseys for them and make a presentation to them and their parents thanking them for their time here. So they’re made to feel very special and they should be because they’ve gone through a lot in the last five years of playing.”

“I’m certainly going to miss them.”

Be sure to come cheer on the seniors of UBC and Coach Hanson at their final home game of the regular season, which also happens to be Shoot for the Cure, on Friday, February 2nd. The game will be held at War Memorial Gym at 8pm.

Written By: Crystal Scuor