RICHMOND QC. 1— The air in the gym was thick with sweat and heat. Basketballs pounded the gym floor. It was deafening.

The Nation had arrived in time to witness 50 Crees pulling the last stretch of an intensive week-long basketball bonanza in the heart of the Eastern Townships.

“We’ve been working really hard,” gasped the event’s organizer as he greeted us, “We’ve been pounding.”

When Craig Dunn, former Chisasibi Phys. Ed. Teacher, had the idea for Above the Rim, a Cree-Non-Cree Basketball Camp in his home territory, one hour east of Montreal, he didn’t think all the spots would be scooped up by Crees.

“We got calls from all over James Bay with players wanting to come,” he said, and the camp quickly became a mostly Cree event — with players from Chisasibi, Wemindji, Eastmain, Waskaganish and Mistissini.

The Mistissini group raised 7,000 dollars in only one month, said Marlene Matoush, who brought her whole family down for the week-long event. “Everyone really wanted to come” she said.

At the gym, players spent each morning at training stations, working on offensive movement, shooting, defensive, ball-handling, passing, rebounding and fitness.

In the afternoons, Craig and his staff invited some of Quebec’s top coaches to share their secrets about the game. David King, a former University all-star, was the favorite. “Sitting on the ground, he dribbled two inches off the ground with both hands, and then started doing sit-ups” said one enamored fan.

But unlike most basketball camps, where players return to the court after dinner for more hoops, at this camp, players had the evenings free to try out new activities: visiting Holstein cows at a dairy farm, bowling and horseback-riding.

“I’ve wanted to go horseback-riding since I was a kid,” said Liette Neacappo of Chisasibi.

Swimming was also an option at the campsite’s watering hole. Space was a bit tight in the cabins at Camp d’Action Biblique, and one group ended up sleeping in the Chapel.

On the last day, the kids talked Craig into a shopping trip to Sherbrooke. Most returned wearing crisp Adidas and Nike Swoosh, in time for the evening’s award ceremony and dance. Over 20 awards were given out, including one for effort going to the youngest player at the camp, Darron Weitsche, age 11.

Jordon Bear of Waskaganish gave the camp two thumbs up. “I liked the competition and the learning. I really feel like I know more now.”