The Van Lit Family – 50 Years of the Cougar Family

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Few families have had a more storied history over 50 years of the Cockburn Basketball Association than the Van Lit family, and their contributions are all over what the club has done on the court, in the board room and in administration.

They are all over the life member boards at Cockburn as well, and family matriarch Tammy Van Lit sat down to reflect on her 45-year history with basketball and the Cougar Family.

What are your first memories of being involved in basketball?
It all started before there was anything like the SBL or NBL1 or anything, it was all the senior competition. I first started playing when I was 18 for a team called the Jamaicans and we played at Bakers Square and in winter we’d go to the Claremont Showgrounds and play there among all the horse droppings and everything, they were fun times. I had played netball all my life until then but just took it up socially and eventually that’s where I met Mike who would go on to become my husband and the rest is history.

 

Tell me more about you Mike and how your lifelong bond started?
He was a talented footballer with the South Fremantle club, but in the off-season he played basketball for a team called the Cooby Cats. He went on to play a couple of seasons with Bert de Meyer in a team called Port and that was really his basketball involvement as a player. One of the girls who was in my team knew him and thought we might make a good pair so she introduced us and that’s how it all started. Basketball was probably the only thing that I was doing where we would gather as a whole group of friends socially at the time. We just used to play basketball and meet on a Thursday night and go to Mike O’Meara’s one-man band at the Booragoon Hotel which no longer exists. We used to go there as a big group of the basketball players and mutual friends, and that’s how Mike and I started to spend some time together socially.

Do you sit back and think about the impact basketball and Cockburn has played in the life you’ve built as a family?
I probably would have never met Mike otherwise. I was actually going out with someone else who introduced me to basketball in the first place. He was playing with a team called Jamaicans with one of his mates. My sister ended up marrying his mate and we went our different ways, but not before I picked up the boots to have a go. Mike and I married two years after meeting.

 

What other involvement in basketball did you start to have?
I started coaching young kids with Spearwood Hawks when I couldn’t continue to play anymore only because I was pregnant with Michael (jnr). So I started coaching a team of young girls in 1982 which was my first involvement aside from playing. While our kids were toddlers, we had a bit of a break from extended basketball activities. Mike Forsyth’s dad was our butcher and Mike was playing SBL, his dad used to deliver our order to mum’s house every week for us and he asked us to come down to see who was coaching Mike, and it was actually Brad McNamara, a rather colourful character. That actually got us back involved when we were only still playing socially. The older two kids actually liked the games and the involvement, so they started playing at six and seven years of age, they were lucky enough to inherit the basketball ring that Mike Forsyth had at home as a kid. Hence our driveway had a full key way painted on it for the evening family challenges. The majority of their junior years was with Spearwood Hawks and they all became Junior Life Members of this club. We’ve just stayed involved as they grew up and eventually they became WABL players with Cockburn Cougars. The youngest, Steven had to tag along so I guess he was destined to pick up the ball. Playing his first under-9s game at five years old.

What are some of the roles you’ve taken on over the years?
Apart from the odd team manager role, both my husband and I have coached both domestic WABL and we’ve been involved with two of the national touring teams that have gone away. Mike was assistant coach with the team in 2000, Sheldon McIntyre was in the squad as a 13 year old, they went to Gold Coast to compete. I went away in 2003 to Adelaide that was when Gary McKay was head coach and Vanessa Cahill was assistant coach. Gary had coached the girls in the WABL season to the championship game and this gave them the right to tour. Unbeknownst to me at the WABL wind up that year, Gary actually asked me to be an official assistant coach on the team because of my involvement of bringing those girls through in under-11s and 12s development. A very generous gesture and an honour for me to be rewarded this way. I just had to overcome my fear of flying as this was to be my first time in an aeroplane. We went to Adelaide that year and we finished a very credible ninth. We took out the first ever Fairplay Award. That award is still on the wall down at Cockburn with the picture of the team. It was all those positive experiences that makes you stay with a club and there was lots of them over the years. I had also taken on a Sports Medicine First Aid and Sports Trainer course in the late 1990s and for many years volunteered as a First Aider at Domestic, WABL and Cougar Classic days.
Mike was heavily involved coaching at domestic level. He spent some time on the Board of Directors in charge of Juniors in the late 1990s. I followed a few years later in around 2001 as junior director and eventually decided to try something different. I became Director of SBL in 2006 when CJ Jackson was our operations manager and head coach of the SBL men. I stayed doing that until the end of 2014 which was my last year. I learnt what it takes to make a championship team and it’s about a three-year process. We just narrowly skipped out in 2009 under Greg Gurr, we possibly fell a little short that year which was not anyone’s fault but bodies beginning to break down after a long season. Stephen Charlton was appointed head coach in 2010, this seen as a rebuilding year and eventually we got there in 2012. Twenty years since our last championship.

 

Where did being SBL Director for the 2012 SBL championship rate in things you were part of?
For me it rates pretty high. The fact that we had those 10 home grown Cougar players plus Luke Callier who had moved over from the east coast made it more remarkable. The locals were all kids who came through our program at Cockburn, we sought out two imports, one of them we nearly didn’t take on only because his agent was a pain in the bum. That was Brian Carlwell’s agent, I received an email that came through to me at home about this 6’10 guy who had huge potential. When I read it and sent it to Charlie, we decided to start talks but they nearly broke down because of the agent and I said we may have to look at Plan B. We had already signed Jeremiah Wilson who was to arrive early April, but I’m so delighted it worked out with Brian and we, as a family absolutely adore him. He’s a lovely guy and probably taught me a lot about what life is like in the USA, I needed to earn his trust. I think we were able to do that. Grand Final day 2012 and we wanted to go out for lunch Jeremiah and Brian wanted to go to Outback Jack’s, not sure what they had but we now call it the “food of champions”. Brian has his own young daughter here is Australia and we are glad he stayed, not just for his ability to cook some amazing ‘Westside Wingz’ Buffalo wings.

The ironic part of that championship was that your son Steve had to miss it because of an injury he suffered at work?
It was horrible and I was heartbroken for him over that, but very proud for the way that he conducted himself leading up to and including the Grand Final.

 

How then proud were you in 2016 when he did get to play in a championship?
I loved it, I really loved it. I wasn’t SBL Director anymore but we still partied hard afterwards back at the stadium and watched the sun come up. We were so thrilled when they won and for Steve to be part of it, but it was Gav who was the heartbreak story that year. They are best mates and Gav got to play in the one in 2012 and because of injuries just before finals, Gav was promoted into the starting five and has been there since. They did want to play a Grand Final together but it just never eventuated which is a bit of a shame, but that’s life. Steve hung up his boots at the end of 2019 season.

Steve had a terrific 266-game career, but Michael also played 105 games and has gone on to be a head coach at the Slammers, and assistant with Cockburn and Joondalup?
Michael did all of his juniors at Cockburn right through to under-18s and they didn’t have under-20s then, but he was playing in the Div 1 team. Michael started his family and was married to Tyahnee just out of school. He wasn’t getting the chance to play he was hoping for at Cockburn. He went to Rockingham closer to where he was living and began playing down there. He became well liked down there, but when we played SBL games at Rockingham and the Cockburn kids were there, they would sit on the sidelines cheering for him because he had coached a lot of them for Spearwood Hawks. He came back to Cockburn in 2010 and played his last two seasons in SBL with Steve. He got the bug to coach and during this time and he started coaching Cougars under-18s WABL team with current Boomers squad member Rhys Vague playing in the team. I didn’t realise he had coaching aspirations as high as he did and then I got a phone call from Ty Harrelson when he was taking on the head coach role in Bunbury, and he wanted to know if Mike would be his assistant. I thought he meant my husband at first, but then no, he meant Michael John. Ty thought he was ready and as he was a player/coach he wanted someone who had a good head for the game to take control when he was on the court. There were then countless nights when the Slammers played up in Perth where they came back to our place after the games and they were at the table with the fruit bowl, and using the apples and oranges as players to break down the game and what they perhaps should have done at times during the game.

He went off to coach for three seasons with Ty and we’ve followed wherever he’s been ever since. So if Cockburn weren’t playing, we’d be where the Slammers were and obviously he had a season as head coach there as well. In the end, he just couldn’t do another year of it with the travelling, having a young family and everything thrown in on top behind the scenes. He was actually excited when Adam Nener got him back to Cockburn as assistant coach. He enjoyed the season with Adam, the players played out of their skin, undermanned without imports but giving everything they could, anyone slacked off at any point and Michael would be onto them, demanding 100% effort from every player. He has an amazing basketball brain and is very level headed, I think in all his coaching I have only seen him raise his voice a couple times.
He got the opportunity to travel to the USA with his family and catch up with Ty. During his time over there was fortunate enough to attend an LA Lakers training session with the great LeBron James and also Magic Johnston on the sidelines. Lifetime memories that basketball has provided.

He has been involved with the Basketball WA performance program the last couple of years and this year the U/16 team he was coaching won bronze at the Nationals, this resulted in being awarded High Performance Coach of the Year for Basketball WA at their recent awards, something he is very proud of.

Your daughter Mel also played 71 SBL games as well and has gone on to have a tremendous involvement ever since?
Mel represented Cockburn in every age group at WABL during her junior years. She played SBL and Div 1/D League for many years. She was awarded the Inaugural “Player’s Player” award, voted on by her peers, for being the ultimate team member in the SBL squad. She’s a very quiet person and being a part of these teams meant a lot to her. In her later years she also filled in as Team Manager on the odd occasion and had a stint as an assistant coach with head coach Megan Thompson.

Her involvement at Cockburn goes a lot deeper that just SBL. She has a degree in Sports Management and Sports Science and also a Diploma of Education in Phys Ed, Health and HASS.
There was not much opportunity for well paid employment in the sporting admin environment so teaching it was. Her involvement in team sport all of her life has given her good standing to educate the next generation in netball, basketball and football mostly, and to make sure those kids get to each game/tournament, she’s also the bus driver. Her students thinks she pretty “Lit” and have given her the name of Ms Litty.

CJ Jackson actually got her involved at Cockburn when he was in the office and she was still at uni. Back then you didn’t have the programs now to run the competitions and fixtures and everything, so he used to get her to come in to input all the score sheets, MVP votes and everything from the junior and senior competition. She used to come in and do that for him and whatever else she could do to help out for a couple of days a week at the stadium. Then she got an interest for doing the fixturing from that and she would run that for a while along with the Cougar Classic fixturing for many years. She would make sure that every team got their requests taken care of one way or another, and that’s the sort of stuff she liked and did it well. She became a board member in charge of the Junior competitions for a number of years and she followed in the footsteps of her dad and mum with that. She stayed on the board for a long time (approx 12 years or more) even through all of the changes. She’s probably a bit more level-headed than me, her strength is to approach things and people fairly and without judgement and work with people to get the best possible outcome for everyone, something which held her in good stead with Cockburn Basketball board and playing members for many years. She currently plays in the domestic competition with long time friends and former Cougars.

The 50-year anniversary is a chance to reflect on your lifetime involved at Cockburn, just how much does it mean to you and your family?
Cockburn Basketball even way back then, was always about family, it really was. It’s a good way of building a club to have a focus on family and I often say that I don’t think my kids would have turned out as well as they have if it wasn’t for Cockburn and being part of the environment down there. I’ve always said that and I tell parents now to stay involved, keep your kids involved and it will be the best thing you can do as a family. Team sport teaches kids, friendship, loyalty, commitment and fairplay….important life skills.

 

You must be proud of your family’s contributions given you, your husband and two of your children are life members with the legacy you’ve made, and the next generation is coming through too?
My eldest granddaughter is 20, being involved at Cockburn was a way of meeting other kids and getting slightly out of her comfort zone. So even though she wasn’t really interested in playing that much, the club was still a great place for her, meeting new friends, having great rapport with the SBL players and the many families at the club over her time there. Then there was Michaela and she probably wished she pushed it a bit more and played for Cougars at WABL a little bit longer, but she’s the type of girl into all the fancy, fun things, but she’s also the one who is 6’2 and her dad would have loved her to play basketball because you can’t teach height. The family and friendships she made while at the club hold a good place in her heart. Emma is just coming through now and she’s nine. I didn’t think she would play basketball and I thought she would go to ballet or something like that, but she’s looking like being the tallest out of all of them so we’ll see how she goes. She loves being involved with Mike as well and goes up to Joondalup with him now to be part of his team up there where he’s coaching. She was also like that when Mike was at Cockburn with Adam Nener and she just loves being around basketball. I hope she does stick at it and might end up playing for the Cougars in NBL1 one day.

 

What’s the feeling like even today when you walk into Wally Hagan Stadium?
It really does feel like going home in a way. I’m not going to say it’s less now, because it doesn’t, even though it is a bit different but when I look at this season just gone, you see someone like Gavin Field still playing and we watched him growing up, and our fathers used to work together at the Fremantle Gas and Coke Company, His grandmother, Kay was my first basketball coach for Jamaican’s. Haylee De Sousa is another one and if you ask her which coach taught her the most about basketball and guaranteed she would tell you my husband. She will quite often spiel off things about free-throws winning games, defence creates good offence and different things that he used to drum into her when he coached them in under-14s for WABL. I loved working with was Deanna Smith, when I appointed her as head coach she bought with her a higher level of professionalism to the team and club, both on and off the court. Probably my favourite male player to watch would be the hard nose defence of Robbie Plaucs and his grit and determination when playing in the yellow and blue. Nicole Roberts is another one who has just retired. I would say she would be the most resilient player I have ever met over the years with the different things that she’s gone through and with the way she puts the club, and the team, first over everything. She just kept going and putting back and I have an enormous amount of time for her, she is an amazing role model for all young players. It’s these sort of people that you remember most fondly about the whole journey.

Any last memories you’d like to share?
We also got involved in working on the score bench which we went on to do for a lot of years, and we loved that. We initially got involved by learning to do that because they needed people to be able to do it when the national championships were held at Cockburn in 1995. There was a whole army of volunteers that made this possible. The Cougar Army as they were known. Directors, their wives and children, domestic club volunteers, junior WABL kids…literally hundreds of members worked together to make this tournament happen and without a hitch. From statisticians, to score bench personnel and ladies preparing food and refreshments for the invited dignitaries and Basketball Australia staff, to the make shift change rooms (courtesy of Pete Stanley) erected on Court 3 for teams playing next. An amazing time for the club and proof of what can be achieved when we pull together for the love of basketball.

Another thing that springs to mind is that my favourite team to coach was the under-10/12’s and Luc Longley was the hardest coach I went up against. I would have a play called ‘fish’ and he had one called ‘washing machine’ and they were probably basically the same thing, he was such a lovely person and I got to know him quite well through these years, and what it meant for him to be down there and involved where people just let him be himself and coach his children. The only problem was my team was never able to beat his team.

I will be forever thankful for the positive, family friendly environment I encountered in my early years at Cockburn, the friends we have made and families we have met…I never imagined it would last 45 years and three generations of my family.