Sam Raphael was speaking for himself.
His words could just as easily have come out of the mouths of Francis Rowe, Joel Rybachuk, Jose Araujo and Kady Dandeneau.
The five graduating members of the UNBC Timberwolves basketball program were honoured Saturday night at the Northern Sport Centre, site of the final games of their college/university careers. A special ceremony was held after the UNBC women's team defeated the Mount Royal University Cougars, and before the UNBC men stepped onto the court against the Mount Royal men -- a contest that would also end in a Timberwolves triumph.
Later, after the fans had gone home and all that remained in the NSC gym was a cleaning crew and the echoes of five years of unforgettable moments, Raphael spoke about what his time in a UNBC uniform meant to him.
"In the end, it's just a great life experience," said the six-foot-two guard/forward, as classy off the court as he was fiery and influential on it. "Not a lot of people get to be around a real family environment, a team environment, and also a competitive environment so I feel like I've learned a lot and it's going to take me a long ways, having played with these guys.
"And I've got so many memories, so many friendships, so many connections that I never would have had if I hadn't stuck with it and played basketball," added Raphael, a local product who graduated from Duchess Park secondary school in 2008. "It's been incredible. Obviously it's life-changing and I'll never forget my time playing basketball, that's for sure."
Together, Raphael, Rowe, Rybachuk and Araujo helped power the male Timberwolves to provincial college-level championships in 2010 and 2012 and to a national title -- the first in the history of UNBC athletics -- in 2010. On the women's side, meanwhile, Dandeneau was part of provincial-championship squads in 2008 and 2012. All five players helped push the UNBC basketball program to unprecedented heights of success in the college ranks and had significant roles in its acceptance into the Canada West conference of Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
In Canada West this season, the talented quintet also ensured the UNBC teams were successful additions to the league. The UNBC men finished at 6-16, one of those wins against a Saskatchewan Huskies squad that is nationally-ranked and placed first in the Prairie Division with a 16-6 record. And the UNBC women -- despite having just 10 players for most of the season -- battled to a mark of 8-14 and completed their schedule with more points than six other Canada West clubs.
Rowe -- along with his fellow grads -- was in Saturday's starting lineup but played only briefly because of an ankle injury he sustained on Friday. Not the ideal end to his career, but the smooth-shooting backcourt star from Victoria wasn't complaining.
"It was nice that coach [Todd Jordan] started me and I took a foul 30 seconds in and checked out, which was nice too," Rowe said with a grin.
"Everything has been great here," he added. "It's been the best basketball experience I've had so far and it far exceeded anything I expected when I came up in my first year."
Added Rybachuk, a fearless point guard from Vernon who always played bigger than his actual size: "I got to meet a bunch of lifelong friends, I got to play in front of the best fans in Canada in a great facility. It doesn't get much better than that for a university athlete."
Araujo, a shooting guard who electrified crowds with his outside accuracy in critical situations, also couldn't have imagined a better run as a member of the Timberwolves. His playing days, however, are far from over because he's entering his fifth year of involvement in El Salvador's national team program.
"This whole weekend I had been trying to keep my mind off [my last UNBC game] but as soon as I got my [framed action photo in the ceremony] and the coach started speaking and I was there in the middle of the court in front of everybody, then it kind of hit me," said Araujo, who has El Salvadoran roots and calls Toronto home. "But it was a great career and I don't regret anything."
As for Dandeneau, she was a physical force from her first game to her last. In between, the forward from Pender Island overcame a knee injury that would have been career-ending for most players.
Dandeneau refused to hang up her shoes. Instead, she fought her way back onto the court and finished third on the all-time UNBC women's scoring list with 1,037 points. She likely would have surpassed the totals of Jaclyn Nazareno and Laurel Wallace -- who put up 1,078 and 1,073 points respectively in five years at the college level -- had she not been hampered by her knee problems. Looking back, her good memories easily outweigh the painful ones.
"The provincial titles, the teams, the people I've gotten to know," Dandeneau said in reference to the highlights of her years in UNBC green. "And Prince George has been an awesome city. I couldn't imagine playing in front of better fans. We've gone across the country and played tons of teams and nowhere else has been able to match the energy that Prince George fans bring to this gym. It has just been amazing and I loved it."