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Boys in My ‘Hood: “Talkin’ ‘Bout TRAINING?”

They’re bigger now, one a freshman starter at McGill, one doing a prep year with D1 aspirations. Good men.

[5-minute read]

I live in an Ottawa neighbourhood called Overbrook, having moved here from southern Ontario in ’02. (I don’t think we chose it because the great Wilt Chamberlain and other NBA players went to Philadelphia’s Overbrook High, but I can’t swear that had nothing to do with it. ) I’ve been a nutbar basketball coach since well before my athletic prime waned, a lover and teacher of “the city game” decades before I flew the coop on my little hometown. I’ve blown whistles in gyms all over Ottawa, from house leagues to its top-shelf club team to three area high schools. Still, though, I like wandering by the Overbrook Community Centre’s outdoor courts – among the best outdoor venues in the city, at least potentially. And there I was, minding my own business and in broad daylight, when suddenly I was swarmed by a group of youth, must’ve been a dozen of ‘em, and they obviously wanted something from me.

Headfake! It’s not what you might have thought. These were shy middle-schoolers, who had asked an older brother (I’ll call him “Izzy”), “Hey, who is that guy you were talking to?” Izzy and his older brother know me as an ol’ ball coach. We had shot the breeze a bit, and then I left him and his younger brother and the rest of the crew that he was coaching and encouraging in a pickup game. I was sporting a ball, gimpy ankles and a spare tire ‘round my middle. I haven’t really played much since we got back from China five years ago (hence the added girth; I actually got back into half-decent has-been shape on the outdoor courts of Dalian). I just wanted to get a few shots up on the one other basket with a net on it, and think about my neighbourhood.

Before long, with Izzy leading the way, the whole group came across the asphalt courts towards me. Izzy, ever polite, did most of the talking.

“These guys want you to train them. I told them you’re a coach.”

“Train?” I answered. “Are you sure?” I told them that a lot of boys think they want to train, but really they just want to play ball because they like it – and there’s nothing wrong with that! But here’s the thing. Kids have heard their NBA heroes talk about training. It *sounds* so cool, but in fact it takes sweat and patience and perseverance and attention. Were they really sure? Listen, I’ve had a lot of guys tell me they wanted to train, or that they were really grinding, but it either didn’t last or it was fake in the first place. And then I stopped with the cautions. What was the point in being Dickie Downer?

“Hey, let’s do it. I’ll be here at 10 am Saturday morning. Bring a ball if you have one.” It was May. It was awesome: most of the group showed up, along with a couple of other boys they knew, and I started teaching and drilling. Footwork. Shooting form. Passing techniques. A few of the simplest, most fundamental ways to attack a defender. The boys were keen, and they tried pretty hard. And here I was, right in my own back yard, getting to know and work with my neighbours instead of kids halfway across town that I never see from my bike. (And no, there were never any girls that showed an interest. For too many girls, especially in a multi-ethnic zone like ours, there’s still not much athletic encouragement or opportunity coming their way. It’s more of a suburban thing in Ottawa, and in most cities, I think.)

It wasn’t high-intensity stuff, but it was super-fun the first few times, when 10 or more boys were showing up, and new ones every week. And sure, I hadn’t been wrong in doubting how many of the kids were really into this “training” thing. I’ve been doing this for awhile, and even among high-schoolers, it’s only a minority of those who claim to be “ballers” that are actually willing to do the patience-stretching, repetitive work that builds ball-skills and crisp offensive footwork. (To say nothing of defensive fundamentals!) . Yes, the numbers dwindled during the first month of work, and as we got into afternoon sessions in the summer – 10 am in the summer holidays proved too early for nearly everybody – there were really only a half dozen that I might see, and half of them were later joiners to our ragtag roster. By August, I seldom had more than three, and often it was only “Li’l Al” that showed up. We went long on shooting fundies and got him hundreds of reps on those days. (Saw him the other day, and his stroke had fallen back into the twisted shoulder-throw that he’d developed as a small boy in need of extra juice to get the ball up there. Sigh. Change ain’t easy.) Sometimes it was just me, so an extra couple of hours opened up in my planning book for that day.

Man (and boys) at work. 4 baskets but yup, hockey boards! The project was funded by the NHL Ottawa Senators, so yay! Photo courtesy Sam Benoit.

You know what? It was great anyway. I don’t know what, if anything collective, will come from these humble efforts. These boys will attend a high school much closer to home than my current school, where I’m going into my fourth year and have a positive culture growing nicely. Would I want to start all over again at a new school? Well, I could bike to practice. And I already have some talented kids here that love the game and now know me a little. No more fighting cross-town traffic. There are lots of questions to answer, including whether I have the juice to start program-building all over again, not to mention whether I can walk away from cubs I’ve spent the last two years getting ready to play varsity ball for the Golden Bears. (It was tempting to leave after graduating all the high-end players last season.) Still, it felt good to better know more Overbrook youngsters – one boy and I even made a video together about his hoops progress — and a few times older players from my west-end high school team showed up, too. It helped my coaching life feel a tad more integrated, more geographically and socially coherent.

And no surprise! These are good boys, learning how to work, to pay attention, to support one another rather than establishing pecking orders (“that’s for chickens, boys!”), and to build some skill and grow their character by improving themselves at something they care about. When the sun began to set, and the pavement cooled, and it was another set of pickup games and casual shooting at the Overbrook courts, naturally a lot more boys came out to play. Why not? It’s good fun and deeply useful for them to have a decent set of courts where they can enjoy a game they love with their neighbours and friends. Beautiful! May there be more of this! But a coach likes to think he makes a difference.

I’m not delusional, though. Basketball was important in Overbrook long before the summer of 2019, and for most boys the pickup games on the asphalt are the best basketball experience they’ll ever have. My summer group and I haven’t transformed the neighbourhood. These boys and I can’t and won’t make that happen. But now a small group has learned some things about how to develop skills, not to mention their fitness, their social toolkit, maybe even the way they think about learning and life. That’s what the Ol’ Ball Coach eternally hopes, anyway! I get to smile at and greet more of the young people where I live, which benefits me as much as them. And if they’ve had a glimpse of how cool it is to work together, in community, on something that moves them, with people they have come to trust, well, YAY, US!

Comments (6)

  1. Maury Miloff

    Loved reading this. Great story. What is “grinding” though?

    • “Grinding” is jock-speak for working hard during the tough times. In hockey, a grinder is beloved for his work ethic and physical courage despite marginal skills. The term might come from “nose to the grindstone”, connoting effort, or also from “grinding your gears” — persevering when things don’t go smoothly.

  2. Margery Cartwright

    This I really enjoyed – good on all of you. Where do the balls come from? Stored, private ownership, community access somewhere??

    • Kids were encouraged to bring their own, though not all had one. I found a few used ones in Value Village, and I also had two sets of 4 balls smaller than the NBA or high school boys’ size, which was perfect for the “Li’l Al” types. Skill training works better when younger players have age-appropriate ball sizes and lowered rims; 2 of the 4 baskets at Overbrook are lower, which was useful in my work with these young’uns.

      • Margery Cartwright

        Yep – I might have been a star tennis player had I not had to use my eldest sister’s big-handled wood racket. I couldn’t get my 11-year-old, weak hand around it, let along hold it firmly enough to hit something. Of course, some kind of interested coaching would have helped, too. There was no kindly Coach Howden-type available who just liked to help kids enjoy being active. My memory is of carrying the racket around, finding an empty court and hitting balls into the net or out of the court, which involved a lot of running around but not a lot of athletic reward. I don’t think even one ball ever went over the net to my patient partner. But then, her luck and situation were about the same as mine.

        • Things are so much better for so many girls in so many places, but NOT ALL OF THEM. So much work to do there. And the irony is, as my bemused bride has frequently pointed out, that the girls
          are so often so much more pleasant to coach. My answer has usually been, “But the boys *need* it more…”

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