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O Coach, Coach, wherefore art thou Coaching?

[5-minute read]

It’s hoopin’ time again. *swallows nervously, drums his fingers on the desk*

Can you hear the whistle blowing? I am blowing the whistle. On coaching. Mine.

I can’t just walk away, and I don’t want to, and I don’t think I necessarily ought to want to, but the apparently never-ending intra-cranial debate continues. And the scoreboard says WHAT? I don’t know why I should feel that I’m losing this contest, since I’m playing myself. But it’s a battle of divided wits, and there is always the fear of loss. Such is the mind of a man who wants Sudden Victory, in terms even his childhood self could understand. Confetti. Trophies. Hugs from my brothers, kisses from my wife. A microphone in my face; it wants to know how it feels for me to be Such A Champion. Guess what?

I still want to win.

So yes, that’s part of it. It’s probably not the most stone-headed story I tell myself about why I want to coach basketball, still and again and for who knows how long. There are other reasons, compulsions, purposes and afflictions. Some of them aren’t so savoury, while others leave a mainly good taste in my mouth. But in the pursuit of the recently proverbial (and ungrammatically concise) “Know Your Why”, let me start off being truthful, and hang the embarrassment:

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Women and Girls First

She's amazing, but in this post she's the "other Simone".

She’s amazing, but in this post she’s the “other Simone”.

                            [4-minute read]

It had been All About the Women up ‘til Sunday night.

And that’s mostly fine by me, lover of women that I am and aspire to be.

What about the guys?

Yessir, I think about that all the time, and not just when it comes to the Olympics and Canada’s medal count. For only one of hundreds of examples: Boys Adrift is a good book, and its subtitle (“The Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men” is part of it), though long, crystallized my worry and confirmed my observations. There are others like it, and plenty of other worry-warts besides me. However, this space has been crowded with masculine worries and wonderings and Superhero Action Calls to Young Men, fragile shouts that are no doubt still echoing down the cold, dark emptiness of deep space.

I hope Mr. Phelps can leave swimming and spotlights this time, but I will worry about his transition. This post is not about him, either.

I hope Mr. Phelps can leave swimming and spotlights this time, but I will worry about his transition. This post is not about him, either.

Yes, the Rio Olympics. That’s where we’re headed.

I am no longer as avid about matters Olympian as I had been for most of my life, but I still pay attention. I still get jolts of home-boy joy when a Canadian is two one hundredths of a second faster than a guy from another country and therefore wins the title of World’s Third-Fastest Human. (Yay, Andre!) There’s an even purer, less patriotic delight in watching Usain Bolt surge into that long-limbed, powerfully fluid overdrive for SprintGoldSeven, or that incredibly smooth stride of the South African Wayde van Niekerk as he ran away from TWO Olympic 400-metre champions. That was astounding, and world records usually are. (And since van Niekerk is slender, and maybe since he’s coached by a white-haired, Afrikaans-speaking white granny, there’s not even a whisper of a suggestion of a muted accusation of him being a drug cheat. Hoping his cleanliness is as real as his jaw-dropping talent and training.)

But I’m a Canuck. The other moment of televisual awe, for me, came in the second half of the women’s 100-metre freestyle swim.

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Shocking. Routine.

[A day late and a 1000 words short, so it’s barely a 4-minute read; you can finish it in one Olympic sell-you-stuff competition, but there are HOT LINKS to extend the pleasure!]   
Guess they were. Shouldn't have been.

Guess they were. Shouldn’t have been.

And yes, you’re safe. This is NOT more hand-wringing about American gun violence. It’s not even about my bride’s violent dismay at a quick tour of the TV landscape last night, though her horror at what passes for normalcy was real enough. (Our brief fling with hotel television – mainly Olympic coverage – was a side benefit of our one-night stand anniversary getaway.) This was in another sporting arena, a modest one and far from Rio, where a team known as the Shockers¹ were in for a surprise.

¹And I do know, the Wichita State team name is not about horror movie results or bad interactions with electricity. It’s a Kansas thing. It’s a wheat thing.

No shock for me, though, especially once I knew that Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker from last year’s NCAA Tournament “Sweet 16” team had indeed completed their eligibility² at Wichita State, a strong fixture in recent bouts of March Madness. Surely, too, Coach Gregg Marshall was better prepared than he let on in a pre-trip press conference in Wichita, before heading off to Canada for a four-game pre-season tour. He must have known about the reputation of Ottawa’s Carleton University Ravens, not only their twelve Canadian Interuniversity Sport titles in fourteen years, but their tendency to beat NCAA teams when they come north.

²I wish I could more confidently write “graduated” rather than “completed their [athletic] eligibility”.

The Shockers’ first game was in Montreal, and they dismantled the UQAM Citadins – ostensibly a peer to the Ravens, a CIS squad competing for national honours – 54-18 in the first half on the way to a 50-point win. But surely they’d heard about Wisconsin or Memphis or Indiana (and many others) coming into Ottawa and losing in prior summer junkets by top-drawer Division 1 teams? Of course they had. They weren’t driving blind, but it didn’t matter a bit. As my buddy Seb grinned as the game got out of hand, “I always like to look at the bench of the D1 teams as it sinks in what’s happening to them. Getting rocked by Canadians?” Meanwhile, a less-heralded Stetson University (Fla.) Hatters team had been on the verge of being blown out by the Ravens the previous Friday evening, but managed to keep the score respectable, losing by 9.

Beating the Americans is actually fairly routine for the Ravens. They’re used to this WINNING thing – but don’t tell me those non-scholarship lads don’t take sky-high pleasure in schooling the Americans at the game they’ve dominated for so long. (They do get financial aid, many of them, but it’s no “full-ride” athletic scholarship. And yes, that’s an oxymoron, but nobody notices anymore.) And longtime readers of this site will know that I’ve written this story before. Most recently, the twin killings of Josh Pastner’s Memphis Tigers two summers ago made me wonder. Incredible. I watched it. You should read this and then this – they show how the systematic dismantling of a bigger, more “athletic” team by a bunch of Canucks was done. They also tell most of the story, if I do say so myself, about CU’s rising dominance of incoming NCAA teams.

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Really, Kevin? Can’t Beat ‘Em?

(twelve-minute read)
One of the good guys, from what I can tell. Wearing the dark hat (and a bullseye) now: Kevin Durant.

One of the good guys, from what I can tell. Wearing the dark hat (and a bullseye) now: Kevin Durant.

Young sir, may I call you Kevin?

I’m sure They have been calling him lots worse, though I’m not looking under bridges to check. I’m guessing “traitor” and “chickenshit” and “turncoat” and “ungrateful bastard” are making the more printable lists. “Benedict Arnold” might be favoured by those who know a little American history.

So: Basketball Star Kevin Durant Signs Free-Agent Contract With Golden State Warriors. There’s your lede, not going to bury it. This being July 5th, it’s no longer news in the antic spin-dry cycle of what-have-you-hot-taken-from-me-lately entertainment/journalism. But to me it’s still novel, a bit shuddery and uncomfortable, sort of bewildering yet all-too-familiar, a cause of naive dismay and even a spur to misplaced and minor outrage. Hey, wanna come along? 

This is literally unmediated. I haven’t had the chance to filter my jangled thoughts through what must have been a torrential downpour in the Twitterverse sports teacup, a tempest in the chatrooms and sports blogs of the world. (At least in North America, this must have outdone Iceland over England by far, and may have even outstripped Trump and cute animals for an Internet spell.) I spent the very best part of yesterday hanging around in my corner of Ottawa with some of the finest young people you’d ever want to know, and many of them barely know who Kevin Durant is. The day was about selfless service. Voluntarism. Youth leadership by the young. (Hence, I wasn’t much more than a bystander, but an inspired and committed one.) Moral purpose. Community. Educational vision. Societal transformation. All that grassroots jazz. (And walking. Lots of walking.) There was no time for Twitter.

But some of the youngsters do know KD, and their phones are smarter than mine is. As we hunted for idealists in Overbrook on the fourth of July,

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Coaching, Hoops, and Young Men: A Tale of Two Teams

If you’re going to be the best, you have to play the best.

Yeah, coaches like to say that. Yup, I’ve used it myself, trying to convince basketball players in several Ontario high schools that getting hammered builds character, that a 40-point loss is an exercise in improvement. (And, on the other side of the scoring table, that 40-point wins mean nothing, most of the time.) “With fire we test the gold…”¹ is a thing I believe, but after last night’s drubbing, I have to wonder if there’s enough gold in them thar hills. I’m a heckuva good digger, but I don’t always stick my spade in the most promising ground. It’s deja vu all over again. (Thanks, Yogi.)

¹ From The Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah. (And how ’bout them references? A Persian Prophet in one line, a great ballplayer and language-mangler in the next!)

Linus doesn't play for Lisgar, but I might have to give him a long look...

Linus couldn’t make my OYBA team, but he’d get a long look at Lisgar…

It’s a tale of two teams, both of them mine. My young friend and assistant coach Seb and I picked a group of ninth-graders from 10 high schools across my Canadian city in August, the Under-15 squad representing the Ottawa Youth Basketball Academy (OYBA). Its teams are known as (and strive to be) the Ottawa Elite. It’s a name I don’t love, with all its potential suggestions of class privilege and superiority, but I repeatedly tell those lads that “elite” is more of a high-expectation mindset than a description of what we are. The young men are learning to work hard, and though I clearly chose several players based as much on potential as on present skill — “up-side” being the jock label of the moment — they’re also pretty good.

They will have to be: these boys will be playing the best. Our main competitions will take place in Toronto, where some of the world’s finest youth basketball development is taking place. (You may have heard of Andrew Wiggins. Tristan Thompson. Cory Joseph. The list of NBA players from the GTA gets longer.) Once high school season is over in February, my attention will turn more completely to these ambitious young dudes; in the fall, we trained twice or three times per week and got a few exhibitions played, but with many of them playing demanding school schedules, now we work out once a week. I push them hard, and many of them are looking for nothing other than that. That makes coaching fun.

My other team is a junior varsity squad at one of Ottawa’s outstanding academic schools. (Spoiler alert: it’s a whole different ballgame…)

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SIV Week: Devils Rule in the NCAA Roundball Arena

As mentioned over in At First Glance on Monday — I know, it says ‘April 11’ but trust me, that post leads off with several hundred outstanding words of April-fresh commentary — this is “Stubbornness is Virtue” week. That SIVW declaration gave me a timely little excuse to meditate about my mother, and the stubbornness I inherited. SIV Week is mainly dedicated to finishing and posting the incomplete essays that plague my nights, and to get old biz out of my head. Like, say, the NCAA Final Four, the result of a March Madness that ends in early April and must be written about (Rule 37.3, clauses b-e, of the Howdy Index) before May. It’s April 30, yo.

Here are the hardcourt meditations of a man too far away, for five years, to pay much televisual attention to American college basketball, and then was too immersed, upon his return to Canada, in his club and high school coaching gigs (and too resolutely cheap and determinedly active and frantically multi-interested to pay for access to spectator sports television) to watch anything the NCAA had to offer unless it was Indiana or Memphis in an Ottawa gym in August, BUT whom, when he finally started watching the Elite 8 and the Final 4, got SO stubborn that he felt he HAD to write about it even when it was one week two three weeks past…

I’m thinking about basketball an awful lot. It’s the off-season, in some ways my favourite part of the year, because next year’s team not only hasn’t lost yet but also has a potential that is unknown and therefore exciting, and players who can grow and improve so much by next November. Yes. And I do love teaching kids to play, the individual skills of the game, ways to understand sport, whereas in season there are always the team needs and, of course, the whole winning anlosing dynamic. (Reader Alert: can you smell an excuse coming?) It was, in small measure, because of basketball and off-season club commitments that I haven’t gotten around to sharing my desperately awaited insights on what was a strong and storied Final Four this year. (Though mostly, it was because of disorder, distraction and authorial dismay. I got thoroughly dissed.)

[I wrote about the “fatal four” — Elite 8 losing teams — just down below. Sorry — can’t hyperlink right now.]

Sat., April 4. (Yeeeessshh.) Wendy & Bernie’s living room. For game one of the Saturday Night Special doubleheader, I did get my utterly under-keen 15-year-old – the one I’m trying not to plan my grand off-season vision and workout schedule around – to sit down and watch Duke-Michigan State. He knew nothing of either team, but liked the underdog Spartans, maybe because of some of the pastings our high school team took in tournaments we weren’t quite ready for.

The big names. Which one of these will not make the NBA?

The big names. Kaminsky, Trice, Okafor, Towns. Which one of these will not make NBA millions?

People loved this edition of the Final Four partly because of the high-profile coaches there – Kentucky’s Calipari, Duke’s Krzyzewski (didn’t even check, that’s how well I can spell!), Bo (the Badger) Ryan, and MSU’s Tom Izzo – three future Hall of Famers and one (Coach K) already bronzed. TV also sold the perfect, please-everybody configuration: number one-seeds in profusion meant a high quality of teams and athletes, and one lower seed was there to carry all the hopes for those who like the story of The Little (Multimillion Dollar, BigShoe-Funded) College Team That Could.

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NCAA Hoops Lookback: The Fatal Four

Due to, in no particular order, the following factors –

  • a super-concentrated acidic splash by John Oliver, indicting and ridiculing the entire NCAA basketball enterprise (can’t hyperlink right now, but it’s here: http://www.newsmax.com/TheWire/john-oliver-ncaa-rant-players/2015/03/18/id/630823/ ),
  • my own manic attention to the CIS version of March Madness, spent watching the games of the (Ontario University Athletics) Wilson Cup and the following week’s Final 8 in Toronto (and a blizzard of hoops-related words that can be accessed just down there),
  • we don’t have a television hook-up, and apparently one of Howdy’s Current Foundational Principles (HCFP) is the refusal to pay for live-streaming of games on my laptop,
  • I don’t have many basketball friends,
  • increasing miles on the spectator-sport odometer, games-related grumpiness, impatience with commercials, crankiness over announcers’ clichés, and
  • (possibly?) growing good sense –

I didn’t watch any of the opening weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. (HCFP No. 2: the “play-in games” earlier in the week to decide the last four Cinderellas invited to the Big Dance of 64 do not count. Round 1 of the tournament starts Thursday, not Tuesday. Lines must be drawn. <cough> Ahem. Right. It’s not climate-change denial or global terrorism, but from tiny seeds does a mighty apocalypse grow.)

(None of which explains why I’m writing about it so late. I plead lethargy, sloth, intermittent apathy and mild existential angst. And books. I was tired of writing there for a bit — well, my own, anyway. Glad that’s all over now!)

Okay, and since truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues, and I do aspire to virtuosity of some kind or another, I clarify: I did invite myself to Bernie and Wendy’s living room for the second Gonzaga game in the opening weekend, in case they failed again to make it to the Sweet 16. The Zags did, though CBS had switched to Oklahoma/Dayton, which had very little interest for me even though Dyshawn Pierre is an Ontario kid I liked reading about from China last March, during the Flyers’ stirring run ascent to the Sweet 16, to national jock consciousness and, lest we forget, to millions of new dollars flowing to a previously obscure Ohio school. (Well, obscure from an athletic point of view, that is. To me. I know nothing of its standing in biomedical research or the teaching of the humanities.  And who would care about THAT?)

Yes, and I waited ‘til the actual weekend of the second weekend — also known as The Elite Eight — jimmied the rear door at Wendy and Bernie’s (twice), and lingered like an especially blue-cheesy smell in their otherwise pleasant back kitchen. Here’s what I saw:

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CIS/CSI Toronto: The Birds! (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)

This is a Crime Scene Investigation. Forensics experts are still dusting for box score prints, still freeze-framing the game tape for clues about how the championship match of the Canadian Interuniversity Sports men’s basketball championship could have gone so right for the Ravens, so wrong for the Gee-Gees. Five minutes into the game, it looked like Alfred Hitchcock was directing Carleton’s birds. It looked bad for Ottawa’s horses, in a dance marathon where they suddenly didn’t know the steps, couldn’t endure the exhausting pace, and had to keep dancing long after they felt dead. Five minutes into the third quarter, any doubts were dispelled. CSI Howdy’s first report was here, then came some sort of consolation, the Final Four, and then this Apparently Inevitable Denouement:

Well, that didn’t even make sense.

Even my sports/TV/Movie mashup title is more logical than a result that sees the Ottawa Gee-Gees, the consensus No. 2 team in the country — and which claimed the top ranking for a time after defeating the Carleton Ravens in January — being so thoroughly whipped. 93-46. Ninety-three to forty-six. 46?! UOttawa is the highest scoring team in the country, with one of the nation’s top scorers in “Johnny Basketball” Berhanemeskel and a collection of other gunners.

That's the venerable Mr. McGee, front and centre, with a flock of happy Ravens behind.

That’s the venerable Mr. McGee, front and centre, with a flock of happy Ravens behind. Smart is second-row left, though he often flees the flashbulbs. (photo by Chris Roussakis, GoRavens.ca)

It was an AWESOME performance, a great and dynastic team playing near-perfect basketball for extended periods. It was surgical, clinical, a beating that was almost worse because there was no taunting or showboating or visible glee. The Ravens don’t bother with distractions like that. They’re All Business. This isn’t personal, Ottawa. We’re just doing our jobs. We’ve never seen anything like this. Well, hmm, come to think, except when Carleton did almost exactly the same thing to the Lakehead Thunderwolves in the 2013 final, where they won by 50. “But this wasn’t Lakehead!” exclaimed a wide-eyed basketball man and Ravens admirer. “Them being in the finals was a bit of a fluke, but Ottawa is really good!

Not Sunday. The Gee-Gees were devastated. I couldn’t get the lost look on fifth-year post Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue’s face out of my mind; Johnny B wore a haunting mask of stunned sorrow. (And they had to stand there for soooooo long! Celebration, a zillion photos, interviews, all this before the formal announcements of the Players of the Game, the tournament MVP and All-Stars, before the GGs bowed their heads to receive a silver medal that they won’t appreciate for years, and before they watched the Carleton Ravens, for the second straight year, accept the gold that they seem to win so routinely now. 11 W.P. McGee trophies in 13 years constitutes a habit, and for the rest of the Canadian university basketball hopefuls, it’s become an utterly intimidating one. Don’t forget, they lost narrowly in the national semis in those other two years! Meanwhile, UOttawa has never won gold. And they had to stand at least 15 minutes and watch Those Guys.) They stood there SO LONG.

It’s too much to ask. (Maybe, too, it’s too much to ask of you to keep reading. This thing hits nearly 3000 words — also more photos to come! — but count me fascinated. And you? )

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The Year of the Ram: Nearly, in Toronto

Here I continue in my micro-odyssey: to see all 11 games at the CIS Final 8 men’s basketball championships, to understand anything and everything about them, and to write it all up without losing subscribers or being fined by the Interwebs. (I’ve gotta be getting close to being long overdue. As opposed to just, um, sorta like, ya know, betterlatethanneverrightamIrightImsureImright. You can find Take One and Take Two with the easiest of clicks.

Listen, you may not know yet what happened in the Northern Territories of Hoopdom yesterday. The grand old W.P. McGee Trophy, first awarded in 1963 for the championship of Canadian university men’s basketball, was cradled and pumped toward the grey ceiling of the old Maple Leaf Gardens yesterday at about 5:30 pm. It was an amazing title game, and not incidentally the seasonal rubber match between a pair of Canadian hoops juggernauts and crosstown rivals: the Carleton Ravens and the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

Home of the Rams (and the ghost of Tim Horton).

Home of the Rams (and the ghost of Tim Horton).

However, I know you don’t want to read about that. Not yet, because you haven’t yet read JH.com’s take on Saturday night’s semifinals at the Mattamy Centre. (Am I right? I’m sure I’m right.) So I’ll get to that right quick, but yesterday’s heavyweight hoops slugfest? Sheesh, it was unbelievable, I mean, nobody saw it coming, not really, not like that, but I won’t spoil it for you. (Good thing that there isn’t some mechanism for quickly finding out facts on any given event or idea! Gosh, then you’d have your CIS Final 8 information out of sequence, the context and appreciation of the tournament’s Large Vista would be lost, and so would you be. Dear reader, I won’t stand or sit for it!) Oh, don’t worry, I WILL get to that stunning game – still reeling, I am, to think that they could have won over a team that many considered the favourite for a big chunk of the 2014-15 season, and holy cow! With such a devastating, heart-wrenching conclusion! But first I want to think and write about Saturday night, since: a) I wrote lots of semi-comprehensible notes, and b) the semifinals featured some of the maddest college hoop March-ing you’d ever want to see, and c) because Sir Henk of the Southlands has asked that it be so. (So has King Karl. There may be others. You may be among them. So here!)

The Raptor was in the House That Conn Smythe Built

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If It’s Any Consolation – And It Likely Wasn’t

I’m at the CIS Final 8, the men’s basketball championships. My opening round account, in living black and white, is here, if you want to catch up. (I want to catch up.) The semifinals last night were great, but I’ve stubbornly insisted on writing up the consolation round first. And the title match is coming in 42 minutes and 47 seconds, so let’s get this reading party started!

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Was Anybody Consoled?

As an obsessive consumer of all things Final 8 this weekend in Toronto, I wonder: if they held “consolation” games for first-round tournament losers, and no one was consoled by the experience, did anybody come? The simple answer is ‘no’, since the Mattamy Centre at Ryerson was an echoing bowl containing mostly lacklustre games, a small group of steadfastly cheerful parents, smiled-out volunteers, pouting coaches and whoever the rest of us, maybe 100 not-so-strong, were. As always, the longer answer is more interesting. Why does this tournament have a consolation round?

We usually console after death, or at least some notable loss, and I suppose young athletes with a dream of trophy-hoisting qualify for the latter. The word comes from the Latin consolari, “to offer solace, encourage, comfort, cheer”. If there was comfort, it was chilly; if there was cheer, it was certainly muted, especially for Dalhousie and Bishop’s universities, who got to add a second insulting ‘L’ to their injuries in losing close games to Victoria and Ottawa, respectively. I’m sure, too, that it felt better than a kick in the head for the universities of Saskatchewan and Windsor to win (the Big W) that second day, but Windsor’s coach, Chris Oliver in particular seemed especially uninterested. Of course, the competitive juices kick in for the players, and the second halves of these games are routinely more energetic than the first. That was a slight consolation to my weary eyes.

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