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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?

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Rebuttal: Face Painters, Spectators and Couch Potaters. (*Should* We All Be Witnesses?)

[4-minute read]

Two days ago, I wrote praising the ongoing excellence of a little-known sporting dynasty in Ottawa, Canada, my city. (They are called the Carleton Ravens. They have achieved an astoundingly effective process, and their results are unprecedented.) I also lamented how little Ottawa appeared to care about their less-than-mobbed return from the U SPORTS national championship in Halifax earlier this week. I’ve been thinking. I write in modest (and partial) rebuttal of Wednesday’s post.¹

¹ The great writer on education and culture, Neil Postman, wrote a book early in his career called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. A few years later, he replied to himself with Teaching as a Conserving Activity. He once wrote that even his book-length arguments could end, “On the other hand…”

Where the hell *is* everybody? I’ve asked at Ravens home games, at national championship finals, and last Monday, as I watched video of the Carleton crew descending an escalator in the Ottawa airport. I don’t mind being in the minority; heck, I have several areas of my life where I’m enthusiastic about things that aren’t exactly trending. (German films. Canadian literature. The St. Paul High Golden Bears. The Book of Certitude. I could go on.) Still, it wrankles, how little respect is given to the furious brilliance shining from a modest gymnasium in south Ottawa. But then, hold on a minute: why *should* we measure the worth of something by how many eyeballs are on it?

Why *should* we reflexively insist that if something is good, the rest of us should all WATCH? My old mentor/buddy Don loved to say, “I could watch somebody do anything, as long as they were the best in the world!” This is still an interesting idea to me, though it was not true in practice; the range of things he paid his quiet, careful attention to didn’t stray too far from baseball, Garth Brooks and basketball. But the point – really the foundation of the whole professional sports enterprise – is that when somebody is superb at what they do, the rest of us should siddown and *watch*. Well, at least if it’s a sport; not much of an audience for watching a brilliant mathematician at a blackboard, or an outstanding chemist in her lab.

Maybe this is not ideal, as fine a player as LBJ has been.

More possibly over-serious questions: Why *should* we “all be witnesses”, as the sky-high Nike billboards for LeBron James would have us do? Wouldn’t it be better to *emulate* excellence, to be inspired by it to DO OUR THING in the same spirit? This may come closer to the way that Dave Smart, the Carleton U coach, thinks about it. I doubt he fires pep talks at Carleton students, trying to get them and their cowbells and their painted faces out for Friday and Saturday night home games. He pays little attention to the crowd experience, and other than picking up one of his two young boys as soon as the game is over, doesn’t acknowledge the fans. I am convinced he would detest the grind of handshaking, radio shows and alumni-flattering that is essential at big-time American colleges. At Carleton, he coaches. Simple. But part of  Smart’s coaching has always been youth development. If you stumble into the Ravens Nest on a Sunday morning, you might see him helping out with a practice for 5-8 year-olds, his little guys among them. His legendary Guardsmen youth development team has morphed into the Ottawa Elite, a series of seriously coached age-level teams inspired more or less by his basic ideals: play against the best, defend, develop skills and next-level teamwork, and learn to how to work and compete. His Ravens regularly work with them, and these teams are far more important to Smart than how full the stands are for his games

So why should I care? Why am I writing laments, as I did Wednesday, for how few people are at games or going all rah-rah at the airport when they get back from Doing The Job They Went To Halifax To Do? Or as my effervescent kitchen-mate said this morning, eyes dancing with visions of trails and trees and the perfect match of wax and snow: “Why watch basketball when you could be out skiing?” (Ah, so that’s what it was: everybody was cross-country skiing or doing yoga or otherwise self-actualizing when the Ravens arrived at the Ottawa airport. EXCELLENT!) Do we really need more spectator-sports-obsessed, doughy-middled couch spuds getting virtual joy from watching while the select few get to Actually Do Stuff? Probably not. Still, it would be nice if folks paid more attention to greatness they could see and appreciate right up close – hey, and maybe use that as inspiration to help kids know something of that thrill of getting-better.

But on a day like today, to paraphrase late-life Leonard Cohen, I want it darker, so forgive me if I darken things up a little. We’ve all heard the grim news from New Zealand, which makes my knickers-twisting complaints about attendance at the local basketball barn seem a little silly today. In the wake of ANOTHER of those dreadful reports, this time of mosques targeted in Christchurch, where a “man” crucially starved of education and morality live-streamed his hateful assault on worshipping Muslims, yes, maybe this is a good day to say it. Don’t watch. DON’T be a spectator.

Don’t watch his twisted, narcissistic video, certainly. But maybe I can challenge my own thesis from Wednesday, and go so far as to say: Don’t watch anybody. Don’t be a spectator as life parades on by. Do good. Build a little something instead.

Ignoring Excellence: Sport At Its Best, Barely Noticed

[8-minute read]

They were coming down the escalator, the whole team and its coaches and support staff, and there must have been a few dozen friends and family members along for the ride, too. I was virtually there thanks to the randomness of the Twitterverse, watching video shot by somebody at the Ottawa airport (#YOW!) as the Carleton Ravens men’s basketball team returned home, victorious again, from the Canadian university championships. I kept waiting for the punchline, the birthday shout of “SURPRISE!!” Confetti, maybe? A brass band? Something.

Ravens at the Ottawa Airport. That’s Marcus with his back turned, Big Eddie left of the banner with a suitcase, gritty Mitch on the other side. (photo by YOW staff)

I was waiting for the welcome, but I wasn’t actually expecting one. I’ve seen this show before. I retweeted the video, added a snide comment – they must have edited out the adoring fans and their roars of appreciation! – but it would have been surprising (and delightful) if there had been a crowd there. After so many championships, such unremitting quality, most Ravens home games are nowhere near sold-out, even though it’s a modest size and every seat is close to the action. Those lunatic student sections we see on American TV? At most Ravens home games, there are fewer students in the crowd than there are cheerleaders. Large swathes of Ottawa residents get right giddy if the local pro hockey millionaires so much as sniff the playoffs; the Senators are routinely mediocre and often appear to be poorly run. But the Ravens? Ottawa is just not that into them.

This is surely a place I go and a thing I write to feel special, in a why doesn’t anybody else GET how GOOD this is? sort of way. I’m not completely alone. There are plenty of others who understand how astounding are the accomplishments of this under-appreciated athletic powerhouse. Even cable giant Sportsnet’s Tim Micallef – once a year, mind you – brings real enthusiasm and knowledge to his praise of U SPORTS¹ basketball in general, and the mighty Ravens in particular. The final games in the tournament had high production values to go along with the fine play. What’s more, back in 2014, the American sportswriter Jordan Ritter Conn obviously *got* it; Conn wrote a comprehensive feature for the lamented Grantland site, subtitled “If a team wins nine out of 11 national championships in Canada, does it make any noise? Meet the Carleton University Ravens.

¹ U SPORTS is the third different moniker for the national university sports body. When I tried out for varsity basketball (cut at *two* different schools, beat that!), it was the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union. The CIAU gave way to CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sports), but that acronym wasn’t bilingual, either, so U SPORTS is now the brand. I still stumble over what to even call this association I pay so much attention to.

At the time, the Ravens under coach Dave Smart were on the verge of matching one of those “unbeatable” sporting legacies: the immortal John Wooden and his string of ten national championships in twelve years at UCLA. They’ve left that hallowed mark far behind now. Last Sunday’s 34-point blitz of the Calgary Dinosaurs in the U SPORTS national final in Halifax marked a FOURTEENTH TITLE IN SEVENTEEN YEARS. The Ravens are always at Nationals, where only the top 8 teams in Canada qualify. In the three years where, major upset alert, Carleton did NOT win the title, they were edged out by good teams playing superb games. But get this: in those 17 years, when the Ravens get to the championship game, they are 14-0. Fourteen times they’ve reached the highest rung along with one other team, and never lost. This can’t be true, but it is.

No, THIS way! Coach Smart. (Getty Images)

More preposterous? The 34-point smackdown of the Dinos this year doesn’t actually stand out that much. The Dave Smart Domination of the Canadian university basketball scene started in 2003, but of the first six championship games, five were decided by six points or fewer. Nearly all Carleton’s players were from Eastern Ontario, many of them developed as kids by Smart himself in his club teams. (Fun fact: four of his nephews played, starred, during his first decade as a coach. “He’ll run out of nephews eventually,” the cynics said. He did, but that didn’t matter.) They did not have overwhelming talent. Since then, though, as the Ravens began to attract players from across Canada, there have been some shocking feats of season-ending domination. 20-point wins in ’11 and ’12 were followed by a 50-point shellacking of Lakehead in 2013 and 2015’s crushing of UOttawa, again more than doubling the score on their crosstown rivals. A 22-point victory over Calgary the following year foreshadowed last Sunday’s extinction of the Dinos.

How does this happen?

He wouldn’t like this answer, but it’s obvious: it’s all Smart. (He credits players who buy in, sustain the expectations from year to year, and allow him to coach them feverishly.) For his career, he’s won well over NINETY PERCENT of league and playoff games. He is a basketball savant, and sees the game with a detail and precision that yours truly (a pretty confident hoops coach) can barely conceive of. He has incredible energy and focus, relentlessly challenging his players to be perfect and then to be better. (I don’t know how he sleeps. Maybe he doesn’t, at least at Nationals.) He is a master motivator. He was an effective recruiter who promised nothing but year-round effort and a coach’s chronic dissatisfaction – well, that plus improvement, success and brotherhood – until his reputation as a teacher of the game and his litany of WINNING did a lot of his recruiting for him. He is notably hard to play for. (I’ll never forget him berating fifth-year star Phil Scrubb for an error with under 2 minutes left, up by, oh, *48* or so, in the 2015 UOttawa massacre. He relentlessly chases perfection. I also remember Scrubb looking right at him, nodding understanding, as his players uniformly do. They all accept, even welcome, his urgent, desperate entreaties to do it right.) His teams practise with a furious intensity that somehow never ends in fisticuffs, and endure an internal level of competition that: A) makes game pressure pretty familiar, and B) somehow produces not antagonism but an amazing level of team cohesion, mutual respect and collective accountability. The Ravens rank with the greatest examples of TEAM play, the strongest rebuttal to the me first mentality, that I’ve ever seen or even heard of. They are the ultimate in unselfishness.

Which brings me to Marcus Anderson.

Anderson is a defensive menace. He’s in his fourth year with Smart, an internationally respected defensive guru. (Ever heard the trope “Defence Wins Championships”? The Ravens have. And they do.) Marcus doesn’t score much, though he can get hot from three-point distance, but he has been guarding the Ravens’ best offensive opponent for three seasons now. For the last two, he’s been selected as U SPORTS Defensive Player of the Year. Naturally, last Sunday, he drew the assignment of guarding Calgary’s do-everything star, Mambi Diawara. (What a great name!) He lured Diawara into an early offensive charge, but also got caught for two 1st-quarter fouls himself, and headed for the bench. His main replacement, a talented transfer named Isaiah Osborne, was clicking offensively and did a more-than-adequate job on Diawara. The team was humming, and unless I’m mistaken, Anderson never got back in the game. He played only six minutes, far below his usual contribution. And yet: there he was, standing at the bench, hollering instruction and encouragement to his mates on the floor. There he wasn’t, pouting or feeling sorry for himself over not contributing more in the Big Game. In the post-game huddle, after the bouncing and yelling and water-pouring exuberance of the Ravens’ celebration, there was Marcus, addressing the team. I don’t know what he said, but I know what his face communicated: I love you guys, we did it, all of us, and every bit of trial and sweat we’ve gone through is worth the world to me. Let’s keep going!

How long can this sort of unprecedented athletic dominance continue? Can the Ravens keep this up?

Short answer: YES. Marcus is back. So are tournament all-stars Munis Tutu and first-team All-Canadian Eddie Ekiyor. So are Yasiin Joseph and TJ Lall, the other starters. The Ravens lose the Mighty Mitches, hard-grinding forwards Wood and Jackson, and role-playing guard Troy Reid-Knight.

(A quick word on Mitch Wood. His whole season was a little like Marcus Anderson’s game. A far-undersized power forward at 6’4”, Wood is one of the toughest men you’ll ever see on a basketball court, and had been a sometime-starter in his previous four years. But with the ascent of Ekiyor as a dominant inside player, and with Smart having gone to a more guard-oriented lineup because of the logjam of talent there, Wood’s role was reduced this year, at least when it came to playing time. Didn’t matter: he was never anything other than a high-effort lynchpin for this team, and a quietly rugged role model. I loved a stretch during the second half of his last university game, when if the Calgary men had any glimpses of hope, Wood snuffed them out with a series of hustle plays in which he nabbed at least four of his game-high 5 offensive rebounds. These are relentless-effort, unyielding-determination plays that sap an opponent’s will, and which had Wood’s teammates standing and roaring their appreciation. They were thrilled by his career-ending contributions, the essence of what makes for a brilliant team culture. These Ravens have that by the truckload.)

Everybody but Troy and the Mitches is back. There is star power in the freshman and sophomore classes that most haven’t really seen yet, since it’s very tough to defend and rebound with the precision and fury that Smart demands.² There were five talented young men who sat out every game this season as redshirts, learning to practise like a Raven does, and aiming to score a game uniform next year. (One of them was on Canada’s U-18 team last summer, for crying out loud.) It’s awful news for the rest of the men’s basketball programs in Canada, and for the NCAA teams that come north to get spanked by the Ravens next summer (as, famously, the Duke Blue Devils refused to schedule Carleton on their Canadian hype-fest last summer; can’t let a defeat gum up the works of an ESPN DukeFest!). Next year’s Carleton Ravens could be A LOT BETTER than this year’s 37-1 championship squad.

² My favourite Raven is Yasiin Joseph, a local Ottawa high school star that I coached a little bit. He played barely at all in his first two seasons as a Raven, and politely cut me off one time when he knew I was about to give him the “hang in there, buddy” speech. “Hey, don’t worry about me. This is awesome. I’m learning so much.” He earned a starting job in his third year after a brilliant performance in leading a comeback win against Alabama and Collin Sexton in the summer of ’17, and was the leading scorer in Sunday’s final. Great hands, great heart.

And still Ottawa yawns. And most Canadian sports fans barely notice, let alone understand the incredible talent, effort and culture-creation that the Carleton Ravens basketball program³ represents. The good news is that I can still easily get last-minute tickets for games, and can take my high school players at great prices – if only I could convince them that it’s worth their time.

Short trip, I know, but it drives me NUTS. March Madness, indeed!

³ AND THERE’S MORE: I’ve written about the Ravens frequently over the years, most recently HERE and HERE and HERE. You KNOW you want to deeper…

 

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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