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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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September FIRST. What’s It To You?

Top o’ the evenin’, friends. (All slip and slope from here.)

Here were the many bits of sparkle and significance of an apparently random Tuesday in the life of a meaning-masher (me), trying to understand where one slightly eccentric but on the whole rather typical guy (also me) was coming from.

(NOTE: I am aware of autumnal equinoxes and Officially Falls, but summer was over and I heard the school bells ring. September First is a Time of Change.)

Once a teacher, always one, and always for me has the first of September been a wistful but galvanizing passage. The anxiety dreams were, and are still, in full swing. (Can I still do this? Even if I don’t actually do it anymore? Luckily, performance worries are easily transferrable.) It was, once again, time to get ready.

September 1 marked Cycle 39, Phase IV, Action Plan 13(b) of my eternal Get Organized! campaign. Those shelves? Downstairs. Clear that desk. These books go here and there. (Some may even be released into the wild.) Several priorities are in the shop for rearrangement. So much STUFF. And what do I do with cassette tapes of radio recordings and The Talking Heads? A coil-bound series of musty journals? My files from a teaching career that shows hopeful signs of being defunct? Major conundrums. Serious biz, no doubt, but I waded in and felt enlivened and resolute (with a hot ‘n’ sour side of rueful fatalism).

Speaking of fate and rue: 9-1 was mumblety-seven years and a few odd days past a coulda shoulda wouldabin wedding anniversary, would’ve been a quietly joyful reconnaissance of things past if the lights hadn’t gone out that dreadful year. Instead: “Yup. That happened. We started off so well, I thought.”

On the other hand,

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Where’s We At Then, Buddy? JH.com Wonders!

It’s not an anniversary, but it’s close. About mid-July 2014 my wife and son and I made our summer trip back to Canada from China, but for the first time in five years we were coming to stay. So. <Cleansing breath.> Alrighty, then. We’ve been back nearly a year. <Another breath, deeper. Shakes the tension out of his hands, drama-class style.> We’re looking at each other and thinking, This is where we are. How’re we doing? What’s up with you/me/him? Are we who we thought we were? And so on.

I study. I teach, coach, plan. Dishes, floors and laundry loads get done. The garden is weeded and I’d better pick more lettuce and funkygreens. (Note to co-habitants: belly up to the salad bar, hombres!) I am reading about: boys and young men and what might be holding them back; James Baldwin; the NBA draft and free agency; a wonderfully eccentric view of the Bible; Reading Lolita in Tehran. I’m not reading much fiction, again, but Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Atwood’s Maddadam are shouting at me.

I don’t write much. I’m borrowing a concept from The Year of the Flood, the second in Margaret Atwood’s vivid futureDoom trilogy. There, in a “God’s Gardeners” community, people who are lethargic, dispirited, depressed or otherwise dysfunctional are said to be in a “fallow” state, as fields are left uncultivated by wise farmers so that the soil might not be depleted. June was a fallow field for my writing, and after about mid-month I accepted that. It gave my days-ends greater contentment, which is almost always a good thing. I wrote this, however tentative and diffident it is as a spasm of seed-planting, just so that you and I know where we are. (Hello!)

Before I abandoned my writing desk, I was writing feelingly and hard (not sure how well; haven’t gone back to look), striving to better know and appreciate seven prisoners of exquisite conscience. These “friends” of the oppressed Iranian Baha’i community, a group of leaders who tried to encourage their fellow believers once all their institutions and most of their rights had been removed, are now well into the eighth year of their incredible sentences. (Maybe I went fallow then because of futility — daily, tapping my uncalloused fingers against prison walls in a strange and distant country. Or I just got lazy; as a matter of principle, I don’t believe in futility, though I practise it with astonishing persistence.) Maybe you would like to read about the “Yaran”. My personal (possibly meandering) responses to their captivity helped them become more real to me.

It’s time for a quick update, reminders, and some sense of where you are, electronically speaking:

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SIV: Germanwings, High School, and Islands

Yes, and you may have heard of Stubbornness Is Virtue (SIV) week, self-declared and self-extended, in which I have granted myself executive authority to Get Stuff Done, no matter how ‘last month’ it might be. This week, we have heard more from the investigation of the Germanwings air disaster, more on the sordid rehearsal that CopilotBoy did for his all-too-sadly-inclusive march into oblivion. I wrote, quite bitterly, about this unnameable coward earlier, but here was my first (pre-empted) reaction, now finally finished — rather like my lengthy high school career.

I was in high school for a LONG time.

It was five years, at first, back in the era of Ontario’s Grade Thirteen. Five years of education and some factory/retail time later, I did some teacher prep-time in a few southern Ontario elementary schools, and then resumed what seemed to be the endless walk down the halls of eternal high school. I was a full-time Creature in my 20s, and was still barking and grinning, cajoling and joking and explaining and teaming my ever-lovin’ head off ‘til I was deep into my forties.

Then, in China, I taught university students, but it didn’t feel much different. (The kids, so sheltered by the abrasive cocoon of high-pressure study – and so charming in their child-like forays into English – seemed younger than European and North American kids. Less experienced. Less jaded. The freshmen inevitably reminded me of ninth-graders, the girls beginning to dress for the male gaze, the boys pretending not to notice.) And even now, having retreated from that consuming, exhausting gig, I hang with high-schoolers all the time. Two of ‘em live with me, and I chase many more of them around gyms, with a whistle and incessant roundball counsel. (It’s no way to make a living, but I feel lively when I’m doing it.)

There weren't enough candles in the world to brighten that day. (photo from rt.com)

There weren’t enough candles in the world to brighten that day. (photo from rt.com)

High school is where I live, still, with much of my heart. No surprise, then, that when the Germanwings airliner went down, and my morning dose of Bad News at Home and Abroad muttered that “…eighteen of the dead are from one German high school”, my heart ached more than usual. The last time I felt this way – like a bombing near-miss, where I’m assaulted by the carnage but haven’t a scratch myself – was the bit-by-bit unfolding to me of the costs of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, especially in the lives of children buried in shoddily built schools.

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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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Getting Your Howdy On: SIV Week Is Here

It’s my mother’s birthday. Were she still shuffling, flat-footed and bunion-aching, along this mortal coil of frayed and ravelled rope, she would be turning 95 today. She would be steamed. I’m so angry I could spit! she used to mutter when one of us, not always me, would race heedlessly past the wide but certainly finite fields of her patience. She loved life, doted on her family and especially those teeming crowds of grandchildren gathered around every Howden turkey. She’s a woman who suffered, and yet got pretty much what she had hoped for in life. In her last months, though, she’d had enough, and was quite-content-thank-you to be DONE with sleeping and waking and eating and all these things. One day in a hospital bed, she awoke, looked around with confusion and (at least the way I read it) growing dismay, and said, “Am I still here?”

Today is Enid Day. She died in 2006. (I remembered her, in one of my favourite and least-saleable pieces in JHdotCOM history, here: http://jameshowden.com/2006/11/enid-mary-elizabeth-howden/ . Sorry, still unable to hyperlink.) Her birth-day is when we most remember her. I got a note from Big Sister that looked forward to her third Enid Day in Nunavut, where she her last few years of “retirement” teaching some of the damaged and despairing children and youth of Cape Dorset. She was enticed there by my ex-wife, with whom she lives. (That’s a pretty good story, I figure, though not mine to tell, not yet.) So, happy Enid Day to them, to all my relations, and to you and me.

In memory of her, I have declared this SIV Week. I’m not sure who was more stubborn, Enid or my Dad, though I’d say both changed astral planes more easily than they often changed their minds. The stubbornness I rue with such arm-waving in my fourth son informs me — eventually, ruefully, guiltily — of just how cement-headed I so often and so chronically am. Solution? StubbornnessIsVirtue Week. SIV. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em; if you can’t alter it, exalt it! Winston Churchill was stubborn. So were Gandhi, King, Teresa. So am I, if only I could beat that adamantine forehead of mine against more meaningful walls.

Therefore, this having been declared SIV Week, I’m taking several half-finished things that I’ve written over the past while — and, for various reasons, chief among them cowardice, fatigue and cerebral untidiness, haven’t had the poop to complete — and I’m GETTING THEM BLOODY WELL DONE. (I also remain, certainly, cursed by Enid’s endlessly repeated counsel that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, which has led to more procrastination and dismayed unfinish-ing than either of us can abide.) So, first you’ll see, in the It’s All About Sports section, my final Final 4 basketball thoughts, though that American college hoops lollapalooza finished three weeks ago. Other gottawritems are even older, but won’t look so obviously out-of-date because they’re less particular.

So: I’m finishing stuff. I’m clearing the decks. Spring cleaning of the neocortical kind. Purging. Loosening my load, in hopes that new and fresh things might follow, but mainly out of brute determination to do-stuff-my-way-even-if-it-makes-no-sense-to-readers-’cause-Mum-never-gave-up-and-mulishness-should-sometimes-bear-fruit-even-if-it-looks-like-a-dungpile. It’s MY dungpile. I made it all by myself! Happy Enid Day, and Happy StubbornnessIsVirtue Week!!

The rest, below, is in explanation of what this site has done and does when it’s not SIVW.

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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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