Electronically Home

Once upon an adolescent time, and several midriff inches ago, I was a Blue Devil (though a long way from Durham, North Carolina and the Duke of universities…) That meant, mainly, basketball and football identity, which in both cases started off as a fairly pitiable athletic I.D. but evolved into something that I cared about and found some team success in.

Today in my Inbox were two blasts from my Blue Devil Past, with basketball and Aboriginal heritage in common. One was C.G., a slender, quiet forward on the Blue Devils hoop squads I ended up coaching years after my playing days were done. He played on some pretty bad teams, come to think of it, but they got better and formed the foundation of better things to come. He was a great kid, but I haven’t seen him in years. Launching his second marriage already. The kids are precocious! Heck, I didn’t get there ’til I was 38.

And after not being able to find her for years, I’ve had my third email in two weeks from a long-lost friend, a former resident of the Six Nations Reserve who, against all odds, fell in love with basketball and got good at it. (We’ll call her “Virg”, because, well, that’s her name.) When I was just learning how to shoot the ball, as opposed to winging a two-handed bazooka shot somewhere in the vicinity of the unsuspecting rim, Virg was launching her own unorthodox, long-distance, self-taught shots in our tiny high school gym and making them with amazing frequency. With very little coaching and almost no good competition, she went on to play varsity ball at the community college in The City. I believe this had something to do with her willingness to walk several miles home after practices with her team, guys’ teams, all by herself or with a white kid who also wore 22 and loved the game with the same hunger. (Hello again, Star!)

Thomas Wolfe said, a propos of what, I’m not sure, that you can’t go home again. Mind you, he didn’t have Gmail.

Requiem for a Coach

My first thought was brilliant — they always seem to be — where else could the wake for Coach Wright be but in the tiny, tiled box of a gym where he spent so many thousands of hours with his “kids”, this never-married father of none? The Caledonia Sweatbox, the dim, cramped but comfortable Blue Devils’ lair, where half-court shots were no longer than an NBA three-pointer, where big-footed forwards needed to turn sideways to get their Chuck Taylor high-cuts completely out of bounds…

But what if there are only twenty people there? That gave me pause; even in that bandbox of a gym, twenty voices would make for some unfairly desolate echoes. As it happens, my grand thought was punctured, and for the best. As it is with too many aspects of sporting and educational life these days, the bureaucratic and custodial hoops we’d have had to jump through were too many, so we didn’t celebrate Don Wright’s life of ball-bouncing generosity in the centre court circle of The Gym, as madly poetic as that might have been.

We did better. The community hall we got was perfect. (Its hardwood floor was a far better surface than we ever played on in the old town high school.) What do you need, really, when it’s time to pay tribute to the life of a man – once painfully shy and young and slender, but by his last days grey and limping and carrying too much goddam weight – who gave to our youthfulness and to our kids whatever he had? Nothing but the people, as it turned out, and they were there. We were referees, athletes’ parents, fellow coaches, former players and friends. (I was all of these things. A five-time winner.)

Dave B was there. He had been to Don something I never was: a young coach who got to discover, years later in repeatedly teasing conversations, that he had cut the man we were honouring when Don was an earnest and under-skilled twelve-year-old. Dave and his wife Georgia had made sure, for the last several years, that Coach Donny had a place to go for Christmas dinner. (They also did most of the coffee-making, cookie-dealing and cleanup for the memorial. The Basketball Family lives.) Dave, the nearly legendary “Bart” of the Hamilton hoops community, had been with Don one of “the usual suspects” when it came to college and high school basketball games, especially for girls’ and women’s teams. His eulogy at the service had some good laughs, but it was serious business. It even allowed a glimpse of anger, for Bart wanted it known that his friend, our friend, was more than might’ve met the eye. Bart had seen and heard too much of those who dismissed the Coach as either a has-been or “some old guy, whatever”. He made earnest and teary amends.

Most of those who spoke after Bart were former players, though there were some old friends and fellow coaches that he’d never blown a whistle at. (Come to think of it, he rarely blew one at any of us. He had no interest in the whistle. He wanted his voice to be enough. It was.) The sharing was utterly informal, as Don had insisted and would have liked, but at least one former Ontario West university All-Star, an experienced teacher, had written her remarks in order to have some anchor, some way to not “lose it”. Mind you, she’d already lost it twice before her turn came, and duly lost it again, but my goodness, weren’t these the best kind of “losses”: of composure, of emotional restraint, of the kind of busy life-living that sometimes leads us to forget to say “thanks” to those who built us? Cindy and I weren’t the only ones to lose it more than once, and we gained so much by really feeling what we felt.

There were about 100 of us. It was a grand reunion, including the core of my own high school team from three decades gone. Present, too, were about ten young women, high schoolers who looked a little bewildered and felt, for a while, out of place. They were members of the last teams that my old buddy Don, sore and often discouraged, gave his last weary hours of coaching to. They honoured “Mr. Wright” by their presence, and they went away knowing more of the man than they had, and wishing perhaps that they had found a way to give something back to him. We all did.

So long, Coach. Thanks for all the sweat, the hope, the ideals. Keep caring for us as we do for you. Fare well, brother.

[I also wrote an “In Memoriam” for Donald Edward, and it’s in the “On Second Thought” section. It gives a more clear picture of the man and what he did.]