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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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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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Spurs Win Again. We Don’t Get It.

I expected to be watching Game Seven of the NBA Finals Friday morning — I’m in China, lest ye forget — and instead I wrote this.

SPURS IN FIVE?! WHO CALLED THAT?

Nobody. Cuz we believe “the team with the best player wins”, cuz the NBA has marketed the hell out of individualism. And MJ did, and Shaq probably was, and so was Tim Duncan, once upon a time, but even back then it was always a team deal with the Spurs.

I forecast San Antonio in seven, so I’m still not adjusted. I’m programmed for an epic climax, as games 6 and 7 in 2013 were the best pair of basketball struggles I’ve seen, what, ever? At least since the Magic Lakers and the Celtic Birds in the ’80s. With the Spurs’ early air-conditioning this year, I’m revising history: they actually won last year, too, even though LeBron James held up the trophies and preened and narcissized “I’m not supposed to be here!” (Sorry, kid king. Noticing the clay feet more than is charitable.)

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Jerry Wainwright (who?) (a whistle-blower’s last request)

Yeah, well, I didn’t know who Jerry Wainwright was, either. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, Jerry Wainwright was the author that I nearly gave credit to for my last “He Said/She Said”, but thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I (think I) got it right in crediting Martina Navratilova, instead. In sourcing the “Wainwright” quote about winning in sport (and life), I learned about the man, which was interesting in the context of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Wainwright was a Division 1 head coach for nearly 20 years.

He had moderate success at two middling schools, occasionally qualifying underdog squads for the “Big Dance” of the national tournament, until his dogged success might have gotten him higher on the basketball coaching ladder than he’d have wanted, in hindsight. He took the headman’s spot at Chicago’s DePaul University, leading a program that had once been something of a national power but which has struggled in recent decades, a weak sister in a strong conference. As it had done with several other hires before him, the position ate Mr. Wainwright, bringing massive stress and even hate – ah, the shining ideal of sport in America! – towards him and his family. The Blue Demons lost more than they won.

I will get to the point, to his quote, after a little more context. (Who doesn’t love context, after all?)

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Inside College Basketball*. (Almost.)

* With Chinese Characteristics.

What follows is the bemused, inconclusive, but delightful tale of an “innocent abroad”, yours truly, trying hard to enjoy whatever taste of locally grown hoops he could find, and understand how it worked. Coach Howden was in the building. Several times! He was, though, a long way from his own hometown hardwood, and no one offered him a whistle or a clipboard.

I stole moments in my school’s gym over several November weekends, after I accidentally found out that there was an ongoing tournament for Dalian universities and colleges, 16 of ’em. College hoops! 15 minutes walk from Apartment 902! Who knew?

It’s pretty bad basketball, actually, which wasn’t news to me. I’ve known for years that Chinese universities, if they have teams, field poorly trained squads — never mind their Q scores, they are barely known (beyond their girlfriends) on their own campuses — that play a tournament or two and then disappear completely. Because, though, of a cinematic cheese-fest called Kung Fu Dunk (starring pop idol Zhou Jielun, “Jay Chou”) that I

Surely one of the silliest movies ever. The key fight-scenes were backed by Mr. Chou singing how his “kung fu” would turn hapless opponents into “tofu”. (It rhymes even better in Chinese.) Priceless.

watched during my first flight into Beijing, I knew there was something called the Chinese University Basketball Association. The university I taught at my first two years, Dalian Ligong Daxue, our nearby University of Technology, has had a women’s CUBA team for years; periodically, I’d see tall women trudging toward the outdoor stadium for wind sprints, or hang around after an indoor 4-on-4 game to watch them practice. No men’s team, though, at least not then, and why did Ligong have a women’s CUBA team, anyway? Apparently, some connections, and a willingness to admit under-achieving graduates of specialized sports schools and shepherd them through something approximating a degree,

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John Wooden (on failure)

“Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

John Wooden (191o-2010) was not only the greatest basketball coach of all time, but a wise teacher for 20th and 21st century America. I quoted his wisdom in a recent article here. He was my hero, perhaps even Number 2 among the greatest men I can imagine, and I can’t believe he’s been gone three years already. He was a writer and an educator, though, and his words live on, as does his example. His advice runs through my mind nearly as often as that of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. In the immediate calm-down after an incredible NBA finals, where I loved the Spurs and admired the heck out of LeBron and the Heatles, I miss basketball and coaching. I miss John Wooden.

A Hall of Fame player, tough and fiery, with a degree in English literature and teaching as a day job.

Humble victor, though he won again and again and again and again. A great man with feet of granite.

Learning Danny Green

Although my teaching schedule has blissfully allowed me to watch every minute of the NBA Finals — the games are on at 9 am here in Dalian, and my classes are mainly in the afternoons — it’s also June: time to make up for past marking sins, time for administrivia and visas and social obligations, time to prepare for a Canadian summer. I haven’t written a thing about the Spurs versus the Heat, and Game 6 is already upon us. Xiaoqiang is here, and the TV is warming up. I’m thinking about Danny Green.

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Hoop Crazy: My Kingdom for a Club!

Oh, man. After nearly four years in Dalian, China, I found a club for my boy. Lucked out, I did – it turned out that it operates out of my own university, and I happened to poke my head into the gym one Saturday morning in the middle of a run. Kids?! Playing BASKETBALL?!I was so excited, and between my limited

I miss Linus, too.

Chinese and the coach’s non-English, I managed to walk away with a sheet of paper I couldn’t understand, a vague conception of how the club operated, and a phone number. A few translations, a little coaxing, a couple of months and a friend’s phone call later, I spent some weekend hours watching Son the Fourth on imitation hardwood. An old coach’s pedestrian prayer has been answered. I love it too much! as my Chinese students say. They mean so much, but in my case, my fever for the game does run absurdly hot, sometimes, even after all these years.

My nutbar is 12, and when he was seven and eight, he looked like basketball might be good to him.

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My Heart in New Brunswick

The world is full of tragedies, sweeping and small. (It is also chock-a-block with morality plays, comedy and inspiration. But not in this column.) It is a curious study: what makes a tragic event from outside affect us, moves us to the core? No matter how compassionate one might be, it is at least insane-making (if not actually impossible) for a person to react with deep feeling to every bit of pain and grief that others experience. It’s a matter of psychic self-preservation, I suppose. To be too open, too desperately responsive to what goes on around us would be as crippling as its opposite, the utter disregard for the feelings and experiences of others.

The suffering of children, it would seem, is something most of us are wired to be distressed about. Some are never so moved by human difficulties as by the sorrows of pets. (After the tide of frothing condemnation for football star Michael Vick’s involvement in dog fighting, I read a searing comment from New Orleans. Would we have gotten more help after Katrina if the media had focused on the dogs instead of the people?) Much of our work as human beings, ultimately, is to develop the capacity to care about our neighbours, “to feel, in your heart’s core, the reality of others,” as the novelist Margaret Laurence once put it. To understand that the lives of others are just as important to them as our own lives, and the lives of our dearly beloved, are to us. What hits home when we hear or read of terrible misfortune? What is it that opens wide the gateway to empathy? (And while we’re on the subject, who ARE our neighbours?)

Usually, it’s something as simple as shared biographical detail. Wow. This person is kinda like me. And bad stuff happened to him. Ouch. “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” a more eloquent observer noted. When asked why he had responded so dramatically, how he had performed such an absurdly courageous deed, a winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Award for bravery put it this way: “I looked into that burning truck and I thought to myself, That guy is ME.” The dark inversion of this credo, though, is what allows us to kill in war, to ignore suffering, or simply to live comfortably when many do not: those people are not like us. Such a fine balance. I was struck forcibly by the matter of identification with others last weekend.

I was stunned by grief Saturday morning, quite instantaneously, hearing the first radio reports of a terrible highway accident near Bathurst, New Brunswick. Tens of thousands die every year on the roads, of course. It’s a price we’re willing to pay, as a society, for unlimited mobility. This was different, for me and for many, because of the scale and because of the youth of the victims. Eight dead. One fell and grinding swoop. Seven of them were among the leading young men of their high school, members of its varsity basketball team. And one was the coach’s wife. The coach, the driver of the passenger van on the cold and slippery Friday night, walked away from the carnage. The boys were playing a game I have loved and coached with eager hours, and suddenly this driver who walked away was me.

“Walked away”, we say, when someone survives an accident with little bodily damage. Wayne Lord didn’t “walk away”, though. He must’ve been screaming, running, searching. He must’ve been mad with grief and helplessness, seeing the shredded vehicle he’d lost control of, the broken bodies of his wife and of seven boys to whom he had given hours beyond measure, and encouragement, and extra laps, and technical instruction, help with their courses and advice about girlfriends. His daughter was in that van, too, what was left of it after hitting a transport truck head on just a minute or two from home. There was no walking away for Coach Lord.

Or for me, even thousands of highway clicks away, choking with emotion for people I’d never heard of, because I’ve been in that van. I was that teacher and basketball coach, bringing eight, ten, twelve young men – silly, sleepy, bruised, music playing, mainly happy even after a loss on the road – back home, back to their families. I am wounded by what this former stranger, this colleague, this brother, faces now. I broodingly imagine the hallways of that high school, knowing how the sudden deaths of fellow students and friends make a young person feel cut off at the knees, heart-sick and desperate. I remember the devastation in my own hometown high school after three young women were lost in a similar tragedy. For too many kids, with shaky families or non-existent religious convictions, the sudden loss of peers is more than that, as awful as that is for anyone. If my friends are gone for no reason, what’s the point of anything?

In my mind, I walk the streets of Bathurst. It’s probably much like the place where I grew up, lived, taught and coached. The McDonald’s has its flag at half mast, and attempts at community consolation where meal deals would normally be signed. I wept again when I saw this news photo: friends of the dead athletes had dragged two portable basketball hoops out to the highway to honour their buddies. A guy does what he can do, especially when there’s not much you can say and less that you can understand.

The truth of what I often used to say to my bemused players, or to friends who wondered why an apparently intelligent man would spend so much time with sweaty teens, comes back to me: There’s more to life than basketball, but then there’s more to basketball than basketball… There surely is in Bathurst, New Brunswick, these days, as they bury their sons, brothers, friends, and one wife. And what can be done about the heart of a bereaved husband, whose loss has been multiplied by the extinction of seven young lives that he had done so much to enrich and guide? Thank God his daughter lives and therefore he must, too. I hope that town wraps its arms around him, around her. I pray for consolation, as far down the road as that may seem.

I even dream that he may someday have the heart to blow a whistle again.