Rss

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:

Continue Reading >>

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…)

Continue Reading >>

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:

Continue Reading >>

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.

Continue Reading >>

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.)

Continue Reading >>

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?)

Continue Reading >>

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,

Continue Reading >>

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.

Continue Reading >>