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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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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Temple of Heaven: Grounds for Optimism, Part 2

 This is Part Two of “Grounds for Optimism”, in which our fearless scribe goes to Chinese gardens, walking and running and thinking about things and then writing about them to dazzling effect. Part the First, on the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” in Suzhou, did its dazzling right here.

The Temple. Little bits of heaven surround it.

The Temple. Little bits of heaven surround it.

A few days later, in Beijing, I loosened my purse-strings again. Though I’d stayed, on a couple of prior visits, in a hotel near the Tiantandongmen station of the capital’s a-maze-ing subway system, I’d balked at the high walls and what had seemed like the rapacious price for a wander around the Temple of Heaven. (Tian Tan. Dongmen means the “eastern door” of this Ming and Qing dynasties-era complex of imperial gardens and temples.) On my second-last day in Beijing, I decided it might be worth running inside those walls, instead of on the chaotic surrounding streets. I had my usual sinking feeling at the entryway crowds, but the lines weren’t actually that long, and I found out that an entrance ticket – no access to the temple interiors, fine by me – was only 15 yuan. (You’re not paying $2.50 to go jogging, goofball. You’re running through Chinese history and culture for the price of a McChicken! Give your head a shake.)

The Tian Tan grounds are enormous, and yes, I got lost. I’d thought to run the perimeter and then see what I’d like to explore further, but after 35 wide-eyed minutes I wasn’t any particular where, as far as I could see. Well, I thought, I must be back near the East Gate by now, but I wasn’t. It didn’t matter. Even without entering The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – the “most famous temple in the world”, this under-educated Westerner was surprised to discover – or the Beamless Fasting Palace where Emperors purified themselves for weeks before their invocations of heaven, or viewing the Circular Mound Altar of sacrifice, I knew I’d be back for another tour the next day. Quite apart from the legends and the antiquity, there’s so much China in there, the parts just behind the walls of heavy traffic, the veils of pollution, and the look-how-modern-we-are! forests of shiny skyscrapers.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s a People Place. (People’s

Rocks to me. Even after I read, I didn't get the significance.

The Seven were just funky-shaped rocks to me. Even after reading, I didn’t get the significance.

Republic. Go figure.) There are tonnes of tourists, absolutely, but what this one liked was the locals who also paid no attention to The Divine Storehouse and the Seven-Star Stones. Folks pay, I found out from a spry old dude with careful and sufficient English, 100 yuan for a year’s pass. They come, singly and in groups, for exercise, community, art, serenity and the most amicable kinds of noise. I walked and ran and watched and listened, and for a time I just lay on a bench looking at the sky through the branches of old cypress trees. Here’s what I saw:

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“Not Just a Collection of Houses”

My mother-in-law lives in a peculiar neighbourhood. By choice, her nearest companions are birch trees, bullrushes and the occasional deer. Mind you, she’s built a human support network even among the hills and trees. There’s Woodworking Wayne across the lake, Bruce the Handy, and Sheila the Basketeer. They are fine friends and conversationalists, not to mention useful in a pinch for a hermit potter spinning out her earthy creations next to a tiny, loon-friendly lake. These are people who choose to live alone, next to nature, yet their sense of community is strong, even if a neighbourly drop-in might require four-wheel drive and a snow-plough.

Margery looks back on the kind of people-intensive neighbourhoods that most of us live in with thoughtful detachment. In response to a couple of my recent posts, she offered some reflections from an earlier life of community activism and at-home motherhood.  She’s a smart woman, and lord help anyone who mistakes the grey hair for soft-headedness. Here’s a view that comes from womanly experience:

 I read your essay on neighbourhood the other day, and it got me thinking of the all the years…that I spent a great deal of time and energy thinking, ranting and lecturing about that very concept.  The impetus was the crisis of the potential closure of the Broughdale neighbourhood school. This, of course, was accompanied by other sociological changes taking place which were not obvious initially, but genuine contributors. Basically, a change of life style: both adults working, taking their increased financial abilities for activities outside the neighbourhood both in evenings and on weekends. Of these families, if children were involved, there were fewer of them, and they were often transported out of the community to faith-based or French immersion schools….

Inner city neighbourhoods had ‘matured’ , real estate values had escalated,and second-time owners were not starting new families….Childless young couples, working singles and people wanting to own to rent to the increasing number of university students who wanted freedom from parental and land lord supervision. In the past, home owners in the community would rent to students, but only one or two rooms, and the student was a member of the family. Then the trend became independent basement apartments, or whole houses, and the entire situation became changed, and not…for the better.

And the thing that changed seemed to be that vague concept of neighbourhood. Who did people know? What relationship did they have with them? Who could be turned to in an emergency? Who could a key be left with so that a child could get access to home if the parent was inadvertently delayed or absent? Who could lend a hand, a cup of sugar or a chat over coffee? Who was watching the street? Who knew who was a stranger and who ‘belonged’?

These, in my view, became some of the yardsticks for a neighbourhood — not just a collection of houses, but a healthy, nurturing and safe place for all. I’m not sure if that sense of community, of reliable mutual assistance, of caring for other people’s children, is necessarily lost now….I suspect even in housing tracts of identical homes populated by people presumably of similar education and income that what I was striving for is, even now, a realistic goal.

She doesn’t long for the “good old days” when women were largely confined to home-making, but she sees, perhaps more clearly than most of us, the costs of how hurried our lives are. And thanks mainly to my own private family oracle, I got another post up without having to activate too many of my own neurons. Thanks, Mum.