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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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Dave Smart (on coaching, culture & talent)

Dave Smart knew early that basketball coaching was what he wanted to do. A fine and funky player — he led the nation in scoring, and has Queen’s University’s all-time leading scoring average — Smart didn’t even use all his years of Canadian Interuniversity Sport eligibility. He’d likely shrug and agree with the fans of his Carleton University’s chief rivals at the University of Ottawa, who’ve been known to chant, Not so Smart! Not so Smart!

He sees the game at a genius level, and never lets his players relax. (Andrew Vaughan photo, CP)

He sees the game at a genius level, and never lets his players relax. (Andrew Vaughan photo, CP)

While he may not have been an academic superstar, the man is brilliant and a relentlessly insistent mentor. You may have heard: his teams at Carleton, never previously a basketball power, were winning national championships by his fourth season after taking the helm in his early 30s, and they’ve never stopped. That first title began streaks of five straight championships, thirteen consecutive national semifinals, and ten titles in the last 12 seasons. If that number sounds familiar, it tied one of the most storied records in the history of sport: John Wooden’s UCLA Bruin teams (Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, etc.) cut down NCAA nets in 10 of the Wizard of Westwood’s last dozen campaigns. The Ravens, with a win tonight, will play for an eleventh title in 13 years tomorrow. (My rundown on the opening round of the tournament, Carleton’s 40-point win, and the only two teams with a real chance to knock them off is here.)

So, yeah. He’s pretty good, and I’ve been studying why. I’m starting to get it.

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Poets Leading

I stage-whispered, proclaimed, I hollered and I sang to my classes, elementary and secondary, “Readers are LEADERS!” It was an article of faith, the Creature’s Creed, a plea for evidence of things perhaps not unseen but increasingly rare, especially among the young and male. (Unless they are sons of mine, in which case they read with absorption and fury and discrimination. Dad the Lucky.)

I have loved and cited often a passage from the American poet, Richard Wilbur: “What is our praise or pride / But to imagine excellence and try to make it?” But I don’t know his work very well, or very much of it, so I’m reading his recently issued Collected Poems: 1943-2004. I don’t read enough poetry. Maybe you don’t, either. JH.com to the rescue! Here’s the full text of Wilbur’s “The Reader”, which I cite in this week’s He Said/She Said… It is a telling artefact of the poem that its “reader” is female, but not a necessary condition! All of us need to visit (and discover all over again) the “realms of gold”…

The Reader

She is going back, these days, to the great stories
That charmed her younger mind. A shaded light
Shines on the nape half-shadowed by her curls,
And a page turns now with a scuffing sound.
Onward they come again, the orphans reaching
For a first handhold in a stony world,
The young provincials who at last look down
On the city’s maze, and will descend into it,
The serious girl, once more, who would live nobly,
The sly one who aspires to marry so,
The young man bent on glory, and that other
Who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does
What will become of them in bloody field
Or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times
She sees their first and final selves at once,
As a god might to whom all time is now.
Or, having lived so much herself, perhaps
She meets them this time with a wiser eye,
Noting that Julien’s calculating head
Is from the first too severed from his heart.
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some Natasha in the ballroom door—
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.

It will mean more if you read it again. Trust me. This is not text messaging. (Well, actually, it is, but you know what I mean.)