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2014: A Howdy-Do Year in Review

Last January, I didn’t get my 2013 lookback, The Great Eighteen, up until the 20th, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to call this prompt. Efficient. Timely — at least for me! Reflection on accomplishments never comes at a bad time. (Does it? Of course, you ninny! Okay, but — Which doesn’t mean it’s always foolish to look backwards, either. Alright then, so maybe — Just get to it!)

I posted to JH.com 93 times last year, which is as productive as I’ve ever been, and that with December nearly ringing up a doughnut. (That’s jock-talk for nada. Zero. Hole in the JZone layer. Nuttin’, honey. I missed that bizarro perfection by one lonely post, so the rest of the year must’ve been excellent.) Starting with my self-conscious blurts in the middle of 2005, JH.com now has an archive of 637 posts. That seems like quite a few.

So, I consulted a panel of experts. What were the most meaningful, artistically satisfying and world-changing posts of 2014 on JamesHowden.com? No. I didn’t. I trawled through 2014 and asked myself, “Okay, self, what do you still like and think others might, too?” Oh, I did take my readers into account, based on what got read most, or what found life elsewhere on the ‘Net, but mainly this is me Me ME. So here is a quick skate through some of the things I wrote here last year. It gives a reasonable portrait of what gave my head a shake in 2014. It’s a quick read, and you can click on anything that appeals. Here, then, are the

Fabulous Fifteen!

1. Sequel: The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show* Must Go On (Jan. 2)                 (with Chinese Characteristics)

For the last three years in China, my wife and I taught in the School of International Business, a small college within our university in Dalian. Every December, there was a spangly student SHOW. Here, I reviewed this incredible, excessive, odd, passionate, obligatory celebration of something-or-other. Warning: this is only the second half of the extravaganza, and you may not be able to resist dipping back into December 2013 for the full jaw-dropping effect. It was amazing. (And only occasionally depressing.)

2. Lost in Cambodia  (February 5)

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Bruins and Ravens and Wins: Hey, WHY?

It’s all so blasé, a profoundly bland kind of humdrum yeah, so what? Even for those who actually pay attention, it gets taken for granted, but for the majority of people here in the capital of Canada an incredible sporting success story is little known and cared about less. Folks might have heard that one of those cute university sports teams, the one at Carleton – yeah, and it’s not even the hockey team, I think it’s basketball – well, it wins. A lot. A few national championships there, some will know; they’ll even sometimes play a game at the home of the NHL Senators. (Most recent commercial nomenclature: Canadian Tire Place. What it’s not called, but is: House of Hockey Worship; Puck Pagoda; Temple of Higher Shinny.) The Sens are fairly supportive, doing their good corporate-citizen best, but this remarkable basketball story, even with maxed-out local interest, gets the Place less than half full.

So listen up, Ottawa. Be warned, Canada! And pay attention down there, Excited States of Basketball – the Carleton University Ravens are poised to do something long thought to be undo-able, for any sports team, anywhere.

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Ten for Twelve. Ravens Win! (Well, *I* Felt Something.)

I’ll regret this later in the day, but only with a bleary, weary grin and a bemused shake of the skull. I get a little hoops-deprived here in China, but not in these wee hours. It’s ten to five in the morning, and my adopted hometown team has just done the ridiculous.

To update last week’s Jordan Conn article on Grantland: “If a team wins TEN out of 12 national championships in Canada, does it make any noise? Meet the Carleton University Ravens.” Well, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees (just Google it) did, and fought madly and well, but the dynasty stands as the Ravens rolled on, 79-67. Did it make any noise? Well, just north of 7000 fans in the home of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators – yup, for all you Murricans reading, our national college hoops classic drew over 10,000 empty seats with the two local unis in it – made a fine effort. Sometimes the play-by-play guys were synchronized with the three cameras operating, and for a second-tier pro and a one-weekend-a-year ex-coach colour guy, the SportsNet 360 team did a fine job.

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Of Grantland and Conn and Backwoods Basketball

It’s an early Friday evening, down-home time. If I was in Ottawa, I’d have spent hours by now in a cavernous puck pagoda – named for reasons corporate after Canada’s iconic purveyor of duct tape, snow shovels, lawn mowers and power saws – and I and a few thousand echoing others would know two of the four teams in the only-slightly-mad northern university basketball version of the Final Four. It’s the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s basketball tournament, and you can’t get there from here in Dalian, China.

The expected collision in the Canadian final: Carleton Ravens collide, in the big house, with their crosstown rivals from OttawaU.

The March Madness of the American tournament – featuring 64 teams (once the play-in games are out of the way) to our eight finalists – is yet to come, and I’m only slightly crazed by the distance I feel. Detachment doesn’t come easy, but it comes, friends, it comes, often whether we want it or not. When I’m in Canada, I’m an Ottawa man, have been since 2002. I’m a long-time nutter of a basketball coach, and I knew Carleton University’s Amazing Dave before he was the least-known ruler of Canadian sport, the guy whose teams at a previously mediocre Ottawa school have won nine national championships in the last eleven years. It’s a dynasty such as we don’t see in sports anymore, and even most maple leafs don’t know about him or the furiously good teams he produces, year after decade. The most shocking upset, possibly, of this year’s CIS Final 8 happened before the tourney began, when the neighbouring University of Ottawa Gee-Gees were given the number one seed after a late comeback storm and a buzzer-beater in the (almost meaningless) Ontario final gave them a one-point win over Carleton’s Ravens, their first domestic loss in nearly two years.

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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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Happy November

It’s a great day for Catholics to remember and revere their preferred holy souls. It’s great for everybody, I say. All Saints Day (once called “All Hallows” day), was the original churchly stimulus for the dark and tricksy slant to the “All Hallows E(v)en(ing)” preceding it, which has grown into the tooth-rotting cuteness of the North American Hallowe’en. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except when high schoolers exulting in their sexuality and maturity also want to swipe the free candy that should go to small children. And to me.)

Coincidentally, it also was a day for me to repair a rather ragged piece that I had (prematurely) posted to the right in the It’s All About Sports! section. I had never suitably commemorated a passing that I’d been anticipating for years: the death of John Wooden last June. Coach Wooden was the closest thing to a saint that we’re likely to see in the world of sports, a coaching genius and an old-fashioned Christian gentleman and a great and enduring hero of mine since I was 16.

And did you know that National Novel Writing Month started today? It began as a lark by a few friends in San Francisco, California, and now a few hundred thousand people worldwide are going to try to write a 50,000-word novel this month. Tens of thousands will use the month as a carefree, quantity-not-quality way to be able to say: “I wrote a novel!”

John Wooden, In My Dreams

The “Indiana Rubber Band Man” died, aged 99, no longer bounding up from his relentless defending of Hoosier hardwood floors. But this was back in June. He still bounces furiously into my hoop crazy mind, though all recent images and tributes to him call him venerable, gentle, wise, even saintly. I think he was. But I also think he was a burning man with the wit and the training not to blow himself up, to take that rage for perfection and goodness and actually do good with it.

I have been a basketball coach, and I have meant to write about him for months. Then, last night, Johnny Wooden came into my dreams for the first time I can remember, though his example and his words are in heavy rotation in my mental play-by-playlist. If you get anywhere near sports, you probably heard: Legendary Coach Dies; He Was the Best Coach Ever, and a Better Man; We Shall Not See His Like Again. And so on.

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Where Have YOU Been?

No, not “what are you doing right now?”, because who but a twit would want to know that about anybody who isn’t themselves or, at least, someone connected by blood or love or deep belonging? (I know. Millions of people. I laugh, when I don’t curse or sigh.)

I have such a remote and tentative connection with the Powers that make my words available to (random fractions of) the Universe. It has taken me weeks to get my floating head back into the blue heaven. It was a few of my more curious Chinese students pointing out that my site was suspended that informed me, among other things, how rarely I’ve been posting. So thanks, and hello.

And rest in peace, John Robert Wooden. I cannot stop reading about him. Among the things I’m sure of, his hoped-for greeting at the gauzy doors of the next kingdom was surely given, or none of this has sense: Well done, thou good and faithful servant. And apart from those Mighty Messengers Whose missions none of us can possibly be inspired to emulate, Coach Wooden has been my greatest and most abiding hero. And now I can let this go, too, for I’m not getting any closer to that galaxy, non plus…

In Memoriam: Donald Edward Wright

He was a curious, idealistic, troubled, and relentlessly generous man. Don was a dear friend. It’s one week ago that he died alone in his apartment, gripped by a sudden exhaustion of heart that took him away before the paramedic cavalry could arrive. He stepped quietly into my mid-teen life while other mentors, more naturally gifted and better-positioned, were making other plans. Many relationship incarnations and over 30 years later, through dogged pursuits of the unattainable and countless heartbreaks – mainly his, though there was never a Significant Other that I knew – my coach and friend has passed over to “the undiscovered country”. He now plays a game with which I am not familiar. He was always a mystery, though I may have known him better than anyone. We are all, finally, mysterious to each other.

I first knew Don Wright when he was a rail-thin, silent-walking 21-year-old with curly black hair and dark eyes that looked down and away. He was probably hitting ground balls to my younger sister, the shortstop. I might’ve been jealous. Who’s this guy? He’s not from here. Maybe he’ll hit me some harder ones later. 

I was about to turn 15. I had turned from my family church (though I was to embrace the Bahá’í teachings not long after). I had also turned away from the other local religion, hockey, and winters were beginning to look like an unswimmable gulf between football and baseball seasons. My father lived in the same house as me, but was a distant figure with problems of his own. I wouldn’t have been able to formulate this then, but here was a dreamy boy, revelling self-indulgently in his isolation but yearning to be found, to be coached.

Before a year had passed, winters were full. Winter meant basketball. Much of the year was, though I didn’t put away my ballglove and pigskin. And Don Wright, a Hamilton boy who worked for the Canadian National railway and lived with his mother, was suddenly very near the centre of my life. He drove a small band of us all over the region in his station wagon, one of those long sixties boats with the faux wood panelling along the side. He was feverishly learning the basketball coaching trade, trying to stay a step ahead of an eager group of late starters who shovelled small-town Canadian driveways to dream the American city game with wet feet and icy fingers.

We didn’t know much about Don, really. He’d had a Corvette, that was interesting. He worked nights, and there seemed to be endless time for us from mid-day to exhaustion. I guess that was enough of an explanation. We were young. It was the 1970s. He took us for our first McDonald’s fries, our first square Wendy’s burgers. He played James Brown on the eight-track tape deck. He taught us crossovers and the legendary practice drills of George Mikan. When he showed us the spin dribble one afternoon, I went straight to Smith’s barbershop after practice, because my long hair had whipped saltily into my eyes at every turn. Mostly, he convinced Barry, Dana, John and me — and countless others after us, without saying too much and with a passion that we had to pay attention to even notice — that basketball was a great game. I noticed. That quiet fire in him found ready fuel in me.

And Don continued to open whatever doors he could for us, mainly to gyms all over three counties. We got pretty good, I guess, and by the end of high school we toyed with our league opponents and could hang in there against the city kids. Looking back, the way we played and learned to love the game (though starting so late), and the level we attained, were amazing. Don was inexperienced as a coach, and chronically under-confident personally, but still transformed an awkward crew of hockey and baseball players, and some relative non-athletes, into a good high school team. Nobody noticed; we were a stealth mission; we were hoop crazy in a hockey town. But that was the first chapter of Don Wright’s influence on three decades of sporting and educational life in my little town, and well beyond.

Most of his career and his greatest successes, though, were spent with girls teams. They listened better. They weren’t hockey-first, as all Don’s boys teams but mine had been. They were also more likely to embrace the demanding and idealistic Don Wright agenda: your family, your faith, and your education are far more important than our basketball team, but nothing else should be. He expected commitment and sacrifice of his players. Some chafed at this, naturally, but few had any notion of how little he expected of them compared to his own levels of dedicated and fiercely loyal effort. He faced steadily recurring disappointment, given his enormous idealism, but this made the stars shine radiantly. Over the decades, Don’s mental and emotional scrapbook was brightened by the players who got it, who bought in, who said, Okay, coach. Where to now? They weren’t always the best athletes he worked with, though it was fun to see what he could do when quickness, desire and coachability inhabited the same pair of sneakers.

I wanted to coach like him. (Yes, I wanted to outdo my mentor, too. I did it differently, but with the same lofty and sometimes unbearable hopes.) We argued strategy, practice planning, skill development and game management as our coaching careers paralleled and diverged. What we mainly talked about, always, was how to reach kids. How can we get them to play together? How can we draw out their best? What’s stopping Kid A? What can I do for Kid B?

Commitment. Sacrifice. Together, we CAN. That was a team motto of Don’s for awhile. Sometimes, sad but essential to say, the sacrifices that Don made for his teams, for his players, were too much. He remained, as his coaching skill and success grew, the same shy and emotionally isolated person that I had first known as a semi-conscious teenager. His family life had been a troubled one, and his basketball family was his main support. Not surprisingly, that wasn’t always enough.

Life took some harsh turns for my mentor and friend. I’m grieved for the ways I let him down. He made some mistakes. His last years were marked by financial reversals, coaching dreams that soured, and a serious car accident that left him with a heavy limp and constant pain. He struggled – and I have long known that he always did – with a tendency toward depression, which deepened as his circumstances grew narrower, his physical suffering greater, and his capabilities at ever-greater odds with his aspirations.

But among the many reasons that I loved and admired Don, none are greater than this: in spite of those difficulties and disappointments, he kept on giving. For the last three autumns, he coached the junior girls teams at the high school across the street from the apartment where he died. A 2-10 season had only recently ended when his heart finally and suddenly gave out. Coaching, which had once fit him like the one pair of pants your belly hasn’t outgrown, was a strain. Just sitting down on the hard chairs and benches in yet another high school gym made him tired and sore, but he gave those girls everything he had. Just like always. He kept them close in games they had no business not getting hammered in. He took them on an overnight road trip to southwestern Ontario, something that inexperienced groups like this never get to do. The last pictures show smiling, laughing city girls from many cultures, posing without a care along the shores of Lake Erie. The invisible guy behind the camera is my buddy. (Can you see him yet?)

Some of these girls, the most junior leaves on Don’s basketball family tree, will be present when the clan gathers Sunday afternoon for his memorial. They’re young, but I think that they have some inkling of who he was and what he has given them– more than their fellow students who might’ve had hallway sneers or doubtful whispers for the stranger. (Who’s that fat old gimp?) I’ll be back home this weekend, in the town where my brother, Don Wright, first guided and helped me in baseball and basketball, where he showed me the immortal coach John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success”, where he set a well-nigh impossibly high standard of giving one’s time and talent for the sake of young people. Those of us with long associations with The Wright Stuff will laugh and sorrow and remember. We’ll find, I’m sure, the joy that is behind the grieving of a life lost, both for the enrichment Don brought to our lives, and for the sense that his tiredness and troubles are over. He was a bit like Job, and I pray that his spirit knows some rest and welcome. We’ll also try to show the younger ones that there was more to the man than they know.

There always is.

We got together to celebrate Don’s life not long afterward. I had lots to say and feel about that, too.