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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CIS Championship Sunday

Game 9 (Consolation Final): UBC v. Concordia.  Now, they pay attention to winning streaks in RavensLand, where I live, as witness Carleton Athletics’ chronicling of an (admittedly incredible) 87-game winning streak in league and playoff action, which excluded a couple of Canadian losses and several to NCAA schools in pre-season action. (I believe that the gods of basketball struck them down when they went for number 88 last season, which would have tied the immortal streak of the “Walton Gang”, the early-70s UCLA Bruins. That streak had no exceptions or provisos, nothing but wins.) I bring this up to point out that Carleton’s current winning streak at Nationals, an absurd 18 games, includes their consolation-side wins in the last Halifax appearance in which they did NOT win the big trophy. I wasn’t that aware of Carleton basketball then, although I wondered about this Dave Smart character, a young guy I’d met at basketball camps, a fine and rather funky player who was going back to Queen’s to complete his last season of eligibility before turning to his burning ambition to coach. I was curious to know if he’d be any good on the sidelines. HA! When his Ravens, in ’01, lost in the opening round at Nationals, I have no doubt that they took the consolation games with the utmost seriousness. Shoot, practice scrimmages at Carleton look like life-and-death struggles.

But this year, the nation’s number 1 and number 2 seeds ended the tournament playing for very few of the marbles. It certainly looked that way, too, especially for the UBC Thunderbirds. I’m not saying they didn’t TRY, for goodness’ sake, but, as the hockey folks say, they didn’t play with desperation. (The Ravens, meanwhile, more than any team I’ve ever paid attention to, come close to treating each game, each possession, as a matter of great urgency and team pride.) The ‘Birds’ Casey Archibald was sweet to watch, once again, at least when he had the ball in his hands, and finished with 89 points in the tournament. He doesn’t rebound or defend with a lot of energy, and Kevin Hanson and his staff don’t seem to require it of him. And so Patrick Perrotte, Benjamin Sormonte and the Buckley brothers took the Consolation title for Concordia. It just meant more to them, and this seemed clear. Concordia has an ever-deepening pool of Montreal basketball talent to mine, and though Perrotte and Sormonte are through, maybe these Nationals wins do matter to the future of Stingers basketball. I think Coach Smart would say that “meaningless” consolation wins in ’01 helped prepare for the Raven Conquests of ’03, ’04, ’05, ’06…

Game 10 (The CIS Championship, live on TSN, not that the rest of the tournament got much media attention…): Carleton v. Brandon. Yes, readers, you know the result: …AND ’07! Brandon, a prairie school with a long (and mainly distinguished?) tradition of attracting American ballplayers to the middle of Manitoba, was good. They are very quick and skilled, but I didn’t believe they could gut out the kind of championship intensity that I knew Carleton would bring. But they did, and they never cracked. Like UBC, they are very talented, starting a 6’9” basketball vagabond from Las Vegas and three terrific athletes from Quebec, especially the guard tandem of Yul Michel and Dany Charlery, both from Montreal. (They also start a Brandon boy, Chad Jacobsen. He was superb, and hit one of the gutsier shots you’ll ever see to keep Brandon in it at the end. He must’ve grown up worshipping the great teams of the Jerry Hemmings era, when Coach H brought four CIS titles to the Plains.)

If you watched on TSN, you saw what I thought was a hokey, cliché-ridden and rather stiff you been disrespected all year! pre-game speech from their young coach, Barnaby Craddock. But maybe this stuff still works. Despite being held to 23 points fewer than their previous season low, the fastbreak-happy Bobcats were tough as nails against Carleton. Their mental resilience was remarkable, because they are not used to playing the game this way. And for the first time, the Ravens’ two-time CIS Player of the Year, Osvaldo Jeanty, played only a solid game in the national final, where he had been the Player of the Game in each of his previous four appearances. Mind you, although his shooting was off, he still fired 15, defended like a madman, and hit a circus shot to (nearly) seal the game. But this time, it was junior Aaron Doornekamp, the fourth of Smart’s nephews to star for him, who was the tournament and championship game MVP. A finesse forward, he rebounded furiously and his two late threes were the killer strokes in the final 52-49 slugfest over the Bobcats.

But don’t look now, Carleton-haters – and there are more than a few in CIS circles – but the Ravens did it again AND they return 11 of the top 12 guys in their rotation, most of them for two or more seasons. They were a young squad this year; their serious opponents here will all lose several fifth-year contributors. And who knows what Smart’s high school recruiting class will look like? Certainly there are many young star athletes that won’t go to Carleton because of the lofty and incessant demands of playing for Dave Smart, but kids like to win. The best (and smartest) young players also can’t ignore that he’s with the Canadian national team as its top assistant coach. What will happen to Ravens’ opponents if they actually get a dominating post player? Or the creative point guard they’ve played without for the last two national championships?

But they also won’t have Osvaldo Jeanty any more, and that is a leadership gap that won’t be filled anytime soon. A basketball lifer close to the Carleton program has it right: “Os is far from the best basketball player I’ve watched in the CIS, but he might be the greatest one.” Along, perhaps, with McMaster’s great point guard, Steve Maga, Jeanty has fewer of the natural gifts that hoops junkies look for than any other national Player of the Year, let alone other two-time winners. He is not tall or long. He is not especially fast. He does not leap well, and has at best only reasonable quickness. What he does have are a fabulous work ethic, a phenomenal ability to accept coaching, superb hands, and what John Wooden put at the top of his famous Pyramid of Success: Competitive Greatness. Real love of a hard battle. And the will not only to win – and he has it in spades – but the will to prepare to win. I’m anxious to see how much the talented Mr. Doornekamp has absorbed from the captain in this last regard. He clearly has talent, and he clearly has the fire.

Pay attention, people. There’s something awfully special brewing in CIS basketball, has been for a good stretch, and most of the sporting public is missing a good story.

Tournament Time

It’s March Break for all the school kiddies, and I still feel like taking a week off. I spent a lot of years desperate for the break from the chalk-stained grind of teaching. I’d have put away my whistle by now, too, because high school ball was finished. Provincial championships were decided last Friday (and who won? I can’t believe how clueless I am these days). The days are longer and brighter and the ice and snow are melting furiously.

But the biggest sign of spring is good ol’ March Madness, the NCAA tournament back with all its hoary old stories that I can’t get enough of: the grizzled old coach faces his protégé, the little-known mid-major David faces the big-time razzle-dazzle Goliath, the hard-luck athlete triumphs over his disadvantaged background…(and who knows, he may even graduate one fine day!)

As much as I love Davids — the teams I coached were generally composed of skinny or lead-footed underdogs with slingshot dreams — I’m pulling for Duke. People say they’re the Evil Empire, that they’re the Yankees, for cryin’ out loud, but I don’t see them that way. They’re good because they’re GOOD, because Mikey recruited ’em good and made ’em better. They play hard. They play together. They graduate. And besides, I Was A Teenage Blue Devil, and later coached for years at that same small-town high school. (“Devils Rule!” was our football team’s favourite slobbering victory chant, which might have been a bit disturbing to our local church elders; thank God nobody paid much attention to high school sports! Whew.) In ’01, I went to a fall coaches’ clinic at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where we could watch the Dookies practice and then hear from Coach K and the boys about what they were trying to accomplish. Their practices were tough, disciplined, ferociously competitive and surprisingly profane.

American college athletics is a deeply hypocritical institution, in many ways, and the abuses in the name of big-time sport are easy to find and may be getting worse. But Lord help me, I still love it. And I’ll be trying to find televisions that receive the Tournament, which my home-rigged antenna most emphatically won’t. (We get TVOntario’s sweet and heady offerings, and the local French stations come in pretty well, thanks.)

And I don’t forget the CIS Nationals. The playing levels and, especially, the TV production values are much higher in the Excited States, but I’ll still be paying attention to the Canadian championships. I’ll be conflicted. My alma mater, McMaster, and its terrific coach Joe Raso will be trying to shed their bridesmaid status; they’ve won four CIS silver medals in his 14 years, so they’re in Vikings/Bills territory. Go, Marauders! If they play Carleton, the team I follow closest now, The Dynasty That Came From Nowhere (or perhaps the Smart family driveway), I can’t lose, I guess. Coach Dave is after his fourth consecutive title, and his teams are astoundingly focused. Go, Ravens!

Yes, and Go, Duke, too! And if the UCLA Bruins meet them in the Final Four, a hinted return to the glory days under John R. Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood and my hero, then I will be a little twisted up for that one, too. Go, Bruins! Go, Everybody! (Cripe, Syracuse even has a Canadian kid, Leo Rautins’s son, so I may even have to pull for the Orange a little. Yecch. But not Florida. Can’t stoop that far.)

And while we’re at it, God bless all the countries…