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…)

Not Hogwarts *exactly*, but you get the drift. The crumbling gym is in a building to the left.

Not Hogwarts exactly, but you get the drift. The crumbling gym is in a building to the left.

Lisgar Collegiate has awesome improv and debate teams, and its students regularly reside on the upper storeys of national math and science competitions. (The place isn’t far from the downtown Gothic stone-piles of Canada’s Parliament, and it looks like a downtown Hogwarts; it certainly contains more than its share of young wizards.) Once upon a time, when I was falling in love with high school hoops, Lisgar teams were the Lords² of Ontario basketball, following a consolation title in 1973 with an OFSAA AAA gold medal the following year. It became a legendary name to me – I saw them play once, jaw dropping at how far above my little school’s level they were, at provincials – but by the time I got to the capital 30 years later, Lisgar was a long-time doormat at the rear entrance of Ottawa hoops. (We have good cross-country ski and running teams, though.) Enter, the Howdinator. (That would be me.)

² Another name I can’t stand. Lord Lisgar, a British Parliamentian, became Canada’s second Governor-General after our 1867 Confederation, representing the British crown in this one-time colony. So, perhaps a natural and suitable (if classist and decidedly un-sweat-soaked) moniker for the 19th cand early 20th centuries, before we let the girls play. Lisgar was among the first Canadian high schools to admit females, and had the province’s first woman teacher. However, in 2015 our distaff teams are, what, the “Lady Lords”? No one calls them that, but still. Yeesh.

For my plunge back into the swampy waters of Most Unlikely Place to Build a Basketball Empire (this ain’t my first rodeo, podnah), you could blame my son, who attends there. Or maybe Big Dan, an enthusiasticator who, not long ago, got an academic headship at Hogw Lisgar after years of teaching and coaching at a strong Ottawa basketball school. In 2014 I was eager to get back into coaching after missing it mightily during five years in China, so when I expressed carefully subdued interest, Big D jumped all over it, unlike the other schools I’d solicited; they either figured they had all the coaching they needed, or were places where nobody cared enough about school sport to respond. I soon realized that Dan is like me: he aspires to the unlikely (if not the impossible), and wants to build a basketball culture in a school perhaps more likely to dominate in quidditch. Return of the Lords, so to speak. And there are hopeful signs.

Academically talented kids come there from all over the city, and especially in this year’s grade 9 class, some of ‘em can play a bit, too. And while at times this can give a rather freaks’n’geeks meets PrepsterVille vibe – i.e. suburban White and Asian kids with well-schooled privilege – Lisgar is also a downtown school serving less-affluent, highly immigrant neighbourhoods. (Translation, if you need it: there are brown and black kids that fully identify with a ballah culture, whether they can actually play the game or not. Some can, and some of them are starting to get serious about it.) And we now have a trio of dedicated coaches, and more club players than the Lords have had in the past.

The problem – other than the aging and currently under-reconstruction gymnasium, which has meant no full-court practices and will result in zero home games, it appears – is that most of our club players are skinny, small and second-tier. I cut five of ‘em in August from the OYBA team. So here’s what happens. Last night we played St. Patrick’s High School, Ottawa’s version of the Fighting Irish and a perennial hardwood powerhouse. They have three of my OYBA U15 guys, all of whom are in my top 8, and these aren’t even their leading scorers. One of their grade 10s – and holy cow, there’s a BIG difference between ninth- and tenth-graders – is a member of the Ottawa Elite U16 team. I knew we were in deep, though I’d hoped for better.

We got beat, my skinny little Lisgar dudes, by, um, forty a fair bit. The four Irish horsemen of

Two of my OYBA boys from St. Patrick's, back in middle-school.

Two of my OYBA boys from St. Patrick’s, back in middle-school.

the OYBA apocalypse were just the most obvious among the waves of hungry, confident athletes that Coach Alex kept pounding on the Lords-ly beaches. He’s a gentleman, and didn’t keep their typically frantic man-to-man press on much after halftime which, to a competitor like me, speaks of sportsmanship, yes, but also of pity. Our practices aren’t great, gym conditions being what they are, but the boys have been trying to respond to my impatient attempts to hasten their growth. I had hoped we wouldn’t require so much pity. Sigh.

Sharp logo, but we're still in the older "Capitals" unis, which are still pretty good.

Sharp logo, but we’re still in the older “Capitals” unis, which are still pretty good.

It took some of the sting out of the loss, of course, to see green-clad Sam, Armand and Currage doing their things, but it’s high school season, and the hard-trying-but-tentative boys in Lisgar blue are the ones I’m on (half) court with most days. Rome took more than a couple of seasons to build, and so did the St. Patrick’s dynasty. (Repeat after me, Coach. Good things take time. Patience is a virtue. It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts. And by the way, you’re going to have to be really good for more than just a few months…) The Lisgar Lords take their beatings now, and probably with more grace than their coach does. Come spring and summer, the so-called elite young men of the OYBA will have the chance to have their valour tested, too. It’s interesting to be nervous, and I’m curious to see how much better this ol’ ball coach can be. In this story of two different but same-hearted youth development projects, it’s a necessity, and not just on the court, either. Wish me luck. (Wish me sleep.)


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