WIZARD OF ODDS (Part 3)

Thomas Konchalski grew up in Queens, New York, with his brother Steve, sister Judith Ann, and their parents.  His father, Steve Sr., was, as a young man, an accomplished amateur baseball player who took a sniff at the professional ranks before ascending to the position of ‘man of the house’ after his father’s untimely death.  He eventually landed work as a gardener with the City of New York and rose, over the years, to the position of General Foreman where he oversaw a half dozen parks in Lower Manhattan including Battery Park. 

Steve Sr. met his future wife, Marjorie (nee Coman), when they both worked for the Department of Parks.  She eventually left her job and became a homemaker when the children were young, only returning to the workforce when Tom and Steve went off to college.  She then held down a cashier’s job at Klein’s department store on 14th Street and Union Square, which helped to pay for her boys’ education. 

“She was,” says Tom’s brother Steve Jr., “the rock of our family.”

The Konchalski boys served as altar boys at the Church of the Ascension, located four doors down from their family’s modest row-house.  It was, by all accounts, a normal lower-middle class life.  Steve recalls attending baseball games at the Polo Grounds with his brother and father, and — in that gentler, security-free era — running onto the field to get Willie Mays’ autograph and being part of a group of kids who escorted the centre fielder off the grass through a door in the outfield.  These were the mid-1950s and early 1960s and the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers were locked in a fierce rivalry.  The departure of both teams led to one of baseball’s first expansion teams: the Mets.  “There was a lot of discussion back then in our house about which team was better,” recalls the Steve Jr..  “My family all liked the Giants, but I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.”  

Steve Jr. also recalls being in Madison Square Garden on the night of November 1, 1959, when the New York Rangers faced off against the visiting Montreal Canadiens and the opposing team’s goalie took a puck to the face and had to temporarily leave the ice.  When Jacques Plante returned to the Habs’ net he was wearing a crude white mask with oval-shaped holes for his eyes and a rectangular opening for his mouth and nostrils.  “My father and his love of sport clearly had an impact on me and Tom,” explains Steve Jr., adding that both he and Tom tried their hand at various sports.  It was Steve who, despite being smaller in stature (at six-foot-one) and thin, had the competitive fire and determination to practice day and night to become an outstanding basketball player.  Although much bigger that his brother, Tom did not share Steve’s competitive fire or coordination.  

“I was always a basketball junkie,” says Tom, but “I only played at the game.  I can’t really say I played the game.”  He likes to quip that, “The most athletic things I do are run water and jump to a conclusion.”  Truth be told, as a teen the younger Konchalski wasn’t completely without athletic ability: Tom played a little basketball and liked tennis.  He even turned his hand and eyes to work as a lines judge for tennis matches and became very good at it.  Thanks in small part to a family connection, he worked professional matches, including a memorable one at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills featuring a hot-headed young New Yorker named John McEnroe.  Of that match Tom remembers a particular line call he made that McEnroe angrily disputed: “I knew I was right, but I hesitated,” Tom recalls.  McEnroe sensed the doubt and pounced, pointing to a different mark on the court and arguing the call so vehemently that Konchalski finally deferred.  “I was right but he intimidated me,” Tom admits with a laugh.

What the Konchalski brothers shared was a passion for basketball that teetered on obsession.  As soon as their parents allowed them the boys took to the streets and subways sussing out the best basketball games they could find.  They would race to Madison Square Garden on Thursday nights to watch the college doubleheaders.  But their greatest pleasure was watching playground games around the city.  Tom remembers the exploits of playground greats like Tony Jackson and Roger Brown and revels in the memory of “watching Jackie Johnson — who was unequivocally the greatest jumper who ever lived — repeal all laws of Newtonian physics, with regards to gravity.” 

His greatest praise is reserved for The Hawk:  “My first hero in basketball was Connie Hawkins from Boys High,” says Tom, adding, “He would palm rebounds out of the air with one hand; not cup them, palm them.  The first time I saw Connie was at P.S. 127 on the first Saturday in August 1959.  He played in white clam diggers.  They said he had one pair of pants, he was that poor.  He was playing against Tom Hoover, who outweighed him by 50 pounds [and] Hawkins went up and blocked Hoover’s shot and knocked him into the fence.  In the late seventies, the bar in that fence was still bent from where Hoover crashed into it.” 

The Konchalski boys were so adventurous that they were often the only white people in otherwise all-black neighbourhoods.  “I suppose we were naïve; it never occurred to us to be concerned,” says Steve, noting that the Civil Rights Movement was in full, emotional swing. 

“We just loved basketball and wanted to watch basketball.”   They had a lot to keep them busy.  By the early 1960s, a Manhattan boy named Bob Cousy had just finishing twisting and turning across New York City’s courts before taking up residence with the Boston Celtics.  The city possessed some of the finest players the game may ever know and some of the greatest coaches the game has ever seen.  Tom recalls watching his brother Steve’s coach, Jack Curran, at Archbishop Molloy, “develop into one of the great coaches in the game at any level” and “witnessing a callow youth from Upper Manhattan by the name of Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor grow into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a true force of nature. 

“This was the perfect storm.  It was the truly the golden age of New York City basketball,” Tom tells me, while seated in a sports store in Jersey City, where he grants a rare interview, after sharing with me a meal of Chinese food and Snapple iced tea.  “How could you possibly not fall in love with this game?”

-DN

Stay Tuned - There may be more to come…

Summer Ball: Skills vs. Showcases

My phone rang a few weeks back and I was surprised to pick up and hear her voice.  She’s the mom of a terrific couple of ball players, including an 8-year-old girl who may well prove to be the best of a boy-dominated bunch.  The caller, Christine, wanted to explore my level of interest in helping her pull together a spring/summer team for 15-year-old boys who, like one of her sons, was not playing provincial-level ball this summer and “needs to stay off the streets”.  

Curious but cautious, I replied with a few pointed questions around ‘AAU style ball’, travel, and cost.  Simply stated, I wanted nothing to do with any of the above; if it wasn’t grassroots, local and cheap, then count me out.  And my 15-year-old son, too. 

Christine assured me that she simply wanted a good place for her son and a handful of other boys she knew to hoop, and that it wouldn’t involve trips (or the dream of being showcased anywhere, let alone in some costly, far-flung destination).  As for the cost to play, she hadn’t really thought it through, but was thinking to charge parents an initial fee of “maybe $50?”  Sold!  Now this was starting to sound like the sort of ball team I could get behind. 

I added a few more cents-worth of ideas, including that the team have a pair of “anchor coaches” who keep the balls in play and the scrimmages orderly, but that she invite in 4 to 6 “guest coaches” to run various skills sessions, in lieu of practices, that scrimmages be a big part of the agenda, and that games be exhibition-only and played against local teams.  Oh, and that practices move between gyms and neighbourhoods and include a handful to be held outdoors.  

(I didn’t mean to steam-roll Christine with ideas, but she knew who she was calling - and besides, she has a toughness that will not allow her to be pushed of her plans let alone pushed around.) 

It was a great call and led to another few more like it, and a meeting or two. Best of all, her team came together quickly and shows great promise.  Not ‘promise’ in the way that AAU coaches “selling the dream” mean it.  ‘Promise' in the sense that the kids who participate will be exposed to practice sessions that are devoted to skill development and games that are designed to showcase what’s been learned in those practices — rather than what a particular kid can do for a high school team or university program.  

Christine’s call and her philosophy for the team took me back to an interview I did a few years back with the legendary coach Bob Hurley, Sr.  We were seated in his condo in Jersey City overlooking the New York skyline when he told me how upset he was that kids nowadays play on teams year-round.  “They should be playing on teams between October and May, and on playgrounds and for fun — developing their skills and not playing in tournaments and trying to impress coaches — from June to September,” he said in his gruff Jersey accent.  

Bob Hurley knows of what he speaks.  After all, this dude is one a very few high school coaches in the Basketball Hall of Fame(!) in Springfield.  And, oh yeah, his sons Bobby Jr. and Dan had passable playing careers.  These included Bobby Jr’s national championship runs with Duke before heading to the NBA, and Dan’s play at point guard for Seton Hall.  Both Hurley boys have, since they hung up their sneakers, made even bigger names for themselves as coaches: Bobby is the head coach at Arizona State, and Dan is bench boss at Connecticut.   

Not bad results for two players-turned-coaches whose old man was one of the most intense coaches of all time.  And yet the elder Hurley knew enough to let his own sons develop their basketball games during the summer months on lonely playgrounds and in crowded, elbows-up pick-up games.

WIZARD OF ODDS (part 2)

So consistently accurate are Tom Konchalski’s high school basketball scouting reports that his predictive powers have made him “the king of New York City basketball” according to Lawrence (“Bud”) Pollard, Head Coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, NY. 

“Tom just appears at games — on playgrounds and in gyms, anytime anywhere — and can tell what level a player is going to perform at in terms of college and university.  He’s the man.” 

Konchalski is hailed by some of the game’s greats as a formative figure.  Billy Donovan, Head Coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder has said, “I will always be thankful for Tom Konchalski and what he has meant to the game of basketball”.  Mike Krzyzewski, Head Coach of the Duke University Blue Devils, gushes: “The game of basketball is better as a result of Tom Konchalski”.  And New York City legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Chris Mullin is quoted: “He wasn’t just seeing the player I was, but the player I would become”.   But the best description comes from the acclaimed sports writer John Feinstein, author of The Last Amateurs and other fine sports books, who memorably refers to the basketball super-scout as “the last honest man in the gym”. 

It’s the perfect appellation for a gentle man who strides the loud streets New York City with Jesuitical contemplativeness and does so at such a ponderous pace that he is — very much by design — out of step with the fast-paced profession in which he partakes in, and, indeed, much of modern society.  The six-foot-six septuagenarian keeps his thin grey hair meticulously combed with a crisp altar-boy part on one side. As for Konchalski’s summertime sartorial style, it might best described as “Lost Tourist”. One day this past summer, as we travelled between Manhattan’s 4th Avenue courts and Hamilton Park in Jersey City, he wore pressed khaki shorts, white sport socks inside clunky white tennis shoes and a yellow golf shirt buttoned to the very top. (His shoulders are so flat and broad that the wire coat hanger on which his golf shirt inevitably hung the night before may have still been tucked inside.) 

To the unordained, Konchalski might appear to be a prime target for New York City’s famous pickpockets, but to gauge this man by outward appearances is like judging the Bible by its boring black cover. Spend a few minutes with Tom Konchalski and you feel your life has been enriched. Spend a few days with him and you feel the unmistakable touch of Grace.  

For his part, Konchalski insists he’s just a simple, God-fearing guy from Queen’s who loves basketball and is pretty good with words. Trust me: this may be the only time the man has ever lied. Look beyond the modest exterior and quick wit (when asked to confirm his age, Konchalski channels his inner Dangerfield saying, “I’m so old that when I was a kid in school learning History it was called Current Events”) and you find a guy like no one you’ve ever met before…

Konchalski lived with his mother until she died (when he was in his mid-40s), is more religious than most Catholic priests I’ve met, and has an elephantine memory. I experienced his memory-as-parlor-trick, when I inquired about the various phenomenal players he’s seen over the years and asked him to name the greatest. He settled on “Lew” Alcindor (aka, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and proceeded to rattle off Alcindor’s high school senior-year statistics with the ease that I might recite a close friend’s ten-digit phone number.  (Konchalski’s memory for personal details is so unfailingly sharp that it sent me scurrying to Google for an explanation — maybe a diagnosis.  I came across a relatively rare condition marked by an extremely detailed autobiographical memory: Hyperthymesia.  It may just fit.)

Eventually, his unusual lifestyle and incredible memory left me hurling pointed questions and scribbling down the Jeopardy-fast responses that came back to me:

DN: When was the last time you cooked at home? 

TK: Twenty years ago. 

DN: When was the last time you exercised? 

TK: September 23, 1993; I played a game of tennis.  

DN: When was the last time you went to church? 

TK: Today —twice.  

<THERE MAY BE MORE TO COME. STAY TUNED…>
 

WIZARD OF ODDS (part 1)

The unlikely and unyielding success of Tom Konchalski, the New Yorker considered by many to be America’s finest and most influential basketball scout. By David M. Napier

Travelling to Rucker Park is, for the die-hard basketball fan, akin to a person of deep faith making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  In the summer of 2018, I returned to the fabled basketball court at 155th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in the Harlem which has long been the home to basketball’s version of the gods; a place where fans have pressed up against the chain-link fence or sat on roofs with their feet dangling perilously over the edge as they watched some of the best basketball players in the world put on displays of sheer athleticism that became the stuff of basketball lore. 

This is where “Jumpin” Jackie Jackson rose to the challenge and snatched a quarter off the top of a backboard.  This is where a lean and afro-ed Julius Erving came (from Philadelphia) and operated so beautifully he earned the nickname “Dr. J”.  And the Internet still racks up hits from those who want to see clips from the night Kevin Durant played in a Rucker league game and dropped a silky 66 points under the floodlights as fans went berserk. 

Rucker is a holy place for those who follow urban basketball.  But as with any fundamentalist hotspot it is also a place to be approached with a certain degree of caution:  Rucker can be a raucous and even dangerous place when competition gets heated, fans get hyped, and the mercury rises.  So on a warm summer afternoon, as I emerge from the subway and step into the afternoon sun, I approach the park with its worn swings and teeter-totters and the high-and-rusty fence that surrounds the single court slowly.  I am overcome by a mixture of excitement and fear; a nervous swirl of emotion fueled by my deep reverence for this place in hoop history.  That, and the knowledge that Rucker fans do, on rare but bloody occasions, wield hand-guns and shoot each other.   The first thing I notice is that the cracked asphalt at Rucker has been overlain by hardwood that glistens with colorful graffiti that could easily stood upright and displayed in a Soho gallery as laid flat on a Harlem playground.  The next thing I see is the the long line-up to get into the court.  Admission to Rucker requires an invitation to play or enough patience to endure concert-length queues that preface entry.  The other option is to come with a basketball legend.  

Tom Konchalski fits the bill, perfectly. 

The 70-something-year-old basketball scout and sole proprietor of HSBI Report has been covering high school boys’ play for more than 50 years. And Konchalski has achieved massive fame within the most important basketball circles for his remarkable prescience for identifying the most talented high school ballers and then accurately projecting the level of university or college play at which they can contribute with maximum impact. 

“If you’re out here and you run into somebody who doesn’t know Tom Konchalski then they don’t know New York basketball.  Tom’s been a fixture in our community for 50 years,” says Jeff Riviera, a long-time high school coach in New York City.  When asked about what it is exactly that Tom does that few others can or will do, Riviera explains that, “Tom’s not all about the all-star of the future hall of fame player… they’re going to get where they are going anyway.  He’s looking at the little guy who may be under the radar.  It’s those players whose skills are really good but may not be getting a lot of court time or a serious look from college coaches that Tom finds and helps place in the appropriate basketball program.  “The next thing you know that kid is playing at Kansas or someplace.  That’s what Tom can do.” 

<< THERE’S MORE TO COME… STAY TUNED >>

A New Season

Well, it’s the Fall of 2018 and the start of what smells and looks and feels like a new season. What this means for players all over the city is tryouts and tension as girls and guys sweat it out to land on the team of their dreams.

But here’s the kicker: No matter what level of play you are eventually slotted for (Div. 1 versus Div 6, Varsity versus JV) the two greatest influences on your play this year will be: (1) how smart and dedicated you are to the processes around improving your game and those that make your teammates better, and (2) coaching.

Enuff has been said about #1. You get it. We all do.

So here’s my take on #2… No matter who your bench boss is this year, find the aspects of their teaching that resonate for you and learn as much as you can from that guy or gal. Need a tip for how exactly to do that? Here’s 3 of them, in fact:

  1. Show up early for practice and warm up by focusing on basics (jogging, stretching, close-in-shooting, passing off a wall, etc).

  2. Stay late after practice (cool down properly, work on what wasn’t working during the previous hour, take 50 foul shots, etc.).

  3. Ask your coach, or his/her assistant, what you can work on to get better. It’s amazing how this small question can make a big difference. It quickly reveals things about your game that you likely didn’t know or see, and it indicates a level of interest in learning that coaches will never forget. But be genuine; don’t ask if you are only hoping to impress the coach. After all, every coach eventually moves on leaving just you, a basketball, and a hoop. And when that happens, it’s only a matter of how hard you work — and how smart you are about the practicing you perform.

Have a great 2018-19 season!

-DN

In a New York State of Mind

So I am headed away this weekend with my dearest pal PJ for what we hope will be a terrific vacation.  We've taken this trip before.  But it never gets old.  

Other crave beaches, or the Vegas strip, or all-inclusive resorts as their preferred getaway spots, but for me (and PJ) it's New York City.  And not just Manhattan, but all five boroughs.  Especially, the neighborhood of Harlem.  I don't go because its hip or even because of the rich cultural history in the north end of Manhattan (altho I do recommend "On the Shoulders of Giants", by Kareem if you want a fantastic history of the Harlem Renaissance).  

I go for the basketball.

I could tell you about my fascination with the playground game and how it's burned bright for decades (I recently picked up my old copy of "The City Game" and saw that I'd noted the date I first picked up that bible of ball: 2004).  Let me instead share with you the start of a long article I am working on.  The first few paras here give you a decent idea of where I am headed, literally and figuratively, and why NYC's playgrounds - especially those you reach after crossing 110th street - are such a special destination for me...

Travelling to Rucker Park is, for the die-hard basketball fan, akin to a person of deep faith making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  The fabled basketball court at 155th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in the Harlem has long been the home of basketball's version of the gods.  A place where fans have pressed up against the chain-link fence or sat on roofs with their feet dangling perilously over the edge as they watched some of the best basketball players in the world put on displays of sheer athleticism that became the stuff of basketball lore.  This is where “Jumpin” Jackie Jackson rose to the challenge and snatched a quarter off the top of a backboard.  This is where a lean and afro-ed Julius Erving came (from Philadelphia) and operated so beautifully he earned the nickname “Dr. J”.  And the Internet still racks up hits from those who want to see clips from the night Kevin Durant played in a Rucker league game and dropped a silky 66 points under the floodlights as fans went berserk. 

Rucker is a holy place for those who follow urban basketball.  But as with any fundamentalist hotspot it’s also a place to be approached with a degree of caution.  Rucker can be a raucous and even dangerous place when competition gets heated, fans get hyped, and the mercury rises.  So on a warm summer afternoon, as I emerge from the subway and step into the afternoon sun and approach the park, with its worn swings and teeter-totters and the high, rusty fence that surrounds the single court, I am overcome by a mixture of excitement and fear.  Mine is a nervous swirl of emotion fueled by my deep reverence for this place in hoop history — that, and the knowledge that fans here do, on rare but bloody occasions, wield hand-guns and shoot each other.

-DN

My Greatest Basketball Moment

The best stories, like the best jokes, take a circuitous route.  The words circle back in a way that surprises and pleases the audience.  So it is with the story of my greatest experience in basketball. 

It started back in the early 1990s when I signed up to coach a 12-and-under boys team in the southend of Halifax.  I didn’t have any input on the composition of the team; I just volunteered, then took my whistle to the old gym behind Canadian Martyrs Church on the appointed night and was met by my team.  A few practices into the season it became clear that I didn’t have many great players, but I did have an abundance of great athletes.  And, I noted happily, to a person I had great boys.  

At the time I was about 23 years old and had enjoyed the tutelage of a number of great coaches over the years.  I knew, looking at my kids in the gym on those first few Fall nights, that I couldn’t teach them anything about athleticism.  And I didn't know a lick about instilling or enhancing a kid's character.  What I could foster were a few skills and a sense of team spirit.  So we set out together on a season-long journey that saw us get better and better each week as we developed a mutual trust and deep respect for one another.  

The only wildcard in the playing mix was Freddy (I’ve changed his name).  Freddy was a wiry, red-headed kid who arrived at practice each night simmering with anger.  He was, literately, mad at the world.  Halifax being a small town, I knew that Freddy had a good reason to be pissed-off.  The kids on the team may not have realized it, but I had learned that Freddy’s father had abandoned his family - and done so in a very abrupt manner.  As a result, when the boy arrived in the gym he was always just a few Kelvins shy of his boiling point.  Still, Freddy got the same treatment from me every night: calm but firm.  I gave him a little more slack that the other players, but not so much that he was ever really disruptive or so much that he grew entirely unfocused.  

Despite (or perhaps because of) this dynamic, the team came together.  We started running plays and executing them well.  And we won some ball games.  Eventually, we made it to the City finals where, in King’s College gym, we posted a 1-point victory over a powerful and gifted “Community Y” team.  From there, we headed to the Provincials and were soon into the final versus… the Community Y.  The rematch was played on the south-shore of Nova Scotia and had been delayed a week by bad weather.  Not a good omen, I thought.  But we entered a small gym with its tiny balcony filled to capacity and played a perfect first half of basketball.  By half-time we were up more than 20 points and the kids were so pleased they floated into the locker-room.  I was less happy.  By nature, I worry.  And that day was no exception.  In the locker-room I advised my players to keep playing hard and not rest on our lead.  The kids nodded their heads but I was not convinced they truly believed a 20+ point lead in an 12-and-under game could evaporate.

Of course, it did.  And by the last few seconds of the game, we were down by a point.  The gym was a madhouse.  Parents of the Community Y players had discovered that if they banged on the sheets of tin that lined the balcony, the noise it produced was punishing.  It fed into our team’s waning confidence and helped create turnovers and missed shots.   

With fewer than 10 seconds left in the game, the ball was in our possession but my kids were stunned.  I called a timeout.  As I walked into the huddle, I looked at the scoreboard to confirm what I already knew: we were down by a point.  To be losing after having held the lead for the entire game gave my team the look of kids who’d been called into the Principal's office for throwing snowballs at cars.  I tried to draw up a play, but with the banging on the tin and the chanting of the crowd, my boys were shellshocked and unreachable.  I tried to pull them tighter but their heads swiveled between the crowd and my play-board. 

Finally, I rose from my crouch and told them: “I am not drawing up a play until you are all paying attention.”  By now the referees were blowing their whistles trying to get our team back onto the floor where the Community Y players eagerly waited.  I stood there impassively.  The kids didn’t know what to do.  Some leaned toward the court, others stood stunned.  They were waiting for me to release them.  But I wouldn’t do it. 

“No one. Goes. Anywhere,” I said. 

Finally, the kids were still and as focused as soldiers on the Citadel.  “Good,” I said, as the refs hollered for us to break huddle.  “Here’s what we do... we run the play just like we always have…” I quickly reviewed a well-known play and the position of each player on the floor.  The kids nodded and their faces lit up.  Confidence seeped back in.  And they sprang out onto the floor.  

In my memory, the inbounding of the ball and subsequent play took a minute or two.  In reality it unfolded in less than 10 seconds.  It ended when the last player on our team got the ball in the key, very close to the hoop.  He lofted the ball up, and… it banked off the glass and in.  There was a split-second pause before the kids went nuts.  An impressive group of pre-teens had added “Provincial Champion” to their little resumes. 

Over the years, I largely lost track of the players from that team.  I might hear a snippet about what one or two of them - Mark was doing (studying law), Cooper was up to (tending bar) - but mostly their lives were mysteries to me.  I told myself that we had shared a great season and that was enough. 

Then, a few years ago, shortly after my wife and I had moved our young family back to Halifax, we attended a formal dinner at a downtown venue.  Hundreds of guests attended in tuxes and gowns, an after the meal we all stood as the chefs emerged from the kitchen and took their bows and mingled.  Soon enough, a particularly tall fellow in a white stove-pipe hat was standing in front of my wife talking to her.  Clearly, they knew each other.  I was not part of their conversation and when the chef walked away my wife gently chided  me:

“Why didn’t you say hello to him?”  

“You were chatting,” I said, “And besides, I don’t know him.”  

“Yes you do,” she said, “That's Fred.”  

I shrugged my shoulders.  

“You know... 'Freddy'… from your basketball team back in the '90s.  Growing up, I knew his sister,” she added, "That's him!"

“You’re kidding me,” I said. 

“He’s the head chef,” my wife continued.  “He was in charge of preparing this entire meal.”  

Now I was truly stunned.  In my mind, despite the fact that Freddy had a wonderful mother and a fine sister, it was always 50-50 whether he would end up having a good life or a miserable one.  (Truth be told, I probably would have wagered the latter.) 

Over the next few seconds, I watched his stove-pipe hat move through the crowd, until it circled back and ended up in front of me.  Freddy and I exchanged smiles.  

“I just realized who you are," he said.  "You’re coach Dave.”  I nodded.  He continued: “I just wanted to come back and say thanks.  I was a pretty bad kid back when I played for you, but you were always good to me.  I needed that.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.  We shook hands and he headed back toward the kitchen.  

Freddy had grown into "Fred" and he was now a very tall man  My wife informed me that Fred had graduated from culinary college and worked as the head chef at one of Halifax's finest restaurants.  He was married and had kids of his own.  By any standard, he was a ‘success’.  And his life, well, it seemed to be a very good one. 

I have re-told this story a few times, mostly to coaches who have grown frustrated by parents interfering with their teams or feel that their volunteering is not having a positive impact.  I always end with the same few words:  “It’s funny to think that after playing basketball so many years, my greatest moment came as a coach - and it took 25 years to even realize it happened.”

- DN

Growing UP

UP is going to school thanks to a proposed partnership with University of King’s College, here in Halifax.  

UP and King’s have been meeting over the past 7 months and will be doing so again on March 20th to hammer out the details of our future collaboration (including personnel, logistics, gym space, and finances).  In short, we are putting a sturdy frame around the existing pick-up games & youth mentorship presently underway.  

Growing UP (pardon the pun) requires partners - teammates, actually - who will help those basketball players interested in improving their skills on the court and who also harbor academic & professional dreams.

Most of us can recall a great coach or teacher who took a deep interest in us and helped guide us to higher ground - a spot from which the world looked genuinely beautiful.  The partnership with King’s - thanks to President Bill Lahey - is all about making those sort of relationships happen, nd happen more often.  We’ll always use basketball as the point of engagement.  But make no mistake, the goal here is not limited to achievement in sport.  This is about achievement in life.  This is about putting smart young ball players in places where the vistas are simply awesome. 

Want me to be specific about the problem that makes this process necessary?

How about this: Halifax has existed for years with not one family doctor of African Nova Scotia descent.  Yes, that’s what I said NOT ONE.  You’ll find a black doc here and there, and you’ll see a few family docs soon (we’re waiting for you Akila!), but for... well, ever... the city has been devoid of black family physicians.  

We want to see three African Nova Scotia kids get into and thru Medical school within the next 10 years.  That's the goal.  Period.  In one sense this may sound ambitious.  But in another way, it’s absolutely ridiculous.  Not for the difficulty in achieving this.  Rather, for the simple reality that this is not already happening… every... single... year.

So, time’s up Halifax.  We’re calling bullshit.  And we are thru asking for greater diversity on our university campuses.  UP is making things happen.

-DN

Damn Shame

(Ed. Note: This entry appears in "Ball Talk" as well)We are getting it all wrong as far as player development goes.  How?  By spending a helluva lot of time worrying and working on team-play and systems when skill development is what's needed and sorely lacking.  

When was the last time you sat watching TV while leaning back during commercials to 'shoot' the ball upward toward the ceiling to practice your line and backspin?  When was the last time you saw a player at the local playground working on his handle?  (For that matter, when was the last time you saw a Halifax court busy with more than one ball player on it?) 

We gotta' get back to basics, literally.  This means means improving on dribbling, passing and shooting - and not spending so much time on plays, and then executing ad nauseum on these structured systems during boring basketball games.  Putting the emphasis on the wrong aspects of play stifles immediate development and overall creativity.  

To pick on one aspect of the game, players, young ones especially, need to be much better at dribbling.  And (call me if this ever happens) when a kid feels he's able to dribble in a telephone booth like Steph can, challenge him or her to learn to pass as effectively as Bob Cousy, Pete Maravich or Jason Williams.  

That's right, guys from years and even decades ago, where doing things way better than we are today.  Want proof?  Just type in Williams' name into Google and watch "White Chocolate" spin and pass thru his top 10 plays of all time.  It's stuff you NEVER see players do - let alone even try - anymore.  Damn shame.

Provincial Pride

I have taken on a new role: President & Chairman of Basketball Nova Scotia. It’s a volunteer gig, and involves many other like-minded volunteers (dozens!) who support BNS’s staff of three smart and dedicated employees.  

These days tryouts are underway for the Provincial teams.  And while these teams will be picked soon, they won’t truly take shape until the spring.  The reason we select players early is because it gives us – Nova Scotia – a chance to pull our players together quickly, in the spring, for practices and development.  Other provinces wait until March, April of May to choose their squads.  We like to get it done early.  The results speak for themselves: our comparatively tiny province is coming home with national championships and launching players onto the NCAA and world stages with impressive frequency. 

So this is a shout out to all the brave and talented kids who have hit the gyms this past weekend, and will be there again next weekend, for putting themselves out there and leaving everything they have on the hardwood in the hopes of getting one of those coveted jerseys emblazoned with “Nova Scotia” across the chest.  

For those who make a team, congrats.  For those who fall short this time, take it as motivation to work hard and come back next year with a determination to dribble & d-up your dream into a very kool reality.  Go Scotia!

-DN

Mentorship Matters - Interview with Bernard Burgesson (Part 2)

Q.      Did you have mentors along the way?  If so, can you briefly name and/or describe them?  If these role models were lacking, how important do you think they are in the life of a younger person?

A.      My parents will always be my primary mentors.  They have always been by my side and continually encourage and help me maintain my faith.  At Queen’s University, I was introduced to a Pharmacology professor (Dr. Mike Adams) who also happened to be an avid fan of the Queen’s basketball program. We grew closer and he began to challenge me to improve my academic standing. He offered me work during the summers in his research lab to surround me with diligent individuals who valued excellence in academics. He also encouraged and pushed me continually to take charge or my future and “write my own story”.

Selfless mentors like Dr. Adams don’t come along for everyone. In my opinion it is so important to form friendships and surround yourself with people who care about you and by nature push you to improve on yourself, daily.

Q.    How would you describe the importance of family to you, the opportunities you have been given, and what you have and/or will become?

A.  Family is very dear to me.  Each member plays a slightly different role in my progression as an individual. My father has always been the motivator.  I certainly take after him in terms of his ambition and drive for success. My mother has always been by my side encouraging and comforting me in difficult times. Also, knowing that my siblings look up to me inspires me to continue to ‘lead by example’.

Q.      In the context of ‘the power of mentorship’, is there anything else you’d like to tell young student-athletes who read this?

A.      I would strongly recommend reading about the lives and challenges faced by ultimate role models like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Romeo Dallaire. I admire their level of perseverance and find great motivation in the uplifting way in which they all dealt with great adversity.  

Q.      You are well on your way in medicine.  How realistic is a life in medicine for other young people, especially kids who identify as African-Nova Scotia and are growing up here, but for whom there are extremely few ‘relatable role models’ among the local physician community?

A.      A career in medicine as an African-Nova Scotian is very achievable.  It does require some ambition and a lot of hard work. More importantly, African-Nova Scotians in medicine ought to reach out into communities to inspire and mentor aspiring students/youth. This is the reason I am involved with UP and a other similar initiatives; I want the youth in our local communities to realize that a career in medicine is not improbable. In more practical sense, I can offer guidance/strategy in applying for scholarships and selecting courses to better position aspiring students in preparation for admission into medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, physiotherapy etc.

Quotes that inspire me daily… my current favourite is from Bishop TD Jakes: “Successful people follow their instincts beyond the emotions of their failure”.

A Conversation with... Bernard Burgesson

In 2002 Bernard Burgesson and his family trekked 7,500 kilometers from Ghana to Nova Scotia in pursuit of a better life and increased opportunity.  The transition from West Africa to Canada was not an easy one, but Bernard refers to it as ‘a blessing’ - one that included a university basketball career and, now, studies in Medicine.  Bernard is writing his own story while encouraging other young athletes to follow his lead into university and what he calls "not improbable" careers in the sciences.

Bernard Burgesson

Bernard Burgesson

Here is the first installment of the UP interview with Bernard...

Q.      Please describe yourself.

A.       My name is Bernard Burgesson. I am a 26-year-old, 4th-year student at Dalhousie University Medical School. My family immigrated to Canada in 2002 [from Ghana, West Africa] in pursuit of better educational opportunities. We were fortunate to settle down in the close-knit community of Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. My family now resides in Halifax.

Q.      Where did you/do you study?  What you do now?  And where do you plan to be, professionally speaking, in the near future?

A.      I completed by undergraduate education at Queen’s University in Ontario in 2013 with a major in Biology. Queen’s was one of a few schools to offer me the opportunity to play basketball at the university level. Currently I am in the 4th year of my medical education at Dalhousie University and will be graduating in the spring of 2018. I am planning on pursuing a career in Orthopaedic surgery which will mean an additional five years of medical training as a resident physician.

Q.      Opportunity was the motivator to move to Canada.  How specifically has that decision benefited you?

A.      The decision to move to Canada was a difficult one, especially for my parents who had spent most of their lives in Ghana and were well rooted there. Canada, specifically Nova Scotia, was, and continues to be, a blessing to me. Our move afforded us better educational opportunities and easy access to key resources for pursuing these opportunities. Over the years, ready access to government resources/grants/scholarships has allowed me to focus on maximizing my potential in the classroom without much financial strain.

Q.      What were some of the challenges that came with a trans-Atlantic move?

A.      The weather was the most immediate challenge we faced as a family (we made the move in March 2002 following a number of successive winter storms). Assimilation into Canadian culture and society also came with many challenging experiences, some due to cultural differences and racial biases. However, the lessons learned from these experiences did, and continue to, play a key role in my development as a well-rounded individual. Over the years I have learned to be consistent with my core values, yet maintain enough flexibility and awareness to adjust these core beliefs where necessary.

Q.      You have accomplished a lot in both sport and academia. What are some of the keys to your progression?

A.      Goal setting and self-motivation are keys parts of my daily routine. I struggled in my first two years at Queen’s trying to strike a balance between academics and basketball. The change came in my third year when I made the decision to re-adjust the course of my academic career in pursuit of a career in medicine. Goal setting to me has two tiers: short and long-term. I began by re-establishing my long-term goal of a career in Medicine; my short-term goals were mostly daily/weekly/monthly academic targets which I adopted to help lead me towards my long-term goal. Along the way I have also come to learn the value of discipline in working towards one’s goals. I have by no means mastered this process, and may never do so, but I believe that persistently working at them offers me the best chance at maximizing my full potential. It has worked so far!

 

UP @ The Square

Rucker Park basketball comes to Halifax. Or close to it... sort of. For kids ages 12-17.

That's the idea behind "UP@TheSquare". That and some healthy BBQ, haircuts (for those who still have hair!), tunes, and swag. So get some buddies (max 4 players to a team) and sign up.  Or come alone - we'll find a team for you!  Register in the 12-14, or 15-17 age categories.  

Games will be Saturday, Sept., 23rd outside at the George Dixon Crt at Uniacke Square (rain date: Sept 24th).

See you there!

-DN

Thanks for 50 Great Years

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”  – Mark Twain

Halifax had never seen a triple threat like the late & truly great Wade Holly Smith.  He was a remarkable leader in the fields of athletics, academics and activism.  Born on May 14, 1967, I’m not sure Wade could have pegged the exact moment he realized his purpose in life, but he repeatedly told us what that purpose was.  As WHS wrote: “When you give freely without care or strife, you’ll see how much mentoring can change a life.”   

Thanks for a great run, buddy.  We were blessed to have you for 50 years.

- DN

"Little Dawg, hustle back on D!"... Or Else.

Recently, while in Ottawa on business, a friend asked me to drop by his youth (14 y/o) basketball practice and offer a few pointers to the players.  Never one to miss out on an hour in the gym, I drove to the west-end of the city and made my way inside Sir Guy Carleton Secondary School in Nepean, Ontario. 

As the guys were put thru their paces, I warmed up – jogging the length of the court, then shuffling up and back, then stretching a bit. The coach, my pal, then asked me to run a passing drill.

After this, I was asked to step in and help play some D as part of another drill.  I did so, taking notice of how very quiet my players were.  I chalked up their low volume to nerves at the presence of a new guy in the mix.  But after a few minutes I couldn't take it anymore; I requested a “time out” to talk with my small portion of the team. “Hey guys, do me a favour, let’s start talking – a lot. Ok?”  The guys agreed and we continued with the drill, effectively shutting down the O on most of the next 10 possessions.

Soon enough, another friend of the coach arrived.  Paul is 6’4”, 210-ish, built like steely home appliance with muscles taped on the side and sneakers on the bottom.  And he still, at 52, plays like the all-star he was at McGill University in the 80s; a painfully effective blend of biceps and brains.   

A full-court game ensued.  The old guys (x3) picked up two young players – Markins and Ben-G – and our team proceeded to take on the rest of the younger crew.

Now there’s one thing a bunch of old guys who’ve played ball at a decent level will never do when faced with young guns: Walk up the court – in either direction.  It’s a matter of pride.  We want you to know that we are still fit and we're extremely keen for: (a) you to know that; and (b) you to acknowledge in some was that we’ve ‘still got it’.  To this end, we will drop – quite literally – before we’ll show any signs of having aged and/or lost a step.  Indeed, during these games, Paul, Coach Kevin and I took no water and refused to sit between matches, choosing instead to heckle the young players back onto the court (before our aged muscles seized up).

It was a good run, but as the games (we played a handful to 7) progressed, it quickly became apparent that at least one of our young teammates was not as committed to life on the defensive end of the hardwood as he was to his herky-jerky, Euro-stepping moves on O.  Now, to be fair, Ben-G, at 5-foot-nothin’, has game - serious game.  And he is lightning quick off the dribble.  But I’ll be damned if that boy knew that the defensive end of the court had a rim and backboard. 

I might have tolerated some slack play if Little Dawg was hitting his shots.  But Ben-G was missing a bunch, and did not know that a missed shot is a “turn-over” (altho technically, perhaps, not called such on a stat sheet).  And, according to the rules that big Paul and I play by, if you miss a shot, you hustle back, preferably arriving in the paint before your winded and slightly pissed off teammates get there.  

Not so with Ben-G.  Instead, "Isaiah Thomas III" would dip his head, grumble at his misses, then stroll to mid-court and wait for the ball to be pitched ahead to him on the next possession.

Now, I’m a tolerant man.  This was not my practice to run.  And after a pick-up game ends I like to connect with my teammates by slapping hands and saying, “Nice run”.  But on that day, after the last hoop rippled the mesh ("Paul, you've still got a sweet stroke!") , I only had kind words for 4 of my 5 teammates.   I paused in front of Ben-G as he unlaced and offered some sound and perhaps too-stern advice.  To paraphrase, I said that I enjoyed the practice (which I did) but noted that next time we play, if you miss a shot or throw the ball away you better be the first guy back.

I’m not sure if a 14-year-old hears any message from a 50-year-old as constructive.  But that’s how I meant it: constructive and instructive... and a little like, “If I was 14 again, I’d be very pleased to kick your ass”.

Good teammates work as hard without the ball as with it, and they make every effort to make their teammates better.   If they don’t do these things they risk the wrath of the guys who have been picking up their defensive assignment, sweating their jocks off, and trying hard to compensate with for serious attitude with serious hustle.  The Ben-Gs of the world also doom themselves to the ballplayer’s version of Hell: Becoming the guy that no one else wants to select for pick-up.

Even for if the run is in sleepy Nepean... on a Wednesday nite... in a gym you’ve never heard of.  

-DN

Brotherly Love

When I was 14, I got a birthday card from a girl I liked. She lived in a different neighbourhood and attended a different public school than mine. Recognizing her name in the return address (back when pink envelopes and Queen Elizabeth stamps were the sticky equivalent of Twitter and Facebook), I was happy.  

But when I opened the card I grew absolutely thrilled

My would-be-girlfriend wrote something that in a million years I could never recall; what I’ve never forgotten was the hand-crafted message that was included with hers.  It came from a basketball buddy: a few words in perfect cursive along with a picture drawn with a felt-tipped pen.  The message read, “Happy Birthday, pal!  Wade”.  The picture was a basketball about to pass through a hoop.  The ink drawing was so good it rocked me; an image so simple and yet so well done that, in thousands of doodles over many years, I've tried to recreate it. 

I knew Wade Smith as a basketball wizard – a wiry kid with long strides and a sweet jump-shot – but I had no idea he was also a wicked artist.  But there it was – the picture as proof.  The image didn’t paint a thousand words, but it did raise a few questions, starting with: ‘Who the hell can play ball as well as he does and be an even better artist?!’  I was a perplexed. I was shocked.  Above all, I was pleased that this guy I knew from the basketball court and instinctively liked (despite watching him rain down jumpers when we tipped off against his team) would take the time to send me an original bit of art-as-birthday-message.

The girl who sent the bday card and I dated for a while; my friendship with Wade has lasted decades.  

Wade’s wife and my wife recently, in separate moments, said, “You are like brothers”.  (If you know the three princes that Wade has for actual blood brothers, you’d know how astronomically high this praise is.)  Our version of brotherly love has grown over time: we played mini ball against each other; we duelled it out from our vantage points at neighbouring high schools; and we headed off to university together, and even roomed with each other for our freshmen year while playing back-court for the St. Francis Xavier X-men.  

Back then, Wade was a highly-recruited 2-guard who went on to an all-star career.  I, on the other hand, was a walk-on who dutifully – if unhappily – took my place deep on the bench (for a single year before being cut) and watched my roommate’s career continue to soar.  Through it all, Wade and I became close.  We ate, danced, drank, laughed, and studied together.  We even prayed together: in our second year of university, my father died and Wade - along with Ritchie, Tom and Chris - the finest kind of 'teammates' - were there for me.

After three years at St. F.X., I moved onto England, grad studies, and a starting guard position for the University of London basketball team, the rough equivalent of being top batsman for a Canadian university cricket team (i.e., not even close to being as impressive as it may sound).

By the time I came back to Canada a year or so later, Wade was closing in on marriage to the lovely, smart and talented Sherry.  I recall clearly the day he drove over to see me and revealed what he was hiding in the glove-box: a beautiful, sparkly, expensive engagement ring. “What’d think?” he asked, beaming as brightly as the rare stones he had stashed alongside his roadmaps and gas receipts.  What could I say?  It was awesome.  No, brilliant.  “Sherry will love it,” I said.  

She did, of course.  And it was on a sweltering summer day in Truro, N.S., that Wade and Sherry became “Wade & Sherry” – united in the eyes of God and before the damp eyes of hundreds of cooing, clapping friends who knew they’d just witnessed something special.  We danced at the Legion that evening and celebrated one of the great pairings of basketball talent.  (Sherry had, after all, been as bright a star on the court as her new hubby.)  I drove home late that night, happy for my pal and thrilled for his bride.  Soon, Baby Jaydan arrived, and then Jaxon hit the scene.  Life zoomed ahead.

Now, faster than Steph Curry can launch a jumper, Jay and Jax are young, intelligent, talented, handsome, accomplished men, scouting university careers of their own (and being scouted for basketball skills that rival their parents’).  Meanwhile, Sherry has helped (and hugged) a million people, all while looking as though she could still put up a double-double game without breaking a sweat.  And Wade… well he is as lean, handsome and strong as I recall back in the day when #21 was delivering bombs and hauling down awards.

But as I write this, I am very, deeply, heart-wrenchingly worried about my old pal.  

The news came in an email from a dear, thoughtful gal Wade and I have known since university:  “Wade has been trying to connect with you… our good friend is very ill… he has been diagnosed with stomach and esophageal cancer… It’s not a good diagnosis…”  The message stood me up; I stumbled, then crumpled onto one knee.  I then made calls with trembling fingers and quickly got the full story.  I hung up, and sobbed.  

In a matter of three shitty minutes, the whole damn world had changed.

As I write this, it is a few days later.  I have sat and talked with my old friend and hugged his granite/gold wife. And I’ve joined the legion of family members and friends who await the results of a cancer biopsy.  We are part of a too-familiar match-up: The People vs. Cancer.  And while I am a guy who tries to try to see storms as events that presage rainbows, I have to admit that I truly have no idea how this will end. 

What I do know is that I love the starting five on Team Smith: Wade, Sherry, Jay, Jax… and that all-powerful forward, God.  No one could crack that line-up. 

But if Wade does need me to sub in anytime any place, he will find me exactly where he left me ‘back in the day’ and every day since: Seated and leaned in, elbows on my knees – waiting, hoping and praying that I can play a few minutes of back-up to the star; just long enough to take the heat off my teammate, my friend… my brother.

-DN

The Second Coming of Steph

The gym is packed. The game has gone into overtime. The fans are apoplectic at the referee’s latest call.  You could be forgiven for thinking this was a Final Four contest, or an NBA Finals tilt.  It’s not.  Far from it. 

Welcome to Nova Scotia Provincial U12 boys basketball final.  Division 2.

I’d like to tell you that I watch this game from the stands: the picture of comportment, a basketball grey-beard who shakes his head at the behaviour of the parents as they howl and the coach of one of teams at play barks out a useless command at a moment coincident to the foul-shooting motion of an opposing player.  (Sportsmanship be damned.)  Nope.  Look down the Hurricanes’ bench (the kids’ one, not the pro one) and there I am, rising and falling with every whistle as though the ref’s exhalations are inflating me. 

I am the assistant coach to as sweet a bunch of boys as I have coached in my 30 years of doing this.  

Over the past three decades, you’d think I'd have developed some perspective along the lines of ‘it’s only a game’ or ‘it’s just a match between kids’. Oh no.  I’m more intense today than a middle-aged chain-smoker about to undergo open heart surgery; more Roy Williams than Mark Few; more ranter than rover. 

What’s worse: I am one of the more sane people in the gym today.

Allow me to draw your attention to three players who've got me amp-ed up today. They are #5, #12, and #24.  

The first two players wear the red jerseys of the Community Y Panthers (always a formidable opponent, in my experience) while the latter lad plays for the Hurricanes. Number #5 is a lean kid with cornrows and a sweet and speedy eurostep that paralyzes my players.  And number 12 is a silky smooth ball-handler with a nice stroke from 17 feet. As for #24, he's on our team; a tiny, deft dribbler who stands out as much for his size and skill.   

No one wears a surname on their jersey, but I can tell you that #5 has Carvery in his handle, # 12 is part of the Downey clan, and #24 is a Napier.  Yep, he`s my youngest son.

The names wouldn’t matter and neither would the outcome of the game if it wasn’t for Steve Nash and Andrew Wiggins.  Or Chris Johnson, Kia Nurse, and Lindell Wigginton.  Those folks are doing for Canadian hoops what Sid, Nathan and Brad (and Al MacInnis and others) did for Nova Scotia hockey: namely, make the prospect of a fame-filled, money-soaked career in “The Show” a tantalizingly ‘real dream’ for thousands of young athletes. 

Don't get me wrong, I love that kids dream.  What makes me furrow my brow (then holler at the ref) is the Air Canada Centre’s worth of parents who believe their son or daughter is the heir apparent to Cory Joseph’s spot on the Raptors` roster.  I blame our collective blind spot on advertising and the wheelbarrows full of money that turned pro sports into the lair of swaggering stars and greedy agents.  And while it's true that not all players are jerks and not all agents are evil, $49 million over 5 years in exchange for filling stadium seats and causing palette-loads of sneakers and sugary drinks to fly off store shelves seems a little steep when kids in South Sudan are starving.  

We all need to put things in perspective.  Fast.

Once we do, everyone will see what I do... young Mister Downey fouled us on that last play!  ... That Carvery kid`s eurostep is a travel!  C`mon ref! 

And my son?  Well, please just ignore that last turn-over, that botched defensive assignment, and the fact that he`s 10 years old, and believe me when I tell you that, in my expert & unbiased opinion, the boy is clearly Second Coming of Steph Curry.  

Hey ref!  The #24 is getting hacked every time!

-DN

Rucker's Disciple

The worn steps inside the old YMCA on South Park Street in Halifax were a multi-levelled, brown-tiled affair that ended one story up at a set of heavy metal doors.  On the other side were a pair of handball courts (my father, sister and I played handball; folks with tender paws played racquetball), next to which rested a sleepy old gymnasium replete with a punished wooden floor and a set of lofty, lead-lined windows that only permitted a dream-like amount of the sun’s rays to penetrate that sports sanctuary.

It was there, as a boy of 12 in 1979, that I joined a basketball day-camp run by a man I’d never met before and, to the best of my recollection, had not the privilege of meeting again.  

I had been steered to the event by well-intentioned coach or (although I find this a doubtful possibility, at best) my parents. Either way, it was a life-changing few hours that started with a t-shirt.  In my memory, it is heavy white cotton.  On the front is a basketball surrounded by navy blue lettering that spells “Each One, Teach One”.  A burly Terry Symonds had pulled the event together with the help of a lean basketball great named Lee Thomas (who was staring at Saint Mary’s University in those days on route to taking his place in that school’s sports Hall of Fame).  

Terry was an employee of the north-branch library and a fixture at the adjacent gym known as the “Community Y” who would, in 1990, die at the unfathomably young age of 36.  He left this great world too soon, but his legacy has endured for the decades since. 

Back then, I was scrawny south-end kid who played guard for the unfortunately-named Canadian Martyrs team.  I knew many of the Community Y players from their prowess on the court and brief exchanges we’d have after hard-fought games, but I was not overly familiar with their coach and mentor, Terry.  I probably had very little interaction with Terry at the basketball camp that day, I don't remember, but I clearly recall the incredible vibe in that gym full of basketball crazed kids of all colour, size, and skill.  

I also remember that my parents didn't hover nearby that day.  

If I had to wager they’d either gone home or headed to work after dropping me off with only cursory glance toward the bustling gymnasium.  Either way, I was alone with dozens of other ballers, forced to navigate my way in games rich with talented ‘Y’ players - many of whom I’d compete fiercely against for years to come (losing with frustrating frequency) before settling into warm adult friendships.  It was empowering and fun to be in the Y that day with my cool new t-shirt (replete with a slogan I didn’t understand) playing the game I loved with kids who shared my passion for basketball. 

Long after my playing days ended, I started to piece together what had happened back in the YMCA during that era when Earth, Wind & Fire was rocking turn-tables and Magic & Michigan State were preparing to do battle with Larry & Indiana State…

... Terry and Lee had struck up a friendship, and the latter was from New York City.  It was in NYC – home to some of the best basketball players on the planet in those days – where the “city game” was in full flight.  And no one flew as high as the guys who rose above the blacktop in Harlem’s Rucker Park: guys with names like Erving, Kirkland, Hammond... a list as lengthy as their playground feats mythical.

Yet, before the helicopter dunks and snatching of quarters off the top of backboards, there was Holcombe Rucker.  Starting in the 1950s, Rucker was a Playground Director for NYC’s Parks & Rec department.  An educated man, Rucker started the fabled league that bears his name but insisted that education take its spot on the court alongside basketball.  Rucker’s “Each one, Teach one” approach took root in the Harlem asphalt and captured the imaginations of thinking men like Lee Thomas and, soon enough, his pal Terry Symonds.

UP basketball is a modern version of that old concept, and similarly fueled: By the belief that sports is as much about learning as leaping; as much about connecting people as counting points. 

As for Rucker and his memorable disciple, Coach Symonds, they continue to prove that good ideas have lasting resonance.  And, to twist the words of the formidable Africadian poet George Elliott Clarke, each life is a drum.

-DN

Hoop Schemes

The idea - in fact, the need - for UP Basketball came to me as I was winding down a multi-year stint as the President of a local youth basketball club with some 400 players (and, if my shaky math serves, about 800 parents).  The kids - ages 5 to 18 - were almost always wonderful and, even when they weren't, never posed a problem that couldn't be solved with direct, honest communication.

That's always the way it was... until an over-wrought mom or dad would get involved.  Then, all bets were off.  As I liked to say to my fellow club exec members, "There's never a problem with a kid that cannot be fixed quickly, and with little drama. But as soon as parents are involved, it is rarely easy."

During my tenure as a volunteer Prez, I dealt with some doozies.  And they were almost always related to the moment when a parent sees their son (usually daughters were exempt) enter adolescence and start to show athletic ability (that parents often mistake for giftedness), and not make the 'Division 1' team or not get enough playing time.  The resulting issues were something akin to an extended episode of Survivor.  Truth and fiction being strange teammates, my pal Mark, a successful TV writer, claimed it was a comedy that pretty much wrote itself.  Atbest it was a tragi-comedy.  

I grew disheartened.  But I would not be defeated.  

These few but foul incidents served to crystalize what I'd been thinking for years: Namely, that kids need 'free play' as much as they need plenty of sleep and proper nutrition.  And, I knew, they need a whole lot less involvement from parents (including me).  We adults love to drive our kids to and from games and practices, advising our young athletic charges in both directions.  It's exhausting - for the kids.  As for the parents, we seem downright indefatigable in our efforts to coach our sons and daughters  to the NBA (keys in ignition... seat-belt on ...drive... blah, blah.... sip of coffee... blah, blah, blah...check the rear-view mirror... "Johnny, are you listening to anything I've just said?!"), advise the coaches, and (when the Saturday-morning java has really kicked in) berate the opposing team's fans. 

It had to stop.  At least, I thought so. So I launched Ultimate Pickup basketball.  A few t-shirts, some donated gym time, snacks & water, a few folks around to keep the kids safe.  It's my little stone tossed into the ocean of amateur athletics.  But every stone makes a ripple, right?  

If you want to know where the idea for UP got its true start, I'd have to go back to 1979 and a guy name Terry Symonds.  Or even further back and farther away, to New York City and the Harlem legend Holcombe Rucker.  But that's another story....

Come back if you want to hear it. 

-DN