Eli's Dead. Long Live Eli.

Mortality sucks.  There, I said it.  I hope that doesn’t bring the wrath of any god(s) down on me, but it needed to be said — especially in the wake of recent events and news. 

First, I went to the bank and the teller (young, dapper, 30 something) informed me gleefully that I really should look into some of the bank’s credit options, then added, “Because when you retire these options just go away”.  Jezzus, I am 52.  A bald 52, I admit, but I’m not looking like a guy who’s moments from retirement.  Am I?  And then there is this university course I am taking in which we recently read The Epic of Gilgamesh and, well, it’s a long story… suffice to say it’s all about immortality and how humans don’t qualify.  

And then there was the news this week that Eli Pasquale has died.  This one hurts.

I didn’t know the great point guard who led UVic teams to five straight national championships and took Canada to one of its all-time great international victories, at the World University Games in 1983, versus a US team that included Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Johnny Dawkins, Ed Pickney, Kevin Willis.  (It should be noted that in the final of that tournament Eli shut down a Yugoslavian combo guard named Drazen Petrovic to help Canada win gold.  If you aren’t aware of Petrovic’s basketball prowess and how easily he scored, look him up!)  The ‘miracle on the hardwood’ at the University games presaged Eli’s leadership role on not one but two Canadian Olympic teams (at LA, then South Korea).  

A thousand people know Eli’s story better than me, but I do have a small connection worth sharing, I think.  It’s the early 80s and I am seated at the Metro Centre in Halifax alongside my pal Mac.  We’re 15 years old and have found the perfect perch — end of the row, feet dangling over the lip of the Upper Bowl aisle — to watch UVic play in the national tournament.  It’s spell-binding stuff, and no one is more attention-grabbing than the little point guard for the Vikings.  The olive-skinned kid wearing #13 is thoroughly unassuming until he starts running the point and making so much happen with so little space.  It becomes clear why the Vikes will win — and win 4 more championships before Pasquale moves on — and why UVic coach Ken Shields, barely has to do anything to rack up victory after victory, including a .500 record versus NCAA Div 1 teams.  

Mac and I are in awe.  Both of us are nuts for StFX and we make a popcorn pact to attend that school one day and play backcourt positions. But Mac quietly forms another plan; he wants to be the next Eli Pasquale.  Long story short, when the time comes (in 1985) for me to attend university I head for X and make the team as a walk-on with a decent long-range J and little else.  Mac is nowhere to be found, though.  He has entertained offers and varsity jerseys from a number of schools before ultimately heading west to Victoria, B.C. where he tries to take over the role that Eli once dominated.  My pal’s attempt to slip into Eli’s sneakers doesn’t go as planned, but it was a heck of a shot. I still love the balls it took for Mac to try.  

This week hearing the news that Eli has died at the age of 59 after “a lengthy battle with cancer”, I am saddened.  For Pasquale, obviously, but more for his wife and kids, and sister, mother, and brother & former Vikes teammate Vito.  I am sad for all those teammates who knew the man and loved the player; who credit Pasqaule for making them better and in some cases champions — and in one case, an NBA star who became that league’s MVP.  Twice.  Yep, think about it… who out of Canada’s basketball past played, and even looked like the diminutive, sinewy and sneaky Eli?  You guessed it, Steve Nash.  That Victoria native, who went on to unbelievable heights in the pro game, attributes much of his achievement and a ton of his teenage notion that he could rise to the sporting stratosphere to his old mentor and friend Eli Pasquale.  

I love the way basketball brings us together.  But even more than that I love the way the sport invites and nourishes mentorship.  I read that Pasquale just missed making the NBA after two close calls at training camps featuring, in one case Gerald Henderson and the next John Paxon.  Bad timing?  Damn straight.  But it was a boon for the semi pro fans Eli entertained in South America and Europe, and the kids he coached after a somewhat truncated career.  

Death doesn’t become anyone, and cancer sucks.  (Yeah, now I am surely doomed for my lip.) But some guys and gals leave behind legacies that endure and that narratively carry the rest of us forward in a magical way. They simultaneously make us forget that our playing days are numbered while clearly reminding us that we need to help those coming behind us if we, the established ones, are to achieve anything substantial in this too-short match we call Life.   

- DN