Is Halifax the new Harlem?

I’ve been reading Geoffrey Canada’s books lately.  The lanky, 67-year-old from the Bronx is a hero of mine and his books — “Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun” and “Reaching Up for Manhood” — are terrific reads for anyone interested in helping young people tap into education-based opportunities and form poverty-fighting plans.  

I am not alone: Canada is a hero to thousands, maybe millions of people, including Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and the many Harlem residents who’ve benefited from his tremendous work over decades with the Rheedlen Centres for Children & Families and the Harlem’s Children’s Zone.  (Google the TED talk “Our Failing Schools” and you’ll see that Canada has reached millions: 2, 162, 978 as of today, in fact.) The HCZ changes lives through a myriad of programs that are staggeringly well-executed.   They also adopt the mantra “failure is not an option”, which Canada says applies more to employees of the HCZ than to those it serves.

Recently, the HCZ, through its “Practitioners Institute” gave me a 1-hour tutorial on the work they do and how they do it. It was a superb 60 minutes of questions and answers and ideas-exchange (thanks Yacine and Janet-Marie!). But here’s the thing: as impressive and successful as the HCZ is, there is no magic.  The conjuring, I believe, happens when good intentions meet with great ideas and get irrevocably wed to a determination to see projects through to the bitter (and often sweet) end. 

Of course, along the way shit happens.  

A few weeks before I got on the line with Yacine and Janet-Marie, a local kid in Halifax was gunned down at 5pm on a Friday afternoon on residential street.  He wasn’t an UP guy, but he was close to many young men who are UP ballers.  In New York, the story was similar: as soon as we started to speak, the HCZ folks told about a young person had been murdered just the day before — “Right outside one of our schools,” Yacine said.  

I’m not saying Halifax is Harlem.  But I am saying that our city has race and poverty and violence issues.  And I’m saying that kids are worth helping… that violence knows no boundaries… and that we must build each and every interaction on a foundation fashioned our of Trust & Respect.  

Whether it’s HCZ or UP, it’s not about charity.  Hell, it’s often not even about ‘helping’ someone.  It’s about being human and showing your humanity.  It’s about giving someone a boost up when they need it, including when they are tired or pissed-off or just scared. 

When the HCZ staff asked about my motivation, I explained it that I started UP as much for myself as others.  I put it this way:  I decided years ago that could not continue life’s climb without reaching back and lending a hand to a few people who may have faltered or maybe just never had ‘decent footing’ to start with. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am no Geoff Canada. And I want to reach life’s summit and enjoy the view.

It’s just that getting to the peak alone isn’t very appealing to me.     


The Book of Tom

I wanted to be in touch and say thanks. But with him that’s not so easy. This guy doesn’t own a computer and doesn’t use e-mail. Heck, even calling and leaving a message isn’t a possibility because he doesn’t have a cellphone or use an answering service of any kind. He’s a self-proclaimed “Luddite” and proud of it.

So when I wanted to say ‘thanks’ to basketball’s greatest high school scout, Tom Konchalski, for showing me and my pal PJ through the courts of NYC and NJ again I had to drop him a letter. It was a hand-written card, in fact. And penning it felt great — great to know that I had made more than a cold electronic connection with a man who, in his early seventies now, has spent decades making personal and meaningful connections with high school basketball players of all skill levels. He’s the guy who first spotted Michael (then “Mike”) Jordan. And he’s the kind of guy who, long after he’d helped raise Felipe Lopez’s profile so high that “Spanish Michael Jordan” ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated (after which he graduated to the NBA), still sends Mrs. Lopez, Felipe’s mom, a birthday card. Every year.

Yep, that’s the guy I get to hang with for a few days every summer. Not because I’m anyone special. No way. Rather, it’s just because Tom and I met a bunch of years ago and we stay connected. I’m thrilled to say that somewhere along the way the 6’ 6’’ bastion of basketball information who is “Tom” went from being the subject of a story I was writing (see the “Basketball Diary” page) to a friend. We’re not close, but we’re always happy to hear from one another. And because of my annual visits to NYC — where Tom and me and my dear pal PJ roll around a few playgrounds and watch outstanding HS ball — we’ve all bonded. Over ball and meals and long chats (where PJ and Tom do most of the talking and I listen and nod a lot).

Tom Konchalski is unusual for many reasons, his complete aversion to technology being one of those (his daily attendance at church and inability to drive a car are two others). But he’s even more unusual for his sincerity and character and goodness. He has made a lasting impact on the lives of countless basketball players in terms of the schools to which he has pointed the and the good lives toward which he was guided them. He’s done this in word and in deed.

America’s current political leaders could all take a page from the book of kindness and connection as written by Tom. Heck, we all could. Meantime, for the cost of 2 stamps, a little ink, and a few minutes of my time, I happily communicate with this ‘Wizard of Odds’ the sweet, slow fashioned way.

Grassroots Guys Worth Copying

A new team has taken shape. And hopefully it won’t be the only one of its kind.

The “UP All-Stars” is a crew of 15-17 year old guys from around Halifax who’ve come together (thanks to Ms. Christine Buckley) to focus on basketball skill development. The All-Stars also engage in tutoring (Wed. nites from 5pm-7pm at Dixon Ctr.) and community building activities (bagging groceries, painting exterior walls of local establishments to freshen up neighborhoods) and fun cross-training activities (swimming, inline skating, pilates).

Perhaps best off all, this team does not travel and keeps its cost-to-play exceptionally low. Players are paying $50 to practice & scrimmage throughout the spring and early summer. For this investment players get access to a ton of great coaches (Shawn Mantley, Mookie Magloir, Tray Clayton & Malik States!), gyms, jerseys, & tutors.

Other teams sh/could spring up and copy what the UP All-Stars are doing in terms of basketball development, community growth, and personal development. Go for it! Please.

Wise words, Kind words

I am a pretty good writer, but, truth be told, the polish to my words varies in sheen depending on how passionate I am about the subject being tackled.  I think it’s a common issue with all who put pen to paper, finger to keyboard. And yet somehow I am still shocked when I read a beautifully-crafted sentence from someone who speaks the truth powerfully & eloquently.   It rivals the days when I lived in Toronto and watched from my 200-Level seats as Vince Carter lifted off for the Raptors and did something spectacular.

Recently, I came across two recent examples of terrific writing. 

The first was from billionaire investor Warren Buffet, whose Letter to Shareholders, from his base camp in Omaha, is always narrative gold.  (I read Buffett for the same reason I still read Sports Illustrated: it reminds of what greatness looks like to a fan sipping beer in the cheap seats.)

The second bit of passionate prose originated much closer to home.  It came when Kinduct, a local  sports data company, came on board as UP’s first sponsor.   The leader of the Kinduct team, Travis McDonough, wrote something for our joint announcement that stopped me cold.  Frankly, the first few lines were so right-on that I wished I had written them. 

Travis wrote:

“Historically, sport is the ultimate teacher of life skills for children across the world. Recently however sport has become over structured and over engineered. We have stripped out the imagination, the creativity, the freedom for kids just to play...and learn...and have fun. UP Basketball provides an opportunity for children to play the game the way it was meant to be played — without parents, without coaches, without fixed rules and without organized venues…”

He added: “Kinduct is thrilled to support a grassroots organization that focuses in on the pure joy and essence of sport.” 

Travis may be ‘thrilled to support’ this modest little project, but I can assure you that I am even more appreciative of his support — and that of the fabulous players on the Kinduct roster.  Thank you!

Finally, if you don’t know about Kinduct and how they turn raw data on athletes’ performance into refined intelligence, I urge you to check them out.  I won’t spoil your fun by restating my bias, but I will say this: McDonough & Kinduct are to sports data and analytics what MJ & Scotty were to the Bulls — or should I say, what Zion & RJ are to Duke. Either way,  ‘nuff said.

Wizard of Odds

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.” 


"Have You Ever Been to North Preston?"

A few weeks ago I attended a somewhat swanky breakfast at Pier 21 put on by the fine folks at the YMCA in Halifax-Dartmouth to honor local community leaders.  Shortly before the formal portion of the event started a man plunked himself into the chair beside me.  It was impossible not to notice that this guy in his mid to late 60s had the energy of a puppy off his leash.  (And, in the morning sun, it was clear that he was wearing a very colorful sweater for which he should had saved the receipt.) 

Soon enough I introduced myself.  He did the same.  It was another lesson for me about ‘not judging books by their covers’.  Who knew that John Lindsay, Jr., the man responsible for putting his father’s name on the new Y and tossing a suitcase full of cash at what will become Halifax’s next landmark building, could pass for your folksy uncle?  

After the breakfast had wrapped up, John and I bumped into each other at the coat-rack. I mentioned how much the Y had impacted me as a kid and noted that UP Basketball was a sort of extension of some of the work that had gone on there.  I added that UP was headed to North Preston in a few weeks and asked if John had ever been there. 

“No,” came the reply of one of Halifax’s most successful commercial real estate builders, before quickly adding, “No one has ever asked me.”

So there you have it, I thought: one of our city’s most generous and wealthy white businessmen has never visited one of our province’s most vibrant yet impoverished (and, there’s shamefully no coincidence here, predominantly black) communities.  It’s not that John wouldn’t go, he’s just never been asked. I told him that I am not from NP but that I have friends who are, and, if he was interested, I was sure we could secure an invitation.

As it happens, I went to NP in early December with UP for a small, spirited game of pick-up ball. 

John, as far as a I know, still hasn’t been there.

It’s a shame.  Just think of what a man like John Lindsay, Jr., teamed with a few others from different communities and backgrounds could do to grow North Preston.  They could build some new houses around the lake.  They could open a gas station/grocery store.  They could bring a coffeeshop to the NP Community Centre.  The list of possibilities is as long as it is exciting.  (And if anyone needs proof that ‘build it and they will come’ applies to NP, just look at what young Shaq Smith is doing with his new $300K outdoor basketball court.)

The bottom line is that we’d all be better for walking through North Preston once in a while. And we’d all be better if that fine community got a little bit of the love and respect that other Halifax neighborhoods take for granted. 

So here’s my small effort to walk that process forward. It comes in the form of a simple but long-overdue question:  “Hey, John Lindsay, Jr., wanna’ take drive out to North Preston someday?”


New UP Teammates: A Good (Naw, Great!) Corporate Citizen, and a Former AUS Star

Hey All:

I cannot say too much right now, but let me reveal this much:

UP has a new corporate sponsor coming on board. They couldn’t be bigger or a better fit for UP Basketball and the young athletes that come thru our games. The big reveal will come in the next few months as terms are finalized (and UP nails down it charitable status with CRA) so stay tuned.

And… UP is welcoming a new individual in the form of a former AUS stand-out and big-time community leader here in Hfx-Dart.

Until the formal announcements are made (via this site, and social media) know that the UP is growing in small but important ways.



College Hoops Then & Now

I remember being 13, seated alongside my pal Mac in the "Metro Centre" with our legs dangling toward the lower bowl, watching the St.F.X. men's team, starring John Hatch, wage battle against Acadia.  Mac and I were so enamored of the X-men that we swore, then and there, that we'd attend St.F.X. and wear blue and white in the backcourt.  

I was a decent ball player.  Mac was outstanding.  These two facts came to bear heavily on our respective decisions regarding university and where to attempt to play basketball.  So, a few years later when my parents drove me onto the St. F.X. campus, I wasn't surprised to find that Mac was not enrolled.  He'd been recruited pretty heavily and eventually opted to play in British Columbia - UVic to be precise. 

Mac went west with dreams of eventually making it to the Olympics.  I, on the other hand, stayed the course and, after a summer spent running the streets of Halifax in the hopes of getting into shape for training camp, headed down the highway in the hopes of making the basketball team as a “walk-on”.   My timing was perfect.   That year - 1985 - the X-men had a single spot on its roster for an non-recruited player.  That said, looking around the gymnasium that September day, it quickly registered how deep the pool of basketball talent was: there were all-stars from Halifax, standouts from Ontario, and two players from the United States.  The latter athletes were both outstanding, but it was a strong, smooth, 6’3” guard name Kyle Gayle, who hailed from Bayonne, New Jersey, that seemed other-worldly when it came to ball-handling and the ability to twist and turn to the hoop.

This was ball at a whole other level.

I made the team and, to this day, have friends from those days in the X locker-room.  I am also still in touch with Steve ("Coach K") Konchalski.  And now, as the USports (formerly the CIS) tournament kicks into gear, I find myself making my way to what's now the "Scotiabank Centre" to sit in the stands, sip a beer and watch the latest generation of university players live out their dreams.  It's nice to see.  And it's nice to feel, in a very small way, a part of the long & illustrious legacy of university ball in Canada.