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A Crying Shame

The global pandemic drags on, into its sixteenth month. New surges and setbacks, all around the world, still outweigh promising vaccine developments. Shaky, inconsistent messaging, too many indecisive, wishy washy Covid policies, grinding fatigue and gnawing uncertainty further contribute to the overall distress.

School age kids have certainly borne their share of frustration and discontent. In so many cases, their grit and resilience are laudable. Yet, week on week of aptly named “remote” learning, or education interrupted completely for long stretches, takes its toll. For those fortunate enough to actually attend school “in person”, there are a myriad of restrictions. Arts, music, athletics are cancelled entirely or severely compromised. Gone is the prospect of acting, of dancing, of debating, of singing. Of performing, playing, or competing. Gone are the possibilities to create life-long memories.

I am luckier. It turns out that age has certain benefits. At least I can reminisce, can cherish and replay in my mind numerous games and tournaments from past years. For me, the echoes and reminders help fight off sporting withdrawal.

I think of Alberni. Some 17,000 souls nestle in the valley of the same name, surrounded by mountains, unspoiled lakes, rushing rivers, and rain forests of giant trees. The self-styled Salmon Capital of the World, thanks to a port, the local waters, and Barkley Sound, it is one of the major angling and fishing hubs of Vancouver Island and a gateway to the Pacific Rim.

It is a blue-collar working town. For decades, forestry dominates the economic landscape, a distinctive smell emanating from the paper mill situated at the edge of the inlet.

It is also a rabid sports town. Traditions range all the way back to 1955, when a star-studded Alberni Athletics host and win the national Senior Men’s basketball championship. The same players, names such as Grisdale, Kootnekoff, and Speidel, then promote a senior boys high school tournament. The “Totem”, now the longest running such event in British Columbia, set to celebrate its 66th anniversary, becomes a matter of civic pride.

Flash forward to 1992. Senior boys hoop in BC is playing to rave reviews. Deep and talented teams battle throughout the province on a nightly basis. One of this group is Alberni, now known as the Armada, fittingly led by a superstar pivot with the surname of Cannon. Also very highly regarded is our squad, SMUS.

Saturday, January 11. The two clash in the Totem final. An epic contest unfolds, one of the finest and most exciting games I have ever been part of.

Deep in the bowels of the old Alberni District school, we get ready. Negotiate our way through various changing rooms, along basement hallways and up a flight of stairs to reach the court. A capacity crowd, some 1,000 strong, many of them students and all decked out in red, jams into every available nook and cranny. The main stand, across from the team benches, is also full to overflowing. Row upon row reach to near roof level, fans squashed together like sardines. Cheerleaders nail their routines and the pep band entertains. The fire marshal locks the entrance doors, a coveted admission ticket like gold dust.

Maybe it is the sense occasion, the palpable tension, the importance of the game, a deep desire to win. Whatever the case, Alberni starts decidedly off kilter, making uncharacteristic errors. In contrast, SMUS enjoys a dream-like first half, defending aggressively, executing with precision, making shots. Improbably, impossibly, stunningly, we lead 48-27 at intermission. The home supporters, at an absolute fever pitch an hour ago, are now muted.

I stress the importance of the opening minutes in the third quarter. Our team, led by a certain point guard named Steve Nash, is skilled, senior laden and experienced. I expect we will continue to perform well, to extend our advantage.

How wrong I am. The desperate home team attacks with new resolve, almost a viciousness, as it cuts into the deficit. Now it is Alberni’s turn to dominate. Its supporters are soon again in full voice, providing the impetus for the Armada to wrest, and then keep, momentum. “Sit down, Ian” the crowd serenades, as I pace the sidelines. The margin drops steadily, from 21, to 17, to 14, to 10, then to 8 points.

We seem powerless to stop the onslaught. Timeouts, substitutions, changes in strategy cannot stem the flow. Even the incomparable Nash struggles under the pressure and in the sauna like conditions. For a few precious minutes, he is reduced to the status of a mere mortal.

2.30 left to play, the Armada now only down two. At the free throw line to shoot a pair, riding a wave of emotion. The first shot is good, the lead cut to one point. The second shot rims out.

Yet, in a remarkable feat of athleticism, Cannon leaps for the rebound, corrals it. In one smooth motion, before landing back on the ground, he then slams the ball through the basket. Alberni takes the lead, as the delirious crowd explodes in rapture.

Then, a pivotal moment. As the din reaches a crescendo, as a cacophony of noise washes over the entire sweaty building, several boys high in the bleachers choose to celebrate by tossing rolls of toilet paper down towards the gym floor. In a matter of seconds, the court is covered. The officials have no choice. They have to stop the game and clear the mess.

The unexpected break, maybe only a minute in length, is just enough. We regain our composure, score the next two buckets. Edge in front, up three. From there we hang on to record a narrow victory. It is sweet relief.

On occasion, I seek confirmation of the above events. However, any relevant video or You Tube clips apparently do not exist. Nonetheless, I know what I feel and what I remember.

And I believe further the players involved, on both teams, will have their own special memories. Maybe Alberni would have won, but for the toilet paper raining down from near the roof top. But maybe not. And, in the end, and with the passage of time, does the actual result really matter?

What does matter is that everyone that evening at least had the chance to take part. Millions of young men and women across the world, at all levels and in multiple disciplines, for a year and a half have not enjoyed similar opportunities and experiences. May not again in 2022.

And that is a crying shame.

1 Comment

May 19, 2021

Agreed, and irrevocable.

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