Third week of March. 1995. An awkward decision looms. I run the various pros and cons through my mind, take multiple deep breaths, tap into my intuition. Seek advice from a close friend but know that ultimately any choice I make is mine and mine alone.
On one hand, I coach the senior boys basketball team at SMUS. As an exciting high school season draws to a close, we wish to take one final step. Namely, to win the British Columbia AAA tournament.
On the other, as an ambitious rugby referee, I am very keen to make my way on the national and international scene. And I am scheduled to officiate a New Zealand XV vs British Columbia Senior Men, the game also to take place in Vancouver. The home side is a de facto Canada selection, all the players keen to impress in advance of an upcoming World Cup.
Unfortunately, the basketball tournament final and the rugby match are scheduled on the same date. Which one to pick?
Our SMUS team is one of the elite squads in the province and already the winner of multiple Invitational events. For most schools, chances to then win the “BCs” are few and far between. And what of the players themselves, many of whom will have invested considerable time and effort in preparing? How will they feel if abandoned by their coach at the final hurdle?
The flip side is that top level rugby refereeing opportunities, particularly in Canada, are somewhat limited. A dynamic performance will certainly help cement my position on the national panel, will quite possibly open doors for appearances overseas. To not officiate could prove costly. Selfishly, I want to accept the appointment. Convince myself I need to do it.
Still, I remain torn.
Nonetheless, after further weighing up all the options, eventually I come to a decision. I will gamble and do both.
My choice hinges on the respective Saturday times. The rugby kicks off at 230pm, at Thunderbird Stadium on the UBC campus. The basketball tournament championship game tips off crosstown, at the PNE Agrodome, at 800 pm. The stars align. I just need to referee, hopefully well, then make a quick post match appearance, hail a taxi and head straight to the arena.
Of course, SMUS first must reach the hoop final for this double duty scenario to pan out. I block out all other possibilities, opt not to consider the “what ifs.”
SMUS opens with a straight-forward round of 16 victory. Then, in shock, we watch as highly regarded Terry Fox SS suffers arguably the biggest upset in tournament history, falling to an unfancied, double-digit seed. Other favourites also crash out. My mind roams ahead, as I contemplate the easier path now suddenly available to the title.
I should know better. Instead, my planning for our own quarterfinal lacks clarity and accuracy. The opponents, McNair SS, feature an uber athletic 6’6” forward who plays the game of his life. Furthermore, the Marlins, well organized and well prepared, are in no way cowed by our #2 ranking. I make some ill-advised coaching moves, while, for the only time all season, our defence fails us.
Down 11 points near the end of the third quarter, we claw back. Draw level at 84-84. Just minutes to play. Unfortunately, McNair registers two buckets before we hit a three pointer. Now down 88-87, we finally make a stop. Have a final possession with seconds to go. But cannot convert.
It is a painful and discouraging loss. Even allowing for a stellar performance by McNair, entirely avoidable. Out the window goes my carefully crafted if somewhat risky plan. Indeed, I note with a certain dread that our last game in the basketball tournament will start at 230pm, the exact same time as the rugby match. There is no escaping the fact that doing both will now be impossible.
Saturday duly arrives. While the team members say they understand the circumstances and my decision to choose rugby over basketball, I feel distinctly awkward, almost slinking away from the hotel. The grey, sullen sky matches my mood, as the rain pelts down. Any hope of a wide open, exciting contest between BC and the New Zealanders is a pipe dream. Instead, a dour, attritional slugfest ensues, with the muddy field and slippery ball severely limiting continuity and attacking play. In the tense, chippy 16-16 draw, a last-minute red card issued to one of the visiting forwards is a further irritation.
Several hours then pass by. I exist in a type of limbo before returning to the Agrodome. Am heartened to a small degree that SMUS has scrambled through its last game, recording a come from behind overtime victory.
I decide to walk back to our hotel. Cars leaving the arena parking lot maneuver around me as I trudge along. Thoughts swirl in my mind, as I take stock of the past few days.
Basketball first. I rationalize that a 40-3 overall record, and 5th place finish at the BCs, is nothing to sneeze at. Indeed, given that two of our three defeats were by a single point and the third by only six points, one might argue that only a few baskets separate us from a perfect season. Yet, the loss to McNair rankles still stings, our preparation, or rather my preparation, just not up to snuff.
Rugby second. I know I can referee better, my mind perhaps not fully on task. The assessor has justifiable concerns about my handling of the ruck and scrum, though he generously notes my “good control” of a testy encounter. Yet, I can read between the lines. My performance is being judged as adequate at best.
In the end, I am forced to accept that my double duty gamble backfires. I ponder the circumstances, ask myself again why I always stress loyalty, why I always tell players to keep things simple, to do the basics well, to do one job at a time.
Then fail to heed my own advice.