The coffee shop hums with conversation. Cups and saucers clink invitingly, the latte machine whirrs. A delightful aroma wafts through the air.
I chat with a former player, now an aspiring, young coach. Savvy beyond his years, he does not always say much. Yet, when he speaks, I listen.
“You are a long time retired,” he offers.
In that sense, I hope he is right. Still, as the calendar rolls deep into November, this year does feel different. Indeed, for the first time in over four decades, a high school basketball season gets set to start without me.
No longer will it be necessary, in a coaching role, to organize tryouts, pore over game film. To draw up practice plans. No need to order balls, sort out gear, confirm travel, or finalize game schedules. No pressure to decide on strategy, substitution patterns, player rotations.
Yet, by way of contrast, there will also be no more of the big occasions, those crunch matchups against other top programs. Those that leave you tingling all week in anticipation.
Fortunately, what do remain are countless wonderful memories. So many of them, stretching back 42 years and over some 2,000 games.
A number in particular stand out, as my mind roams back over time.
The tiny SMUS Old Gym is jam packed. An overflow crowd of some 700 spectators, some even spilling beyond the baseline exit door to the parking lot, cram into the facility. Fans fight for space in the two small bleachers, crush together on the sidelines. The pale blue walls are literally sweating, the steam heat oppressive.
Richmond, the visiting team and ranked #1 in BC, meets SMUS in an Invitational tournament semi-final. The powerful and hugely successful Colts seem destined to squash the outmanned Blue Devils side, whose meagre chances are lessened even further by the non-availability of starting pivot Hywel Jones.
And, while the SMUS backcourt of Martin Nash and Damian Grant compares favourably with that of their Richmond counterparts, the Colts front line appears dominant in every way. Indeed, 6’4”, 270-pound Bobby Singh, destined for a superb career in professional football, shapes up as a formidable force of nature. Alongside him, Andrew Mavis, a future NCAA Division 1 star and a 2000 Canadian Olympian, and fellow 6’5” wing Ben Mayan complete a highly skilled and athletic trio.
In preparation, I consider various ploys, how we might best counter an opponent’s superior size, talent and pedigree. I decide that tempo will be key, that slowing the game to a crawl against the fast, high-flying Colts will serve us best. I tell our team that, if we can somehow keep the score in the 50s, we have a counter puncher's chance.
Needless to say, co-coach Bill Greenwell disagrees. Ultra competitive, his solution is to fight fire with fire. To never opt for what might be construed as a careful, conservative, defensive posture.
Still, my supposed wisdom prevails. And, though dwarfed at every position, we then perform superbly. The score stands at 54-53.
Unfortunately, it is only half time!!
After intermission, the game continues at the same relentless, breakneck speed. A Mavis corner three edges Richmond back in front. Yet, we hang tough, even if forced on several occasions to implement a rare zone defence.
The lead shifts back and forth. 17 changes in all. Yet, our gallant effort seems for naught as Richmond eventually opens up a five-point advantage. 88-83 with two minutes to play.
Again, we battle to stay in touch. The gym is at a fever pitch. So noisy, one can hardly think, let alone communicate. Still, 6’ post Ryan Green, playing the game of his life, finds room among the trees to secure two offensive rebounds. Converting both, he cuts the lead to one. Then, with 40 seconds remaining, unsung hero Stu Kerr connects on a tough bucket to knot the score at 91.
Undeterred, Singh, basically unstoppable all afternoon, replies with a foul line jumper. 93-91 Colts. 22 seconds remain as we call timeout.
The discussion centers on two possible options. One is to play for a tie and take our chances in overtime. The second involves attempting a game winning three-point shot. Finally, to my delight, the seniors, a group I have come to admire for their smarts, resilience and tenacity, decide on the latter option.
Potential glory lies in wait. An upset for the ages.
As expected, Richmond continues its withering full court pressure. Almost forces a game-deciding turnover. Instead, the ball deflects out of bounds near mid court.
Now in scramble mode, on the verge of a five second call, Grant loops a desperate inbound pass. Cross court in the direction of Nash. Eight seconds remain as the 5’9” sniper frantically frees himself from a defender. Snaring the ball near the opposite sideline, some 35 feet from the hoop, he wheels, dribbles once and fires an improbable shot straight between Mavis’ outstretched arms.
In that split second, the gym goes deathly quiet. Time seems momentarily suspended. The ball arcs high, traces a perfect parabola. Then, tracking unerringly towards the hoop, it finally rips cleanly through the net. Bedlam reigns as Grant manages to tip away a last ditch Colts' shot attempt. The SMUS students pour out of the stands, swarm the floor in celebration.
94-93 Blue Devils!! Final score.
Slowly, I emerge out of my reverie. I am back in the coffee shop. My friend looks somewhat bemused. “You left me there for a few seconds,” he notes.
No doubt I did. And will do so again in the future. The years may slip by, but hopefully the reminders and recollections won’t.
I will unashamedly continue to reminisce. Flashback to loads of magic moments. To the tests of courage and character, to the rushes of adrenaline. Grateful, as always, for the young men and women who made them possible.
In 2003, SMUS changed its team name from Blue Devils to Blue Jags.
On leaving high school, Nash entered the pro soccer ranks, going on to win 38 Senior caps for Canada.