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Gaping Hole

This morning I received a text from an old friend. The ultimate sports fan, he is a Calgarian to the core. The text is short and to the point. It reports that the Corral is to be torn down.

Built in 1950, the Stampede Corral serves the city of Calgary exceptionally well. It plays host to a multitude of events, primarily ice hockey, but, over the years, to pretty much everything else. Rodeo, wrestling, tennis, music concerts, royal visits, the circus. It is an intimate facility, seating only 6500. The sight lines are first rate, the crowds right on top of the action.

The Corral is also home to memories. Of the Neon Cowboy, of the agricultural smell that permeates the entire building. Of the concourse, jammed to overflowing with historic photos. And of countless thrilling games.

Flash back to March 9, 1979. The Canadian university basketball tournament is being held at the Corral. Forty years have since slipped by, but events that evening remain vivid in my mind. A semi-final matchup between Victoria and St. Francis Xavier, both teams well regarded and desperate to reach the championship game.

From the start, for whatever reason, I feel out of sorts. My legs are heavy. I am mentally aware but just not sharp. Always a step out of position, almost superfluous to the action swirling around me.

The lead goes back and forth, neither team able to gain a clear advantage. We are up 43-40 at halftime. But I guard poorly and do not score a single basket. Coach has no option but to replace me. Frustrated, I observe from the bench. The X-Men’s octopus like 1-3-1 zone gives us fits. After a ten-point run, they enter the final quarter leading 62-55.

We scrap back. My replacement, inserted to the guard position for the first time all season, sparks a comeback. Eight straight points see us go in front 63-62.

With three minutes to go, I return to the court. Still a one-point advantage. The ensuing possessions unfold, and I understand the value of each. Yet, while I am in the game physically, I still somehow feel detached, as if watching from outside my own body. I miss another wide-open shot.

Eight seconds left. Now up 2. The X-Men’s star guard weaves down court, pulls up for a long, contested jumper. The horn goes while the ball is in the air. Swish. Tied at 71. Overtime.

The extra session is more of the same. We twice gain a five-point margin. The X-Men claw their way back. I finally make a bucket, an important one. Up three with 40 seconds remaining. Nearly home.

The X-Men score, but we now don’t need to attempt a shot. Just play keep-away and run out the clock. We space the floor, move the ball crisply. I receive a pass, up high on the right side of the court. I glance at the big scoreboard behind the basket. Confirm that the seconds are ticking down, 13, 12, 11.

And then I throw the ball away. No rhyme or reason or excuse. I am not under pressure. I have been in similar circumstances many times before. But I still aim an ill-judged pass to the low post area. The ball feels leaden as it leaves my hands. My brain screams in desperation for it to return. But too late. The X-Men intercept and call timeout.

I am numb. Oblivious to my teammates who offer encouragement, I hope the floor might swallow me up.

On the bench, I hear coach giving instructions. But it is just white noise. My mind is elsewhere, in turmoil as I consider the possible repercussions of the horror turnover.

The last ten seconds are a blur. The X-Men press for the winning hoop but are denied. Excellent defence prevents even a shot attempt. We win 82-81.

The cramped locker room is a happy place. It is rocking. We have reached the national final.

But for me, the aftermath is filled with other emotions. I slump in the shower under an icy stream of water. Sheer relief courses through my veins, though tempered by embarrassment, anger and nasty thoughts of “what if.”

Maybe it is a good thing the Corral, piece by piece, is to be slowly dismantled. A venerable institution that could so easily have left a gaping hole in my heart.


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