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Hoops 'N Hearts

October 2020. The annual Bledisloe Cup series gets underway. A tense, dramatic, thrilling rugby union encounter sees Australia and New Zealand play to a 16-16 draw. The Wallabies are unlucky not to win. Given no chance to upset the All Blacks, they show tremendous resolve and grit, only just failing to break a nineteen-year losing skid on Kiwi soil.

Post-game, the newly appointed Australia coach notes “we put a lot of emphasis on culture and try to get really tight. Covid actually helps, because we are locked away in Christchurch. The guys can't even sneak out for a coffee, so we spend a lot of time together.”

The phrase "spend a lot of time together" is music to my ears. Six simple words that underpin every successful team I have ever been part of.

It is September 2005. University of Victoria Men’s basketball embarks on a new season. I am part of the coaching staff. Our roster contains several very capable players, has good depth, with some luck might even enter the national tournament discussion if it can gel.

It is a purer, simpler time. Fancy cell phones are still in their infancy. You Tube and Facebook are brand new platforms, apps don’t yet exist. The era of headphones and ear buds, of players enslaved to endless, mind numbing hours on screen, is still to take hold.

Instead, the card table is our sanctuary. We barnstorm across western Canada, setting up shop on the ferry, in departure lounges, on the plane, in hotel rooms and lobbies. ‘Hearts’ is our preferred option, truly one of the best trick-taking games ever devised. Four involved at a time, five in a pinch, others on the team gathering close round, spectating, learning, badgering, plotting. Waiting their turn.

There are no limits to the commentary. Outrageous table talk is the accepted norm, almost encouraged. Thick skin and a quick wit are mandatory requirements, gales of laughter are ever present. We battle for pennies but more importantly for bragging rights. Low score wins.

Characters, nicknames and different styles emerge. ‘Granny’ professes not to understand the rules or strategies. Yet, surreptitiously, he regularly bids for control, attempts to Shoot the Moon by winning all thirteen hearts and the dreaded queen of spades. Condemning each opponent to an additional 26 points.

In contrast, ‘Miroslav’ is the irrational confidence guy. Never with a clear plan, rather just a bemused look as points pile up relentlessly against him.

Then there is G, a meaty power forward obsessed with bicep curls, immediately christened 'Manute Bol'.

Others also have their moments in the sun. Ricky Davis, Gudgie, Croq, E-Von, Stumpy, Steveball to name just a few. Add in wily veteran Trump, as well as Kuz, a rookie ringleader. Slowly, steadily, almost without realizing it, friendships are cemented. Bonds develop, then strengthen.

All the while, the season itself evolves. The team forges an identity, not always easy on the eye but hard to play against. Not especially big or even quick, but physical, durable and united. The coaching staff push the right buttons, on the way to a pair of exhibition tournament titles and a 15-5 league record.

And there is a desire for more. Denied Pacific Division honours at UBC in controversial circumstances, the squad maintains its playoff momentum, bouncing back a week later to drop the Thunderbirds and claim the Canada West championship.

March 2006. The nationals take place at a packed Metro Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After an opening round victory, we turn in our best performance of the year, edging local powerhouse St. Francis Xavier in a riveting semi-final. Trust, accountability, defence and rebounding all to the fore. The team, more than a sum of its parts, builds a healthy double-digit lead then survives the inevitable X comeback.

One step away from glory! Alas, a fairy tale finish escapes us. We start poorly in the final, cannot seem to get untracked. Miss free throws. Soon, we trail by 20. Chase the game throughout vs Carleton, get within a bucket in the dying minutes, before falling agonizingly short in a 73-67 defeat.

Back to the present. This coming weekend is the second leg of the Bledisloe Cup. I fully expect Australia, given a further seven days in camp, to produce another inspired effort.

Still, forgive me if, while watching, my mind strays to the exploits of another team. To those former Victoria players, now approaching middle age, now married with young families. Now successful doctors, teachers, university professors, entrepreneurs, firemen, government executives and the like. For whom the national final disappointment almost fifteen years ago still stings.

Regardless, it will be other images I hold dear. Of Hoops certainly, of the grind, the resilience, the joys and the disappointments.

Yet equally of Hearts, of all those magic moments around the table. Of quality time spent together, a tightly knit unit forever connected by a deck of cards.


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