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Man of Steel

Mid March. Late on a Thursday afternoon.

Outside, it is damp and grey. Low, scudding clouds threaten rain. The wind swirls. However, for ten of us nestled in the back corner of the pub’s open-air patio, overhead heating lamps and a fireplace take away the chill.

Up against the various walls, large TV screens compete for our attention. Various opening round games of the 2024 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament on offer.

Yet, we pay them no heed. Instead, as we nurse our pints, the chatter inevitably turns to the past. Stories from forty plus years ago. Told and retold countless times, yet now recounted once again. Knowing the individuals, knowing outcomes, knowing what comes next, nonetheless we wait happily for the punchlines. Take comfort in tales of success and daring, laugh away silly errors and costly mistakes.

Without question, I sit among basketball royalty.

The Hawk, Ken Shields, a storied and much decorated head coach, oversees the gathering. Principal architect behind the University of Victoria’s seven consecutive Men’s national collegiate championship teams. 1980 to 1986. All the while hammering home life lessons of preparation, dedication and commitment.

Further dotted around the table are leading members of those ultra talented Vikes’ squads. Parn, Duke, Big Kaz, Phil, the Eagle, among others. Though all now long past their athletic primes, a group with multiple national titles and accolades on their resumes. Some with their numbers retired. Some who enjoy distinguished Canada senior careers. Become Olympians.

Still, much more importantly, we meet to host and celebrate the significant accomplishments of another.

And so, even as he sits quietly two chairs to my left, I travel back down memory lane.

To when I first meet Randy Steel.

Arriving on the Victoria campus in the fall of 1981, he joins the Faculty of Education. Though not recruited out of high school, he also hopes to pursue further his love for basketball.

Alas, this dream soon appears in serious jeopardy. A scrappy but undersized guard, he is cut first from the junior varsity program. Then, the following September, he fails to make the Vikes.

Shelving any disappointment, he ramps up his effort. Not for him to quit, to find fault with others, to seek excuses, to investigate a transfer. Just looks in the mirror and gets down to work.

He refuses to be denied. As a result, on his third attempt, in the fall of 1983 he secures a coveted spot on a powerful Vikes’ roster. En route, and in the years following, he becomes the humble, tough, unselfish, determined performer every successful team simply must have.

Wiry and ridiculously fit, as a tenacious defender he regularly applies steady full court pressure on opposition ballhandlers. Indeed, savvy, intelligent and “all-in”, he plays an integral role in three straight national championships.  

Upon graduation, he quickly gains a full-time teaching contract. With it comes a chance to coach hoops. In Ladysmith, a small town in central Vancouver Island. Two hours north of Victoria.

Immediately, his work ethic, direct approach, and superior personal qualities come to the fore. He sets rigorous standards. Demands academic performance. His mantra “Figure it out. Don’t be a fool, stay in school” rescues a number of students struggling through classes and contemplating dropping out.

On the court, his teams transform into an extension of himself. In shape, fundamentally sound, disciplined, smart and highly competitive. Season after season, greater than the sum of their parts.

On offence, at their best, his teams are a joy to watch. Simplicity, awareness of space. Move, catch, cut, screen. Make the extra pass. When on defence and on the boards, work rate, help each other. Battle.

Over his 27 years, often with relatively scant resources, Ladysmith qualifies for the BC Senior Boys provincial tournament on eighteen occasions. Silver medalists in 1993, 2000, 2003 and 2006. The 49ers also win twice, first in 1995, then again in 2007.

The 1995 title, at AAA level, remains an absolute master class in coaching and organization. Starting as the #11 seed, the team moves smartly through a strong and well-balanced field. Perfectly executes game plans, with an emphasis on tempo and patience. Leans on a star 6’6” forward in superlative form, backed by a cadre of highly capable support players. To the surprise of many pundits, unheralded Ladysmith registers justified victories in all four of its contests.

Other stories make the rounds. Of a coach who abhors histrionics and trash talking. Watching a summer scrimmage, tiring of a visiting player’s endless yapping and showboating, he joins the game himself. Then silently and ruthlessly strips the ball from the cocky, unsuspecting guard on five consecutive possessions.

And, while he is invariably calm and unruffled, I see once, and only once, a coach who blows his stack. Unhappy with careless, sloppy play at an Island qualifying tournament, he unleashes a theatre quality harangue upon his unsuspecting troops. His pointed comments all about effort, or rather lack thereof. A situation he just cannot abide.

Unfortunately, sadly, the past decade has been something of a personal struggle. Huntingdon's disease, a rare, degenerative, inherited condition, takes a slow toll. Life, at times, so unfair.

Not surprisingly, he chooses to meet the various challenges with courage and resolve. Some days are better than others. Yet, with the help of family and close friends, he battles doggedly against a relentless, crafty opponent.

How uplifting to see him receive a Lifetime Achievement Award during a break in play at this year’s provincial 4A tournament final. 6,000 spectators in attendance, as well as a who’s who of his coaching peers. And while I am not necessarily a supporter of personal awards in this day and age, in this particular case it is more than merited. So thoroughly well deserved. Kudos to the Boys Basketball executive, and its nominating committee.

Back at the pub, slowly I return from my reverie. Reflect on how wonderful it always is to see him. So very heartening to catch the glint in his eye, as he processes the various stories bandied about. I know the others in attendance feel it too.

I consider again his life path. Pay homage to his will and character in overcoming setbacks and disappointment. Salute his ability to reach his potential as a player and then a coach. To never give up. To never willingly seek the limelight. To lead by example, to set exacting standards, to combat a debilitating illness without complaint.

Randy Steel. Man of Steel.

Editor's note:

Photo credits - Langley Events Centre


1 commento

30 mar

It was a huge honor for me to be able to present this award to Randy. An amazing coach but more importantly an amazing person.

Mi piace
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