December 1998. Gloomy Hamilton, Ontario. Images of factories and belching smokestacks. In the distance, the Niagara escarpment, what the locals call “the mountain”, is smothered by ominous, dark clouds. I stare out the hotel window, as a cold, dirty rain begins to lash down.
Regardless of the weather, morning is my favourite time of the day. I hunker down with a steaming cup of coffee. A blank sheet of paper stares at me, but slowly fills up with notes, strategies and matchups.
For tonight will be no ordinary basketball game. Rather, we are in the semi-final of the aptly named Steel City Shootout. Against powerful Runnymede, a juggernaut from Toronto. Dripping with attitude, ridiculous skill, speed and jumping ability, they are fresh off an opening round dunk fest vs a badly overmatched opponent. In the most recent national poll, they are ranked the #2 senior boys' high school team in the country.
My carefully constructed plan is quite simple. Pace is paramount. We have a solid squad but must not get drawn into an up-tempo game. Slow down at every possible opportunity. Milk the clock. Try not to expose our relative lack of athleticism.
Later, I run these ideas by Billy G. Our school’s Math department head, he also coaches with me. Back in the early 1980s he laid the groundwork as our hoops program became one of the best in BC. He is a very capable, underrated performer, and highly competitive. He never takes a backward step to anyone.
To say that Billy G is unimpressed with my planning is an understatement. He is scowling. We might as well concede now he tells me. If we are cautious and careful and conservative, we will get pounded.
His solution? To ditch the Xs and Os. Full court press from the start, fast break every chance on offer. Tempo be damned. Runnymede will be overconfident he predicts. That their relentless, almost reckless open court style leaves them vulnerable. But most of all he says, our players need an aggressive, positive mindset. Get on the front foot right from the start, guns blazing. Believe, and go for broke.
Maybe it is magic dust, but the players give an inspired performance. Our press forces two early turnovers, and we score layups. Then bank in a lucky three pointer. Danny, our point guard, handles the ball masterfully, while good spacing and passing negate the effectiveness of the Runnymede traps. At the end of the first quarter, we lead by eight, to the considerable surprise of the capacity crowd in attendance.
And then we dig in. Layer up on defence, pack the key, plug lanes to the rim, take charges. Like junkyard dogs, scrap for every loose ball and rebound. And, when we get possession, keep attacking. Halftime. Still up by eight.
The game continues. If the Runnymede players were cocky at the start, they aren’t now. They ratchet up the pressure even more, but we remain poised and resilient. Bend but do not break. End of the third, ahead by seven.
The last period is extra special. With two minutes to play, the margin extends to double figures. We are going to win. And so, as the clock ticks down the final seconds, we get that rarest of opportunities. We get to enjoy the upset victory while it happens.
In the aftermath, I look for Billy G. To thank him, to celebrate a wonderful effort and occasion.
He first offers a sly smile. Then three words, which are all he needs.
"Never in doubt."