A one-year Covid induced absence, for better or worse, is now just a memory.
Indeed, despite some bumps in the road, the 2021-22 Canadian university basketball seasons wind down to conclusion. Conference qualifiers complete, the national championships loom on the horizon.
For any student-athlete involved, even allowing for the myriad disruptions, dreams do not die easily. Each enters the current campaign with various goals, hopes and ambitions. Each contemplates a magical ending. I know this to be true, as some four decades ago, this student-athlete was me.
Summer 1979. The University of Victoria men’s hoop squad prepares fiendishly. A good number of us face a final year of collegiate eligibility. One last opportunity to erase the bitter taste of heartbreaking national tournament defeats the two previous years.
Not afraid of a punishing training schedule, I push on harder than ever before. A steady diet, of weight training and rigorous on court sessions, capped by numerous hill sprints up the steep road leading from the nearby beach to campus, fills each day.
June turns into July, then into August. Excitement levels grow daily, with term soon to start. We return what, on paper at least, promises to be one of the best, if not the best, team in the country. Big, deep, talented, with a chip on its shoulder.
September arrives and camp officially opens. Confidence levels at an all-time high, I score at a decent clip, defend stoutly, handle the ball with aplomb. Then, am appointed team captain. All is well with the world.
Little do I know that, in the shadows, trouble lurks.
Post practice, the team completes its traditional three-mile run. If usually a chance to reinforce my fitness levels, this time I finish with a sense of unease. The outside of my right foot is sore, more tender than I care to admit.
Alert to my disquiet, our physio diagnoses a “hot spot”, a classic overuse injury. Aghast on reading through my training manual, he advocates immediate rest, with instructions to then throttle back immediately on the volume and intensity of my running.
Sadly, stupidly, I ignore his recommendations.
Training continues late into October. My foot continues to flare up. Annoyed but stubborn, I bite the bullet and soldier on. Rationalizing that I cannot afford to miss time, I keep any potential injury issues to myself.
It only takes another week for the situation to further unravel. A much-anticipated exhibition vs Athletes in Action, a highly touted American collegiate all-star squad, moves into the second quarter. We trail by three points as I chase an opponent around a baseline screen.
I hear the distinct crack before I feel any pain. Yet, crashing to the floor, I know something is badly wrong.
An x-ray confirms the damage. The “hot spot” has morphed into something more serious, namely a fracture, halfway down the foot, of the fifth metatarsal. Recovery time will be two months, a mid-January return to play the best possible outcome. The physio offers consolation, though his “I warned you” expression speaks volumes.
Time passes slowly. A walking boot becomes part of my wardrobe. The season continues without me, the team coping comfortably in my absence.
At the six-week mark, another x-ray. The bone is healing well enough, the team doctor tells me. Be disciplined, be smart. No setbacks. Skill work only. Absolutely no scrimmaging until the new year, he stresses.
Finally free of the boot, I get back to work with a vengeance. Hour upon hour of drills. In a hurry to catch up, I convince myself it is not too late to finish both the season and my career in style.
December 15, late in the afternoon. I work alone. Throw the ball in the air. Catch, pivot, shot fake. One hard dribble into a jump shot. Rinse and repeat. Feel the necessary rhythms returning, the ball again comfortable in my hands. Best of all, absolutely no pain in my foot.
And so, fatally, I can’t resist. Though my brain screams caution, I accept an invitation to join a pick-up game on the adjacent court.
I last less than a minute. Cut sharply to the bucket, scream as if felled by a sniper. The metatarsal breaks again.
On learning the news, the doctor is furious. I oscillate between fury and despair. Only myself to blame. Back into the walking boot and back to square one I go.
Time drags on interminably. Eight more agonizing weeks literally crawl by before I can rejoin the active roster. However, now the middle of February, precious few games remain.
I make my official return on a Saturday night, vs a badly outmatched Lethbridge squad. Vaguely, I hear some “welcome back” words over the Mackinnon Gym PA system. Mixed in with some polite applause.
I take up a defensive stance. Assess my options. If the Pronghorn guard passes the ball…….
He does pass. I shoot the gap, knock the ball loose, gather it up. An open runway to the basket awaits, no one in front of me. A straightforward layup beckons, a perfect way to announce my recovery.
If only. From the start, I am out of kilter, legs akimbo. In a strangely foreign environment. The ball feels heavy. I jump too soon, can’t fail to hear the embarrassed groans as my shot skids of the rim.
And, in that moment, I know. Just know. I will be surplus to requirements. Time is no longer on my side. My lengthy absence nothing more than a mild distraction to a team now in the middle of a season defining 21 game win streak, heading for a first national title.
Coach knows as well. Long on trust and honesty, short on sentiment, he won’t cut me any breaks, will not dish out discretionary minutes for commitment to and time served in the program. DNP-CD (Did Not Play, Coach Decision) will be my new normal.
In the end, we duly defeat Brandon 73-65 in a messy championship final. Still, it is a proud moment, and I am delighted for my teammates. Yet, wallowing somewhat, on the periphery of the celebrations, I ponder a season far from the one I imagined nine months previous.
Certainly, on a personal level, a stellar senior year is anything but, submarined instead by my obstinacy and lack of judgement.
And so, clad in full tracksuit, apparently still captain, I am called to the podium to receive the championship trophy. Tellingly, it is the words of Saint Augustine, a 5th century theologian and philosopher, that ricochet through my mind.
Patience is the companion of wisdom, he extols.
Alas, when it really counted, I possess neither.