August 1976. A shy, uncertain boy slips on to the court at the McKinnon Gym. It is still summer, and official varsity practices have not yet started. But the floor is packed with players. All are keen to impress the University of Victoria’s newly appointed basketball coach.
Suddenly, he makes his way over. He looks fit and wiry, with sharp features. He introduces himself, then moves along to the next group.
Six weeks pass by in a blur. The scrimmages, then the training sessions and the fitness work, are intense. And the rumours are true. The coach is also an outstanding player. He is smart, tough and can really shoot. Sharp elbows and a ferociously competitive attitude complete the makeup.
I am that shy, uncertain boy. At the end of September I find out I have made the team, the last player to be chosen. It is one of the happiest days of my life.
The next four years also fly by. I can take nothing for granted, only hope and pray that a solid work ethic will mask modest ability and athleticism. But I have an ally. The coach shows considerable patience, spending countless hours on developing my individual skills. He helps me become what I covet most – to be a credible university level player.
Along with my teammates, I learn so much more. Structure, discipline, the value of relentless preparation. In terms of tactics and techniques, coach teaches the what and how, but also the why. Demonstration, repetition and correction. He is a stern taskmaster, always honest, often blunt in his assessment of our play. I never once hear him emphasize winning. Instead, he stresses dedication and level of performance. The wins then take care of themselves he tells us.
He has very high expectations. And never damns by faint praise. I am well into my third year in the program before he compliments me on playing a good game.
Not surprisingly, the team is soon on the national radar, and on its way to a Canadian championship. 1980. The first of seven in a row.
Coach and I are both much older now. Much has happened in the interim. He travels the world as a teacher and a much sought after clinician. Works in the NBA and at multiple Olympic Games. Wins countless Hall of Fame awards along the way. Is named to the Order of Canada.
Best of all, he remains a mentor and close friend.
And that pivotal moment, all those years ago, stays seared in my memory. Of the hawk like figure striding across a polished gym floor, sticking out his hand and uttering the six words that change my life.
“Hello, my name is Ken Shields.”