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The Ins and Outs of Love


“To play is good, to win is better, but to love the game is the best.”

 

Early March, 2024. Langley, British Columbia. The city readies to host the province’s annual version of March Madness.

 

As always, it promises to be an explosion of colour, a basketball pageant, a festival of sport, a celebration of community.



Indeed, over a ten-day span, 168 high school teams and over 2000 coaches and players descend upon the Events Centre (LEC). An equal mix of boys and girls. Games run from dawn to dusk. Ten provincial winners, from various tiers, await coronation. All at a magnificent facility complete with multiple pristine courts and the capacity to accommodate literally thousands of passionate spectators.


Even if, across the board, vast differences in player skill and experience guarantee a number of lopsided score lines, the tournament remains an engrossing and captivating spectacle. Serious kudos are due each of the tireless competition committees and to the diligent arena staff. Likewise to the minor officials, the referees, and countless volunteers. Lastly to the hordes of students, decked in school regalia, in attendance to back their respective teams. The luckiest able to storm the court en masse after a final game victory.


Usually, I attend in person, fortunate to coach at this LEC signature event for the better part of the last decade. With it come opportunities to battle for a provincial championship title.


This year however, newly retired, I view from afar. Still, the wonder of webstream allows me to wander from game to game, to watch as much or as little as I want before moving on. Always on the lookout for a tight and competitive contest, for anything novel, perhaps an offensive strategy or a new out of bounds play. Always curious, always hoping to learn. Always searching. For something, or someone, special or out of the ordinary.


Almost without warning, two players catch my eye. Transfixed, I follow them closely.


And rejoice in the way they perform.


It is only a snapshot. Ten minutes of what prove to be exciting third round matchups. Yet, for me at least, young girls, unselfish to the core, encompass everything good and positive about our sport.


They chase back hard every time in defensive transition, deflect passes out of bounds. Dive for loose balls. Scrap on the floor for possession but first back on their feet. Focus immediately to the next play. Fight over screens, bump opposition cutters, level off dribblers, execute textbook closeouts on cross court passes. Rotate to stop baseline drives, take charges.


On offence, push the ball or sprint hard to the front of the rim. Time their cuts, catch, pivot, move the ball quickly. Acknowledge a teammate scoring a bucket, even if receiving nothing in return for the solid screen which allows a hoop to happen.


Alas, not one of these actions figure anywhere in a box score. While, for most fans, the players in question, and others of their ilk, go relatively unnoticed among the normal rhythms and patterns of a game. Yet, everything they provide is crucial, the building blocks vital and necessary for group success.


If only it was this way all the time.

 

Unfortunately, in my opinion, it is not. Instead, despite current rampant popularity, age grade hoops in BC are at a crossroads. Recent trends disturb and irritate. Leave me sad and disenchanted.


Where to start?

Parents hover. Covertly in most cases, but, in growing numbers, overtly. Not surprising, as first and foremost they invest heavily in their own child’s performance. School basketball may be the purest form of the sport, but with playing time and championships at stake, emotions can run high. On the boys' side of the equation in particular, family and friend frustrations mount, tempers flare, behaviour deteriorates. Volatile situations become accidents waiting to happen, with volunteer coaches, teachers and referees directly in the firing line.


Equally, so many games are just not easy on the eye. Far too often, consistent effort and work rate come across as optional. Applying pressure through aggressive man to man defence is a hard slog. Requires relentless drilling and application in order to control dribble penetration and not concede easy baskets. In response, many teams seek refuge in loose 2-3 zones. Fitness levels, or lack thereof, likely a contributing factor.


On offence, shaky fundamental skills undermine countless possessions. Cutting and screening hard, catching with two hands, pivoting on balance, passing on time and on target, especially if under any duress, appear wanting. Poor spacing, erratic ball movement, the absence of post play, contribute further to the overall untidiness.


And, without question, there is far too much dribbling and crazy, indiscriminate three-point shooting. To watch one player probe endlessly, continually bouncing the ball for twenty plus seconds while four teammates stand around, is beyond painful.


Moreover, my computer screen confirms absolutely that only a handful of truly elite long-distance shooters exist in the province. Regardless, hundreds try very hard to prove they are one of this handful. With predictably disastrous results.


Then again, despite vociferous advocates to the contrary, proper, sequenced development is tricky. Well nigh impossible. The game to practice ratio during every school season borders on ridiculous. Four, sometimes five games to every practice, week after week. From late November to the end of February. A formula that, for many involved, then continues with spring, summer and fall club commitments. A twelve-month, non stop, merry go round. Fundamental skill sets be damned. Likewise, insufficient time remains for other activities, for life balance, for proper rest and recovery, for dedicated strength and conditioning windows.


Then comes the peripheral stuff. The “me” culture. Players, encased pregame by ear buds or headphones, in a world of their own. Others chirping, posing, strutting, chest bumping, finger waving and shimmying after a dunk, a made three, or a shot block. Some, at the first hint of contact, flailing and flopping, crashing to the floor. More histrionics when “struggling” to their feet. All aiming to draw needless and totally unwarranted attention.


Post game it continues. Social media and a barrage of video clips brag of scoring prowess, diss opponents, laud personal stats, glorify the individual.


Regrettably, all of us, as stakeholders in the high school game, must shoulder some of the blame.


We allow the overly crowded schedules. Then, at major in-season Invitational events and come playoff time, contribute handsomely to the individual at the expense of the team. Opt for a plethora of awards, starting with an assembly line of POGs, Players of the Game. Then hail Best Defenders, celebrate All-Stars, laud Most Outstanding Players. Unfortunately, without fail, there is always a direct correlation between points scored, rebounds snared, or steals made, and those selected. Tangible gifts as reward. Trophies, tee shirts and hoodies, backpacks, new shoes, gift certificates, even i-Pads. The list goes on.


In my perfect world, this will end.


Twenty two games maximum each school season, no more than two per week. Sufficient time to practice properly, to improve skills, fitness and tactics.


And, while the weight of history will say no, bin any and all personal awards. Stage post tournament ceremonies that focus solely, completely and entirely on medal winning teams and their collective success.


Happily, on several fronts, I detect subtle moves in the right direction. Salute those 2024 squads, across all the tiers, that do exhibit an impressive degree of togetherness and teamwork. That display discipline and physicality, that play the right way. That respect the game. En route, coaches do provide essential life lessons and life skills. Foster enjoyment. Teach the importance of individuals functioning effectively in a group dynamic.


May the pendulum forever swing steadily on this course.



And if, for whatever reason, personal accolades are deemed necessary, may they go to the blue collar, roll up the sleeves, unsung heroes.


Is this all a pipe dream? Maybe.


But humour a crotchety old timer in this regard. So I may fall in love with the game once again.

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