Midweek, July 2006. Columbus, Ohio.
It is just after midnight, in a student residence on the campus of Ohio State University. I am part of the Canada West coaching staff. Three days from now our team will defeat the USA Falcons 31-20 in the final of the inaugural North American 4 Rugby tournament.
I toss and turn. Sleep proves impossible. Thanks to the oppressive 95F heat and high humidity, I am a sweaty, sticky mess. The air conditioning unit in the room failed several days ago and has not been repaired.
Fortunately, solace of sorts is only a block down the street. I hear the rhythmic bounce of basketballs, the dull slap of leather against cement. I can see bodies moving around the flood lit court. Despite the hour, a pickup game is in progress. I decide to go and watch.
What I view surprises me. The standard of play is good. Actually, more than good. Unselfish. Plenty of screening, passing and cutting. No dribble pigs or ball hogs. Effort on defence and on the boards. First team to seven baskets wins.
I chance conversation with a group of spectators leaning against the surrounding wire fence. They let me know none of the players involved even attend the university. Most are just locals from the surrounding area.
One catches my eye. Probably early 20s, he is at least 6’5” and 220 pounds. Chiseled. Sleek and powerful, with massive hands. He glides about the court, biding his time until he decides to score, thread an assist or secure a key rebound. He is an explosive jumper, one monster dunk threatening to tear down the rim and backboard support. There are rough edges to his game, some refinements needed, but he oozes serious potential.
The next night, or rather early morning, I return. While still muggy, the conditions are almost bearable. I want to see my favourite again. I have watched hundreds of outstanding basketball players in my time, and this one is intriguing. I am sure he could develop into one of the very best I have ever seen.
My favourite does not disappoint. He dominates. I learn that his name is Carl, though I have decided to call him "the Jewel.” No one seems to know where he attended high school, or if he even grew up in the city. Some think he works at a nearby Macy’s, as a security guard.
Flash forward to this spring. I listen to an interview given by Mike Friday, the boss of USA Men’s Sevens Rugby. His team has developed into a perennial threat on the world circuit and a legitimate Olympic medal contender. The players are a wonderfully exciting, impressive mix of speed and skill. The coach notes his extreme good fortune in being able to draw on the nation's astonishingly wide array of sporting talent.
Sitting alone at my computer, I can only nod in agreement. Fourteen years have passed since Canada West’s visit to Ohio. But I have not forgotten the Jewel. Without question, like millions of others across America, he is a shining example of a raw, untapped gem just needing further polish. To levels of brilliance that, in coach Friday’s opinion, "whatever the sport, would leave other countries playing for second."