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Tough Mothers

It looms on the horizon. Just over two weeks to go. Basketball junkies get twitchy.

“It” is the 2023 FIBA Men’s World Cup. 32 nations vying for international hoops supremacy. A mad dash for glory, pool play to start August 25 on the other side of the world, with games in the Philippines, Japan, and Indonesia. The championship final set for September 10.

Maybe, hopefully, finally, this will be Canada’s time to shine. Certainly, for the national team, sporting plenty of NBA talent but still too rarely able to field its best roster, the past decade sees only a series of crushing defeats. Plenty of heartbreak when falling short in major tournaments or repechage qualifiers in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2021. A dismal effort in an expanded 2019 World Cup event provides zero consolation.

Nonetheless, hope springs eternal. This time round, even if injury and player withdrawal may still factor, the majority of Canada’s best and brightest are apparently committed to the journey. The plan is to medal. Failing that, to punch a ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics by finishing top two out of the seven teams entered from the Americas zone.

It won’t be easy. Success on the international circuit is fiendishly difficult. A squad choc a bloc with NBA players guarantees nothing. In addition to skill, sound preparation and battling through fatigue are required in equal measure. As are grit, tenacity, and relentless determination.

Of course, the one exception to all international basketball precedents seems to be the USA. Indeed, the Americans dominate the world scene, certainly in the past thirty years when the sport officially allows professionals to take part in major competitions. With a central figure particularly prominent.

He is Mike Krzyzewski. The legendary “Coach K”, arguably the most successful, influential bench boss and leader in basketball history.

Forget a brief stint coaching at Army, or his initial three wobbly seasons on taking the reins at Duke University in 1980. Since then, a stunning array of records, accolades, and honours follow in his wake.

These include, at the collegiate level, Duke's five NCAA titles and 13 NCAA Final Four appearances. Along the way, he is the first Division 1 coach to reach 1000 wins.

Then, with USA Basketball, in the span of three decades, he claims five Olympic gold medals, two as an assistant coach, three as head coach in 2008, 2012, and 2016. Captures an additional pair of World Cups and too many Coach of the Year awards to mention. Is inducted into countless Halls of Fame.

Still, for me and no doubt many others, one of his motivational speeches resonates so much more.

Durham, North Carolina. The fall of 2018. The highly touted Duke Varsity goes through its pre-season paces. Unfortunately, various players labour through the practice sessions. Errors mount, work ethic is inconsistent. Weariness sets in. The demands of elite level competition take their toll on a young and callow group.

Eventually Krzyzewski addresses the squad. He only speaks for a minute but leaves a compelling message. Not only about basketball but about life.

First, he reflects on the whole concept of being tired. On how too many athletes, and indeed people in untold other situations, when fatigued and frustrated turn inwards. Make excuses, or instinctively seek succor and sympathy.

Coach K then invokes memories of his blessed mother. How she was never ill. How she never appeared tired, or, if she was, never let on.

Tellingly, he realizes how, too often, he took her presence for granted. Yet, he soon acknowledges, especially when growing up, how she was there for him every single day.

Soon, he wraps up his story with a powerful closing comment. A viewpoint as relevant now, for star studded national basketball teams, for young athletes in all sports, for people of all ages, as it would have been fifty years ago. And as it will be fifty years from now.

“Don’t be tired”, Krzyzewski intones. “Show up all the time. Be as tough as your mothers.”


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