Long Shots Chapter VII: Time for a Hail Mary
Rifts and resentments within the team threaten the Mavericks’ performance; divided, they’ll fall. As a crucial game approaches, the coaches can only plead and pray, writes Morgan Campbell.
6 June 2003 - Toronto Star
March 4-6, 2003
A bright yellow school bus carrying an elite basketball squad rolls north along Hwy 69 in a six-hour stretch from Toronto to Sudbury.
It’s the first week of March, and a steady snowfall begins north of Parry Sound. Inside the bus Oliver Prince, the Jean Vanier Mavericks’ star player, leans his head against a window and sleeps while an intense debate rages among his teammates: Who’s a better rapper, Nas or Jay-Z?
They don’t discuss basketball with half this much passion. Yet none of them would dispute that this tournament they’re about to play – the provincial championships at Laurentian University in Sudbury – is the most important of the season. The team has been working toward this event since November, winning 22 games while losing only nine.
Recently, however, rifts have developed between players, and these conflicts could cost the team on the court.
Oliver has stopped talking to teammate Nedrie Simmons. He still blames Nedrie, along with the coaches, for losing the final game of the league playoffs last month.
Nedrie is upset with Oliver who, he thinks, abandoned the team when he left that same game with a twisted ankle. And Drew Lomond is still ticked that during the league title game Nedrie didn’t pass him the ball more often.
Head coach Don Marchione had hoped his team would have outgrown this type of bickering by now – especially with a provincial title at stake.
Vanier played their first game the morning after arriving in Sudbury and won by 41 points over Oshawa’s McLaughlin Collegiate. At one point Oliver caught the ball and, without looking, flung it behind his back to Nedrie, streaking toward the hoop. Nedrie caught the ball and scored.
Then, the two players resumed ignoring each other.
Later that night Vanier’s team split into two camps. Nedrie returned to his hotel room with roommates Brian DaSilva, Keenan Gordon and Tyrone Harbans. Various players drifted in and out, playing dominoes and video games.
Oliver and Drew, meanwhile, held court in their room with players from Toronto’s North Albion Collegiate Institute.
The next morning, Vanier played their second game, against St. Mary’s, from Sault Ste. Marie.
Oliver seemed in a good mood early on. At one point, he even took pity on an injured opponent, scooping him off the floor and carrying him to the sideline.
But minutes later, he twisted his ankle and hobbled off the court. He wasn’t happy. He didn’t return to the game until the second half.
Then, early in the third quarter, he stormed from the court, angry at everything.
“What’s the problem out there?” Marchione asks.
“Your guard,” Oliver answers, referring to Nedrie. “I’m playing in the middle. I’m grimacing because I rolled my ankle.”
“Oliver, calm down.”
“Me and Brian had an agreement, and …”
“Oliver,” Marchione pleaded. “Cool it.”
Oliver plopped down at the end of the bench and untied his left shoe.
He never returned to the game and spent the rest of the morning deriding Nedrie. “Who is this guy?” Oliver asked rhetorically after Nedrie made a bad pass. “Really, who is Nedrie Simmons?” When the ref whistled Nedrie for travelling, Oliver cackled under his breath.
Vanier won the game 62-46. Later, when the team’s bus passed a pair of female Laurentian students – friends of Nedrie’s from Toronto – they shouted his name. Oliver pounced.
“Just like him,” he blurted. “Bringin’ suss girls to a suss game where you played suss!” Nedrie ignored him.
Vanier has two wins so far in the tournament, but Marchione is far from satisfied. In fact, he’s upset.
A few hours before the team plays the most important game of the season he senses that a pair of bickering factions – Oliver and Drew versus Nedrie and his friends – could rip his team apart.
He summons his squad to his hotel room. They’re going to solve these problems. And they’re going to pray.
Nedrie Simmons limps in with an ice pack lashed to his left calf muscle. Oliver hobbles into the room with a garbage bag full of ice.
He sits on the edge of a bed and plunges his left foot into the bag.
“We’ve got to focus now,” Marchione tells the team. “We have a chance to win a provincial title. Some of you may never get this chance again. That’s the bottom line. For all the rice in China I can’t understand why you can’t focus.”
Keenan Gordon turns his head and stifles a laugh. Marchione continues.
“Second, I’m sick and tired of the two camps on this team. I see it, other people are seeing it, and it’s tearing this team apart.”
Nedrie reclines and props a foot on Brian’s shoulder. Oliver leans closer to the coaches. Assistant coach Steve Meehan speaks to him.
“Oliver, in Sudbury there’s no better athlete than you. You’ve been given a tremendous gift. But it’s time to say goodbye to whatever’s holding you back. Whatever your demons are, say goodbye. I’m saying this in front of people because I love you.”
Meehan clutches a rosary. Players bow their heads.
“I’m going to focus this for you, Oliver,” Meehan says. “If you want to change, get the Lord in your life. That’s my advice to you.
“Hail Mary …”
The players join him. “Full of grace …”
“Black, white, Chinese,” Meehan says. “Help us be one. Hail Mary …”
“Full of grace …”
“These last three Hail Marys are for your family. Hail Mary …”
“Full of grace …”
Shortly before 7 p.m. Oliver hefts a gym bag on to his shoulder and heads for the locker room door. He makes the sign of the cross one last time, then steps into the gym.
He knew this moment would arrive, even after doctors told him he would never play basketball again. The time spent recovering from his brain injury – suffered in a road accident 18 months ago – may have slowed his career, but it didn’t stop him.
Now he’s back where he feels he belongs, among the top players in Toronto and three wins away from a provincial title.
Part of him knew things would work out. Another part isn’t so sure. After the accident, his family launched a civil suit against the driver’s insurance company. Before the insurance company will pay it needs proof that Oliver suffers from long-term injuries, his mother says.
The company’s lawyers have showed up at Oliver’s games, pored over game films from the last three seasons, and asked to see articles written about him. When Oliver scored 42 points in a game earlier this season, his mother says, the lawyers wanted an explanation. If he earns a basketball scholarship next year, she fears the lawyers will want far more.
Oliver drops his gym bag on the floor near the bench.
He looks like Moses right now. He paces the sideline with a white towel over his head and a skipping rope wrapped around his temples. It hides the crescent-shaped scar that curls from his right ear to the top of his skull. His chin drops toward his chest and the towel shades his face. His eyes gleam like halogen lamps from within the shadow.
He’s got to stay focused. Blot out the throbbing pain in his swollen left ankle. Forget the pressure he feels every time he steps on the court. He stops pacing and sits at the end of the bench. Then he crosses himself twice more. He’s got to stay focused. This is his time.
Tonight’s opponents are the Central Commerce Riders, a powerful team from downtown Toronto. After the tipoff, Vanier scores first. Nedrie and Drew haven’t spoken all week, but they connect on the first play of the game. Nedrie’s pass spawns a basket by Drew. The two players slap hands at centre court.
But soon selfishness, sloppy play and Central Commerce’s speed sap Vanier’s momentum. Oliver grabs a rebound and races downcourt alone instead of passing to Nedrie. When Nedrie does get the ball, his passes skitter out of bounds. Marchione brings him to the bench. Vanier is down eight points after the first quarter.
The second quarter isn’t much better for Vanier. During a timeout Oliver yells at Nedrie and stomps to the end of the bench. Nedrie yells at Oliver for not passing the ball. Marchione yells at Nedrie for yelling at Oliver. By halftime it’s 31-24 for Central Commerce.
In the locker room, players line benches and sit facing the middle of the room. Oliver stays at the end of the bench, facing the wall. Marchione paces the floor, livid.
“All you do is think about yourselves!” he shouts. “Does anybody have anything to say?”
Just then Nedrie stands and faces Oliver. “I just want to apologize to Oliver for yelling at him,” he says.
Oliver keeps his back turned. “Shut up,” he mutters to himself. Then silence.
“Oliver,” Meehan asks. “Do you want to respond?”
“No comment,” Oliver sneers.
“Oliver? You don’t want to talk to your guard?”
Keenan Gordon groans with frustration. “Let’s talk about the second half. Let it go.”
Oliver clasps his hands and presses his cheek into his right shoulder. Tears move to the rims of his eyelids.
Back on the court, he dominates the third quarter. He scores 10 of Vanier’s 16 points and his hustle on defence creates opportunities on offence. Nedrie and Drew connect again. Vanier manages to close the gap to a single point, but by the end of the quarter they’re down by five.
With less than five minutes left in the game, Vanier’s down 56-51 when Nedrie floats a long pass in Drew’s direction. Drew’s not expecting it. The ball sails out of bounds.
“Drew,” Nedrie shouts. “You stopped running!” Drew just glares at Nedrie.
Central Commerce has the ball and they whittle more than a minute off the clock before they score again. 58-51. Nedrie tosses another long pass. Brian DaSilva snags it and scores. He makes a free throw. Four point game.
But Vanier draws no closer. Oliver scores four points in the game’s final 90 seconds, but Vanier’s defence can’t contain Central Commerce. Keenan Gordon sinks a shot as the buzzer sounds. The game ends. Central Commerce 66, Vanier 60. The Riders will go to the semi-finals the next day.
The Mavericks will go back to Toronto. After 41/2 months and 35 games, their season is over.
After the game, the Jean Vanier Mavericks slump in vinyl seats and their school bus rumbles through Sudbury streets toward the hotel. The cabin is dark except for the green glow of cellphone displays and the amber light from streetlamps diffused on frosted windows. It’s silent except for the grumbling engine and Oliver Prince, holding court in the back of the bus.
“I’m Oliver Prince!” he proclaims. “And you know what? When this day’s done and the next one comes I’m still gonna be Oliver Prince.”
The guys gathered around him erupt in laughter.
That night, in hotel Room 319, Marchione turns on a lamp and watches TV. Minutes later, Oliver enters the room and thanks the coach for his patience.
Down the hall, in Room 327, Nedrie Simmons steps to the window with his head in his hands. A few minutes later he folds his clothes, and packs away his belongings and his memories of high school basketball.
|Copyright ©2003 Toronto Star|