Long Shots Chapter I: The Holy Wars
Tensions rise between the teams and the teammates as the Jean Vanier Mavericks take on the Saints and Mother Teresa Scarborough high school players embark on long, difficult journey to an Ontario championship, writes Morgan Campbell.
31 May 2003 – Toronto Star
The Jean Vanier Mavericks are one of the best high school basketball teams in the city. For five months, Star reporter Morgan Campbell and photographer Steve Russell followed the wins and losses of the young players, on and off the court, on their quest for an Ontario championship.
They saw their joys and frustrations. They learned about the media-fed values that drive them and the hybrid style of black Canadian culture that surrounds them. And they watched the Mavericks struggle, again and again, to remain a cohesive team.
Their story begins in early December in a tournament game against another Toronto high school, C.W. Jeffrys …
With nine seconds left in the first quarter, Nedrie Simmons chases down an errant pass and corrals it in the corner. Without even slowing down, he lofts an alley-oop pass for his teammate, Oliver Prince. The ball sails well above the rim – and looks like it’ll drift out of bounds.
Suddenly Oliver elevates and extends. Just when you think he’s reached his peak, he rises a little higher. All eyes in the gym are on him. Then, in one swift motion, he catches the ball with both hands, steadies it and drops it softly through the hoop.
This is how a high school basketball team, any basketball team, works: with co-operation, communication and hustle. And Oliver Prince, star player for the Jean Vanier Mavericks and a big name in Toronto, is doing what he does best – making big plays.
In the coming months, this will be the biggest challenge for Oliver and his 11 teammates – how to maintain discipline and teamwork. How to keep self-serving ambition, personal pressures and personality clashes in check. How to stay humble when friends and agents pander to NBA dreams. And how, with the sheer stress of being a teenager, especially one in the spotlight, to win big.
Today, the young men of the Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School basketball team are playing the C.W. Jeffrys Saints from North York in a three-day tournament in Hamilton. It’s one of 35 games – a combination of tournaments and league matches – that Vanier will play before the season ends.
In the second quarter, teamwork prevails until the referee whistles Oliver for a foul. Oliver, arguing the call, receives a second foul for his behaviour. Vanier’s head coach, Don Marchione, calls timeout.
Oliver stalks toward the bench. He walks to the huddle still complaining about the call. Nedrie walks next to him.
“Let it go, man,” he says.
“No,” Oliver snaps. “You let it go.”
As the game continues, Jeffrys presses ahead, eventually building a 10-point lead with fewer than five minutes to play. Vanier rallies to within two points, but fumbles away a last-second chance to tie it up.
After the game, Nedrie fumes over the loss. Oliver limps into the locker room on a sore right ankle. Marchione lectures his team about being smart with the ball.
His team is wounded now, but they’ll have to regroup quickly. In five days, they play their biggest rival.
In the visitors’ change room, Oliver paces the floor like a panther, bobbing his head to hip hop MP3s on his pocket computer.
His 6-foot-5 frame carries 215 pounds of sculpted muscle, the combined result of genetics, rigorous workouts and battles on the gym floor. He was once one of the brightest high school basketball stars in this city – until he suffered a brain injury in a serious road accident nearly two years ago.
Before this season ends, he fully intends to shine again.
The corridors inside Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School are crowded as students, fresh from the day’s classes, inch toward the gym’s entrance. Two teenagers stand sentry by the door, taking tickets and stamping hands.
On this early December afternoon, it’s 30 minutes to show time.
Vanier is the visiting team. Two schools, two chief rivals needing a win, looking to vault from their respective Scarborough neighbourhoods on to the provincial championship stage.
The tension is palpable. A stranger to the school might find the scene almost menacing. Inside the gym a group of teenage boys stand scowling against one wall. They’re too tough to sit in the stands and too cool for school spirit. So, they lean with arms folded, or they use one hand to cup an elbow while the other strokes a baby-hair goatee.
They wear their hair in cornrows and Afros. Some sport shiny, black quilted jackets. Today is dress-down day – no school uniforms required. So they wear jeans baggy enough to fit a second pair of legs and sagging to just the right degree of thug.
Their eyes travel as you walk past, sizing you up from head to toe. Appraising you. Are you Mother Teresa or Jean Vanier? Coach or cop? Friend or foe?
The gym fills with spectators, and there’s a surge of noise and excitement. Inside, the lighting seems unusually low. There’s more dark than light in the rafters and the court looks like dusk on a cloudy day. But the darkness doesn’t dampen school spirit.
It’s 20 minutes to game time.
Marchione calls the games between these two rivals “the holy wars.”
Never mind that Mother Teresa, or “MT,” situated in the northeast corner of the city, derives its name from a nun and saint. Or that Jean Vanier, in midtown-Scarborough, is named after a Canadian theologian and founder of the L’Arche communities for the mentally disabled. These games are always close and always intense.
Today, the saint and the great Canadian will do battle.
Oliver continues to pace and fidget inside the changeroom when in walks Steve Meehan, Vanier’s assistant basketball coach, with a sack full of basketballs slung over one shoulder.
“How much time left?” Marchione asks him.
“If anybody could see out there, I’d be able to tell you,” Meehan replies. “That’s the darkest gym I’ve seen in my whole life. Isn’t that unreal? It’s always been bad, but it’s worse today.”
“Yeah, and they never do anything to fix it,” pipes in Brandon Prince, Oliver’s younger brother.
Every high school gym in Toronto has its quirks. Vanier’s gym, for instance, is small, a full 20 feet shorter than a standard 94-foot basketball court. But it’s bigger than the gym at Eastern Commerce, home of the defending provincial champions. Down there you can’t even shoot a three-pointer from the corner without stepping out of bounds.
And Mother Teresa has the darkest gym in the city.
Suddenly a thunderous noise is heard coming from the bleachers.
Bump, bump … bump, bump, bump, bump.
It might be the booming bass from a hip-hop song, or it could be the stomping of impatient feet in the bleachers. From the locker room, it’s hard to tell.
Oliver tucks a ball under his arm and paces a tight figure-eight near the door. Earlier this week he met with an occupational therapist and performed exercises to strengthen his left arm and left leg. He’s ready to play ball.
He drapes the hood of his parka over his head and wears the coat like a cape.
“Let’s go, yo!”
Oliver marches across the court to the visitors’ bench and drops his gym bag and parka on the floor. He’s still wearing his headphones. Hip-hop gets him hyped. He needs that before a game – especially this one.
His teammates stream into the gym behind him.
There’s Andrew “Drew” Lomond, Oliver’s best friend and the only white player on Vanier’s team. There’s also Brian DaSilva. At 18, he’s a solid and reliable player, although right now he has more pressing concerns than basketball. A month from now he’ll be a father.
Together, Oliver at 6-foot-5, Drew at 6-foot-7 and Brian at 6-foot-6 form the tallest front line in Toronto, though the three are rarely on the court at the same time.
And then there’s Nedrie Simmons, who enters the gym just minutes before the game. At 5-foot-7 he’s the team’s shortest player. The son of a former champion boxer, he’s determined to prove that basketball is his true calling.
These four are the best-known players at Vanier, the team’s ambassadors.
But Oliver Prince attracts the most attention. Not only in school but across Toronto and, more importantly, south of the border.
Less than two minutes into the game, he shows why U.S. college coaches used to drool over him.
After a bounce pass from a teammate, Oliver catches the ball in the right corner and takes three giant steps toward the basket. He leaps off one foot and raises the ball to dunk it. Jemino Sobers, Mother Teresa’s best player, jumps and raises an arm to swat Oliver’s shot. Jemino stands 6-foot-7 and is a member of Canada’s junior national team. In three months, he will accept a scholarship to Central Connecticut State University.
But for now, he’s about to be crowned by the Prince.
Oliver glides right past Jemino, on to the other side of the rim. He cradles the ball down by his right hip, cocks his head to keep it from hitting the backboard. Jemino tries to block the shot but Oliver unleashes an overhand jam that brings even MT fans to their feet.
This is the type of aggressive play Marchione wants to see in this game. At practice, he drilled his players on an offensive game plan that involved pounding the ball inside, getting fouled and shooting free throws. Most of all, he wanted his team to attack and wear down Jemino.
That’s just what Oliver’s doing.
Marchione loves Oliver’s natural athletic prowess, his ability to sprint down the court and finish a play with a big dunk. His raw strength and willingness to bang bodies beneath the basket. And his incredible agility, leaping higher than other players and grabbing rebounds they can’t reach.
Before Oliver even entered high school, word of his abilities reached U.S. college coaches. By the end of Grade 11, at age 17, Oliver was one of the best high school players in the province. Top American schools like Michigan State, Florida and Auburn wooed him with recruiting letters. Most players can only dream of receiving that kind of attention.
Marchione, however, also knows Oliver’s weaknesses. His jump shot is suspect. Marchione says it’s much better than it was two years ago, but still needs to improve. Also, Oliver tends to dribble with only his right hand, and even that is shaky.
But it’s Oliver’s simmering and at times explosive temper that most worries Vanier’s head coach. Last week’s game against the Saints was a case in point. After receiving the technical foul for arguing with the referee, Oliver seethed even after the game.
He hasn’t always been this way. His coaches, teammates, even Oliver himself, say they notice a disturbing change in his behaviour since his near-fatal accident in August, 2001.
It occurred one afternoon as Oliver and Brandon were crossing Victoria Park Ave. at Eglinton, a busy intersection in the heart of Scarborough. Oliver remembers turning his head in time to see a flash of yellow. In a split-second, according to news reports, a speeding car struck Oliver and threw him more than 15 metres before he landed on the pavement.
He was rushed to Sunnybrook Hospital and underwent emergency surgery to relieve swelling on his brain. Doctors told his mother, Yvonne, that her son probably wouldn’t survive the first night. If he did, they said, he’d probably be brain-damaged.
He remained in a coma after the operation. Yvonne stayed by her son’s side day and night. So did Brandon, whose ankle was broken in the accident. Coaches Meehan and Marchione visited every day and prayed for Oliver’s recovery.
Then, nine days after the accident, Oliver awoke.
He spent three months in occupational therapy at Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre, where he says a doctor told him he’d never play basketball again.
He’s still bitter about that. Basketball was never just a game to him. He considered it his future and a part of his identity.
Besides, he proved that doctor wrong.
He’s back on the court, in his first full season since the accident, playing against the Mother Teresa Titans and putting Marchione’s game plan into action. He’s playing hard on defence, co-operating with his teammates and, when he has the ball, attacking the basket again and again.
By halftime, Vanier is ahead 34-29.
Stakes are high today. They always are with Vanier and MT, two of the most successful Catholic school basketball programs in the city. Right now they’re the two top teams in the East division of the Toronto District Colleges Athletic Association (TDCAA), a league composed mainly of Toronto’s Catholic high schools. Since 1995, both teams have won the TDCAA title twice and both have finished second three times.
Success like that attracts talent. Vanier drew Oliver, who started his high school career at Markham District High School, then transferred to Vanier for Grade 11. It also brought in Nedrie, who spent three years at the George S. Henry Academy in Don Mills before switching to Vanier.
And it lured Drew, who attended Albert Campbell Collegiate in Agincourt before transferring to Vanier.
Today, Drew is one of the few white people in the gym who’s not a coach or a teacher.
But his skin colour doesn’t stop him from fitting in. In fact, he embraces the same black culture his teammates do, a hybrid that draws from their Toronto upbringing, their Caribbean-island heritage and the influence of African-American culture. In the summer, he wore his sandy brown hair in cornrows. He listens to hip-hop and reggae, and he often laces his speech with Jamaican patois.
Drew stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 230 pounds. He’s one of the biggest players in the league and Web sites devoted to Toronto high school basketball say he is of the best. American schools like Central Michigan, Norfolk State and Appalachian State have all made early contact with him recently.
Like his best friend Oliver, Drew dreams of a career in the NBA. But unlike Oliver, who says he could reach that level with a few more years of hard work, Drew boasts he could play in the NBA today. He’ll get his chance to prove his talents in the new year.
That apparent self-assurance, Marchione says, is “false bravado.” Drew talks a big game but Marchione can tell, watching him play, that he’s not that confident. It’s an astute observation from a gym teacher who, at this point, doesn’t know Drew once struggled to overcome shyness and obesity. He used to be so ashamed of his body he would keep a T-shirt on at pool parties.
As far as his game goes, Drew doesn’t like to use his size to bang beneath the basket. He’d rather float 20 feet from the hoop, fire long shots and make pretty passes. Drew says he plays this way to prepare for his future. NBA players his size shoot far from the basket, he says. Drew wants to get a head start on playing NBA-style.
Marchione, however, thinks Drew is soft. He notices Drew attacks the basket during practice drills, when defenders are absent. Marchione suspects Drew is just scared of other guys his size.
Drew would be a dominant high school player, Marchione says, if he would just play tougher. Right now, he averages fewer than three points a game.
And in this game, Drew’s contribution just doesn’t affect the outcome.
In the third quarter, Vanier mistakes allow MT to surge ahead. Nedrie’s long pass to teammate Keenan Gordon is intercepted and MT scores. Later, Nedrie is playing defence against an MT player when suddenly he lunges to steal the ball. Nedrie loves to gamble on the court, but today he loses twice in a row. The MT player steps deftly around him and drains a jump shot.
The home crowd grows louder, drowning out the group of about 40 Vanier girls who made the trip on the TTC. MT has the ball and they’re passing like tic-tac-toe. Feet stomp in the bleachers. The crowd grows louder still. One more cross-court pass.
Oliver intercepts it, races away and scores. The crowd noise dims a little.
Another Vanier basket and the crowd quiets down a little more.
Then Nedrie gambles and wins. He intercepts a pass and feeds Oliver, who scores. Suddenly, Vanier’s ahead by two.
Nedrie may be one of the shortest players in the league, but he is also one of the toughest. He’s 138 pounds of heart, hustle and hope. If he were a boxer – and he was one until Grade 9 – he’d be only a super-lightweight.
Players so small rarely grab the attention of the U.S. college scouts that Nedrie wants so desperately to impress. He dreams of a career in journalism, but won’t consider applying to Ryerson University or Humber College. Like Drew and Oliver, he wants a basketball scholarship south of the border.
That’s why he lifts weights three mornings a week before class. U.S. college basketball has no room for lightweights. By spring, he wants to weigh 145. Then he’ll be a full-fledged welterweight, not that the extra weight will make a difference for Nedrie.
In the ring, Nedrie was a calculating boxer who chose his shots carefully. On the court, however, he’s a gambler, willing to absorb losses for the sake of big gains. He’s always looking for the knockout blow.
In this game, he’s already been burned twice in the third quarter, and it cost Vanier four points. But on the third gamble, his intercepted pass has given Vanier the lead.
They never trail again. MT manages only nine points in the fourth quarter. Vanier scores 15.
With less than a minute left, Brian DaSilva steps to the foul line. Forty girls in Vanier school uniforms – navy sweaters and gray slacks – spring to their feet and chant.
“Gaaaaame O-ver!” Clap, clap clap, clapclap.
“Gaaaaame O-ver!” Clap, clap clap, clapclap.
Jean Vanier 65, Mother Teresa 57.
The locker-room door swings open wide, and Oliver stalks in with Keenan half a step behind.
“Every goddamn game,” Oliver shouts. “Why do you keep turning the ball over?”
“I’m trying,” Keenan counters. “Next time you can play guard and I’ll play big man.”
“I never said you weren’t trying. But you guys are always telling us to make good decisions. Every goddamn game. Both of you! I’m not leaving Nedrie out of this.”
“Oliver,” someone calls from across the room. “We won the game.”
“Great, we won the game,” Oliver snaps back. “I don’t give a damn about this game. I’m talking about a team concept, yo. If we can’t do it against these guys, how are we going to do it against Eastern and Jeffrys?”
Marchione steps in front of Oliver.
“Oliver,” he says.
“We talk about it in practice …”
“In the locker room, on the bus …”
“All we do is talk, talk, talk ”
“OLIVER!” Marchione lays a palm over Oliver’s heart. “Sit down and be quiet.”
“Hey, we just played our best game of the season,” Meehan shouts. “Why are we melting down?”
Out in the gym, Brian climbs into the bleachers, where the Vanier contingent greets him – the boys with fist-bounces and the girls with hugs. His girlfriend, eight months pregnant, didn’t make the game tonight. Soon he’ll have to balance school, basketball and fatherhood. Something will have to give. But for now, Brian’s happy just for the win.
It improves Vanier’s record so far this season, to 12 wins and three losses. Marchione is proud of the way his players rebounded from last week’s loss against C.W. Jeffrys. But he can’t shake this gnawing feeling that the team’s hard-won victory over Mother Teresa was easy, compared with the struggles that lie ahead.
|Copyright ©2003 Toronto Star|