Long Shots Chapter II: On a Cold Night…

On a cold night, pride before a fall. Rival team dismissed as 'freshies'. The second part of a week-long series.
1 June 2003 – Toronto Star

By Morgan Campbell


The change room door swings open and in walks Oliver Prince to announce an important bit of news. He has the skinny on tonight’s opponent, the North Albion Cougars.

“They’re suss,” the 6-foot-5, 215-pound star basketball player tells his team. “Kamar Burke is gonna pull and the rest are freshies. They’re freshie two-foot jumpers. I did my homework.”

Most of the Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School players are already in the room, changing from school uniforms into their red and white basketball gear for the first game of the new year, part of a three-day tournament at St. Michael’s College in Toronto.

Some discuss tattoos. Kyle Reid just had a Bible verse inked onto his right forearm.

Teammate Nedrie Simmons rubs liniment on his calf muscles. He’s the team’s catalyst, a high-RPM player with a small body and a huge heart. He smears on so much liniment you can almost taste it in the air.

Brian DaSilva sits quietly on a bench nearby.

After he leaves the gym tonight he’ll visit his girlfriend, Tonya Domize, and their 6-day-old daughter, Aamiyah Destiny DaSilva.

Not everyone in the room might agree with Oliver’s assessment – he offers no actual proof to support it – but they all understand what he’s implying when he dismisses the North Albion players as “freshies.”

“Suss” is short for “suspect.” It means “of questionable quality.” The verb “pull” means to shoot the ball.

Oliver thinks North Albion is a weak team that depends too heavily on one player.

And a “freshie” is somebody “fresh off the boat” from a Caribbean island, usually Jamaica.

For young black Torontonians, it’s like calling somebody a “hillbilly.”

As far as basketball is concerned, it’s like saying, “they’re just a bunch of white boys,” or “just a bunch of cripples.”

Tonight, it means Vanier will win, because, according to stereotypes, freshies can’t play ball.

Vanier will lose, by 14 points.

Head coach Don Marchione didn’t want to start the new year this way. By mid-December, the Jean Vanier Mavericks had won 12 games and established themselves as one of the top teams in the GTA.

But then they lost two of their last three games before the Christmas break.

The team headed into the holiday confused and discouraged, but Marchione wasn’t worried. He figured in January they would win some games, gain some momentum and peak by late February.

His team, however, didn’t seem to take tonight’s game – or the North Albion Cougars – seriously. Before the game even started, Oliver had dismissed them as immigrants who couldn’t play ball.

His “freshie” statement was seemingly directed at North Albion, but its meaning is much broader. Basketball doesn’t just belong to black people. It belongs to certain black people. It belongs to the black mainstream.

Not to immigrants, but to Canadian-born blacks of Caribbean descent. In this context, basketball becomes even more important to the players on this team.

For Marchione and assistant coach Steve Meehan, it’s a game. You play it to win and to learn certain values: teamwork, perseverance, accountability. But the guys on this team don’t just play to win. They play to express themselves.

Basketball is a tool – like fashion, music and language – that they use to forge a black identity in a white country.

This identity is Caribbean by heritage, American by choice and Canadian by default.

Ten of the 12 players on Vanier’s senior basketball team are black, but none of those 10 guys is “Canadian.”

It doesn’t matter that they were born here. They identify with the country in which their parents grew up.

So Oliver and Nedrie, both born in Canada, call themselves Guyanese. Ajani James is from St. Vincent. Kyle Reid, Daniel Smith and Daniel Fuller all are Jamaican.

Keenan Gordon even claims he was born in Jamaica. Press him and he confesses he was born at Toronto East General.

Of course, the mainstream black identity doesn’t require Caribbean heritage. If you’re not born with it, you can always adopt the culture.

Andrew “Drew” Lomond does it. He’s the only white player on the team. His dad is from Cape Breton and his mom from Scotland, but he speaks with a faintly Jamaican cadence. So the phrase “Prince, what happened to you,” becomes “Prince, whapm tyuh?”

“Another guy grabs the rebound,” becomes “next mahn grabs reboan.”

And, like many black teens in Toronto, he ends a lot of sentences with the word “still.” “I’m getting tired, still,” he might say. Or, “I’ve got to fit in, still.” Or, “I played nice, still.”

Sometimes, maybe after a big win, Drew – the only white player on the team – and Oliver will slap hands and spew straight Jamaican patois.

They have a pet saying: True seh, yuh knoh seh bahd mahn a’ tink seh’ ‘im bahd, but ‘im nah bahd. ‘Im tink seh ‘im wicked, but ‘im nah wicked!

The words themselves don’t mean much: “This guy thinks he’s bad, but he’s not bad,” roughly translated.

But the phrase highlights the pervasiveness of Jamaican culture among Toronto’s youth. Sometimes guys on the team joke that Oliver wishes he were Jamaican.

But nobody wants to be too Jamaican – because then they’d be freshies.

So, they’re American, too. Many of the players on Vanier’s team picture themselves living in the U.S. someday; some because they want to live in a city with a large black population, others because U.S. money is worth more than Canadian money. For most of them, basketball is the ticket.

Drew and Nedrie both plan to land basketball scholarships to U.S. universities this spring. Oliver and Brian plan to next year, as do teammates Daniel Smith and Daniel Fuller. Brandon Prince, Oliver’s younger brother, has no plans for a basketball scholarship but still wants to move to the U.S.

“As long as the money’s green,” he says.

Kyle Reid visited Atlanta once and fell in love. Ask him where he was born and he sighs. “Canada.” Ask him where he wishes he was born and he doesn’t hesitate. “The States!”

But birthplace doesn’t matter. African-American culture is like Jamaican culture: It’s pervasive and it’s up for adoption.

Some guys, like Keenan Gordon and Tyrone Harbans, listen to reggae. But if the Jean Vanier Mavericks had a movie, the soundtrack would be hip-hop. Stop one of them at random and listen to what’s on his headphones. It’s hip-hop. American rappers. If it’s not Jay-Z or 50 Cent, it’s Freeway or Nas.

Nedrie, Oliver and other players sometimes visit relatives in New York City. Nedrie even spent part of his childhood there. Factor in the Black Entertainment Television network and these teens stay steeped in African-American pop culture.

But they absorb little of the context.

Ajani James, for example, wears a Chicago American Giants baseball jersey with a matching cap. Nedrie owns an Atlanta Black Crackers hat. Bruce Boateng wears a Newark Eagles cap.

The American Giants, the Black Crackers and the Eagles were all Negro League baseball teams. The Negro leagues were disbanded in the 1960s, but flourished in the 1930s and 1940s when Major League Baseball was still segregated.

Ajani, Nedrie and Bruce don’t know this. They don’t even know the names of the teams whose gear they wear. They just know the clothes look good.

And looking good is important. It’s so important that these teens, who wear uniforms at school, often bring an extra outfit to wear home.

So important that Tyrone Harbans sometimes brings a brush to practice and, during a break, sneaks over to the bleachers and strokes his wavy hair.

Looking good is so important that Brandon spends nearly all of his money on shoes. He works for minimum wage at Food Basics, but buys new Nikes every month. Not just any Nikes. Jordans. They’re a Nike isotope dedicated to NBA superstar Michael Jordan. New models come out about once a month, and they usually cost about $250.

Brandon keeps more than 20 pairs in his bedroom. One pair came packaged in a shiny metal briefcase. For weeks Brandon loaded that briefcase with books and lugged it to school. It’s all part of the package: Hip-hop on their headphones, America on their mind and $250 shoes on their feet.

As the season progresses, Vanier will gain a reputation as one of the prettiest teams in Toronto. At some point, a player from the North Albion Cougars will stare at a Vanier team photo and shake his head at the glittering earrings, new shoes and meticulously trimmed hair.

“How long does it take these guys to change clothes after a game?” he will ask.

Vanier lost to the North Albion Cougars on the opening night of the St. Michael’s tournament. But the next morning, they defeated St. Mary High School from Pickering when Oliver drained a last-second shot.

The Mavericks won the tournament’s consolation final with a 64-47 win over York Memorial.

Their record so far this season: 15 wins, six losses.

Copyright ©2003 Toronto Star

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