Long Shots Chapter IV: Chance of a Lifetime
Andrew Lomond gets his opportunity to impress at an audition for a U.S. college recruiter. The question is, can he become the post player the coaches want, reports Morgan Campbell.
3 June 2003 – Toronto Star
Jan. 27, 2003
On a frigid winter night, about 20 young men gather at the Stanley Park Community Centre for some pickup basketball. First team to 11 points wins. They’ll keep playing until the indoor soccer guys take over the court, just like they do every Monday.
But tonight’s different.
There’s a white guy in the gym. While other players warm up, Andrew “Drew” Lomond, a 6-foot-7 OAC student at Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School, sits on the floor and ties his silver Nikes. Drew may have pale skin – he’s also the only white player on his high school team – but his patois-inflected speech and hip-hop style make him as “black” as any other player in this gym.
Drew, whose goal is an American scholarship, just might achieve that dream if he can play well tonight.
He’s hooped here before with one of his club teams, but he’s not a Monday night regular. Tonight, he has a special incentive to leave his Agincourt home in -20C weather and drive across town to this North York gym, in the Jane-Sheppard area.
That incentive is a black man wearing black slacks and a black leather coat. He sits on a chair in a corner of the gym and faces the basketball court. He holds a notebook in his lap. His shaved head shines like polished mahogany.
He’s American, an assistant coach from an NCAA university. And he’s here, on the advice of Ro Russell, to watch Drew.
Ro Russell is a stocky man, but no one in Canada can match his stature on the National Collegiate Athletic Association recruiting scene. He coaches a club team and runs a scouting service for U.S. college coaches. Russell has spent the past decade setting up a sort of reverseUnderground Railroad, shepherding many of Toronto’s most talented high school basketball players to U.S. universities and prep schools.
Drew’s high school basketball coach, Don Marchione, doesn’t even know Drew is here tonight – and doesn’t know that Russell has arranged for his player to audition for an American coach.
Drew, 18, and his best friend and teammate Oliver Prince spent last summer playing on Russell’s club team, but both were suspended for playing in a one-day clinic sponsored by Adidas. Russell’s club is sponsored by Nike.
Early in January, however, Russell reconciled with the teens, and tonight he leans in close to Drew and counsels the kid not to blow this opportunity.
“You’ve got to look at this like American Idol,” he says, referring to the popular televised singing competition. He leans in closer. If Drew had a fleck of pepper between his teeth, Russell would see it, he’s that close.
He points to the recruiter in the corner. This, he says, is Drew’s night to shine.
Drew starts out playing his game, drifting on the perimeter, passing and shooting jumpers. He fires from 20 feet. Splash.
Drew smiles. Ro cuts his eyes toward the corner where the recruiter sits, expressionless. The next possession Drew fires again from 20-feet. Clang.
One more time. Thud.
Ro shakes his head. “These coaches don’t want Drew to be a perimeter player,” he says woefully, while watching Drew from the sideline. “They want him to be a post player who can step out sometimes.”
Drew wades in close to the hoop, puts his back to the basket and waits for a pass. He catches it, pivots, and a smaller player swoops in and swipes the ball from him. A few possessions later he dribbles and is stripped again.
Every time Drew holds the ball below his waist, a smaller man slaps it from his hands. The recruiter in the corner sits expressionless. Ro sighs in frustration. He can see that Drew carries the ball too low. He wants Drew to keep the ball tight to his chest, the way NBA players do.
Drew’s team loses and he walks to the sideline with his eyes toward the floor. A drop of sweat drips from his chin. Ro tugs on Drew’s T-shirt. Drew stoops so that his ear is next to Russell’s mouth.
“You can’t let these guys slap the ball out of your hand like that,” Ro tells him.
“But they’re fouling me,” Drew counters.
“Don’t blame them for fouling you. Blame yourself for not taking care of the basketball.”
Drew nods. Ro continues. “You’ve got to be aggressive. You don’t want this guy to go back to (the States) saying, ‘Yeah, he’s all right.’ You want him to say, ‘I’ve got to have this kid.'”
Minutes later, Drew is back on the court for game two, ready to show the recruiter what he can really do.
One of Drew’s teammates crosses half-court and lets the ball fly. The gym grows quiet. He’s not shooting from there, is he? The way the ball is sailing, he’ll be lucky if it hits the backboard.
Then Drew leaps and reaches with two hands. He plucks the ball from the air nearly a foot above the rim, cocks it behind his head and crams it through the hoop.
Teens sitting along the sidelines leap to their feet in unison. Some hold two fingers aloft and fire mock gunshots. Others slap the cinder-block walls with their palms.
In this game Drew parks close to the basket, just as Ro instructed him. He bangs guys out of his way to grab rebounds. He still loses the ball whenever he tries to dribble, but at times he fights through traffic and scores. His team scores 11 fast points. Game over.
In the next game, a teammate tosses the ball up and Drew flies in from the right wing. He leaps off one foot and as he rises, the ball sinks. He catches it chest-high, cocks it behind his head and crams it. He hangs on to the rim this time, tugs it twice before pouncing to the ground.
More mock gunshots. More palms slap the wall.
One of Drew’s teammates, a skinny guy with a Mohawk of knots on his head, runs down the court, hands held high, grasping an imaginary rim. “He’s a nigger!” the kid proclaims. “He’s a niggerrrrr! Aaaaarrrgh!”
Ro laughs at the kid, but he’s happy with Drew. He knows that NCAA coaches like dunks. A few big dunks will make them forget 10 turnovers. Drew’s team reels off 11 more points. Game over.
In the next game, the player guarding Drew stands maybe 6 feet tall. Drew catches the ball, then backs him down. They start about 10 feet from the basket. Drew shoves his butt into the guy’s stomach, dribbles and shuffles backward. Seven feet. Three feet. Two. Drew grabs the ball, pivots, elevates and rams the ball through the hoop with his left hand. He sends the defender sprawling.
Mock gunshots. Palms slap walls. Eleven more points. Game over.
Around 9 p.m., as the basketball players disperse, Drew, Ro and the recruiter disappear into a small room. The recruiter pulls a black laptop from his briefcase and slides it on to a table. He presses a button and a slide show begins.
There’s a panoramic shot of a campus, showing dorms, the basketball arena. There’s a photo of the football stadium, a shot of one of the school’s five world-class weight-training facilities. And, says the recruiter, here’s the student centre that houses five – five! – fast-food franchises. Doughnuts, pizza, chicken. Whatever you want, you’ll find it here, he says.
The next photo shows a sun-drenched promenade, where smiling students stroll.
“Hold up,” Ro says, placing his index finger on the screen. “I don’t see too many dark faces in this picture.” Then he laughs and slaps Drew on the back. “I want my man here to feel comfortable.”
Drew smiles and straightens the collar on his jacket. “Yeah, I’ve got to fit in, still,” he says, using a vernacular common to black teens in Toronto.
He and Ro then crack up. The recruiter, confused, looks at Ro, then at Drew, then back at Ro. “Well, we’ve got plenty of black students,” he assures them.
Ro and Drew keep cackling. A grin spreads across the recruiter’s face as he clues in. “We’ve got plenty of ‘sistas’ on campus,” he says, joining the laughter. “Plenty of ‘sistas.'”
Then he shows them a picture of what really counts: graduation day, basketball players in caps and gowns. At this school, the recruiter boasts, 56 per cent of student athletes graduate within six years. The national average, he says, is 54 per cent.
He shows a picture of an alumnus who he says is now making $5 million a year in the NBA. At 18, he says, that NBA player didn’t have half the touch Drew has right now.
The recruiter hands Drew a slip of paper. Drew crouches over it and slowly, tenderly marks down his name and phone number. He hands the paper back to the recruiter, who holds it at arm’s length, then draws it near his face.
“We’re going to be calling you,” he says to Drew. “A lot.”
The trio rise and shake hands. Then the recruiter shows Drew what to do when he’s near the basket with the ball in his hands. Press it tight to your chest, he tells Drew, and stick your elbows out. That way, they won’t strip the ball from you. The recruiter grips an imaginary ball and demonstrates, using Drew as a defender. You can almost see the light bulb illuminate in Drew’s brain.
“I think you have a great future with us,” says the recruiter, smiling wide. “And don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of sistas. Plenty of sistas.”
The trio lapse into laughter again and stumble like drunks out of the meeting room and into the hallway. Drew zips his parka and heads for a side exit. Ro walks with the recruiter out the front door.
Seconds later, Ro reappears. He wants to ask a favour of a reporter who sat in on the private meeting. He says the recruiter would appreciate it if his conversation with Drew never made the paper.
At that moment the recruiter, who had stepped outside, returns with a sheepish grin and short, tentative steps.
This is what’s known as a “quiet period,” he explains. NCAA rules allow him to talk to coaches, but only watch high schoolers play. He can only hold short, very short, conversations with the players. Like “hello” and “goodbye.” Anything more than that violates NCAA rules.
“It means,” the recruiter says, “that this never happened.”
|Copyright ©2003 Toronto Star|