Long Shots Chapter VI: The Power of Persuasion

Winning isn't everything - The power of persuasion
5 June 2003 – Toronto Star

Over the course of this tumultuous season, Don Marchione has come to know his players well – perhaps a little too well.

The head coach of the Jean Vanier Mavericks understands Drew Lomond’s shaky confidence comes from childhood struggles with obesity. He accepts Nedrie Simmons’ stubborn, at times even combative behaviour.

And he’s all too familiar with Oliver Prince’s unpredictable outbursts, which many suspect are the result of his brain injury two years ago.

He thought he knew Keenan Gordon as well – until the normally respectful player mouthed off to him at practice the other night, shortly before the crucial three-game league playoffs.

For Marchione it was the latest in a series of frustrating – and tiring – quarrels he has had with his players this season.

This latest incident happened after Marchione blew the whistle on Keenan for jacking a shot from 22 feet away. He had been drilling his team for months on passing the ball to the team’s bigger players so they could shoot close to the basket.

The whistle angered Keenan.

“So basically you’re telling me not to shoot,” he said, his voice rising.

“I’ve been shooting the ball all friggin’ year, man. Frig. If I make that shot it’s a good shot. If I miss it’s a bad one.”

Marchione walked closer. “You’re missing my point, Keenan.”

The drill continued, but Keenan kept muttering to himself. “I’ve been shooting the ball all friggin’ year. If he wants me to go home I’ll go home.”

Marchione stopped the drill.

“Keenan, you’re missing my point.”

“What, you’re speaking French to me now? Parlez-vous? Parlez-vous?” Keenan dismissed Marchione with a wave of his right hand.

That night Marchione drove home to Markham, expecting Keenan to call at some point and apologize. The call never came. The coach ended up pacing the halls until 4 a.m., too angry to sleep. Then he decided: Keenan wouldn’t play tomorrow in the league playoffs. Not until he apologized.

Don Marchione isn’t the type to wrestle his players into submission. The 49-year-old gym teacher is straightforward and intense, but he’s also sensitive. Some say he’s soft, at least when it comes to coaching this temperamental group of teens.

But Marchione sees things differently.

He doesn’t get paid to coach basketball. He gets paid to teach. And when he’s on the court he doesn’t just want to coach a sport, he wants his players to learn a set of values. Like teamwork, accountability, patience, perseverance, respect. Ever since he began coaching at Vanier – he was there when the school opened in 1989 – he has tried to instill these life skills into every player he has taught. But Marchione prefers to use the power of persuasion, not a dictator’s heavy fist.

It hasn’t been easy. Especially this year. He’s dealing with a group of players who already think they’re ready for the NBA, even though they still have a lot to learn. He finds them complacent and resistant to change, and more and more they have been mouthing off to him.

Still, Marchione shows up at practice, usually sporting a nylon Nike sweatsuit, hoping the next session will be better than the last.

Sometimes he goes further for these guys, offering to help them through problems that have nothing to do with basketball. The morning after that sleepless night over Keenan’s outburst, Marchione suddenly had to shift his focus to another player who needed personal guidance.

Brian DaSilva had missed a couple of practices, but worse, he hadn’t been to school all week. Marchione was asked to help sort things out. They met in the vice-principal’s office, where Marchione prodded and Brian finally admitted that he hadn’t been sleeping or eating well lately.

He had missed school to help his girlfriend tend to their 6-week-old daughter, who was ill.

Marchione wasn’t going to punish Brian for that. But he told the 19-year-old that his schoolwork couldn’t suffer. If he was going to miss class for the baby, Marchione told him, just call. He’d even deliver his class assignments to Brian’s home himself, if he had to.

With that settled, Marchione turned his attention back to Keenan and the rest of the team.

This afternoon, they play the first game of the playoffs in the Toronto District Colleges Athletic Association (TDCAA), the final competition of the city’s Catholic high schools. The team has been working towards this event all season.

If they lose today, their season is over. If they win, they play again the next week. And if they win again, they play for the city title and qualify for the Ontario championships next month.

Marchione, perhaps more than any of his players, would like to see the Mavericks win. These guys may drive him crazy at times, but they’re still his team. He’s also aware that some of them are graduating and will never have this chance again. Marchione himself may not be back at Vanier next year.

Even so, some things are more important for him than winning a title. Like respect.

The first playoff game is at Vanier against the Don Bosco Eagles from Etobicoke. When Keenan arrives in the locker room, he doesn’t know he’s been benched.

In fact, he and Nedrie were nearly suspended for another incident Marchione learned about early this morning when he checked his e-mail. The school librarian wrote that the two of them had mouthed off to her the previous night.

It stiffened Marchione’s resolve against Keenan and led him to bench Nedrie, too, for the early part of the game.

While Drew Lomond is sent on to the court to replace him, Keenan slumps at the end of the bench with his arms folded. He unties his shoes. In the second quarter Nedrie enters the game, but Keenan remains on the bench, sulking. He can’t figure it out: Oliver mouths off all the time, and he still plays. Nedrie argues with coaches, too, but there he is, playing.

Marchione ignores Keenan. By halftime Vanier is up by seven. Teammate Ajani James nudges Keenan on the bench. “De man dem are saving the secret weapon for the second half,” he says.

Keenan sighs. He shrugs. “I guess so,” he says.

In the third quarter Vanier is well ahead when Marchione decides to pull Oliver from the game for committing a third foul. Oliver argues but Marchione stands firm.

“Jesus Christ,” Oliver shouts. He storms off the court to the end of the bench. He grabs a skipping rope from his bag and slings it around his foot to stretch his calf muscles. “This guy’s not doing anything for me,” he mutters, sitting next to Keenan. “I’m sick of this.”

A minute later Marchione approaches Keenan. “Get ready to go in at the start of the fourth quarter,” he says, finally relenting. Then he taps Oliver. “When he goes in, you go in, too.”

As Marchione walks away Oliver turns to Keenan. “I’m not going in. This guy’s an idiot. I should hit him with this rope.”

After the game – Vanier wins by 45 points – Marchione meets once more with Oliver and his mother. They had spoken two weeks ago after Oliver blew up during a game in St. Catharines and she warned her son that it wasn’t to happen again.

This time, although Marchione didn’t hear all of the comments Oliver made on the bench, he made it clear he’d heard enough. From now on, he said, if the team’s star player can’t respect his teammates and coaches, he won’t play. If Vanier gets knocked out of the playoffs, Marchione told them, he will accept that. But he will not sell his integrity for a title.

Five days later in the next playoff game, against Father Redmond, Vanier again wins big. Oliver behaves himself and scores 42 points. The win qualifies them for the league title game and the provincial championships in Sudbury next month.

The league title game against Father Henry Carr is played at Upper Canada College three days later. Marchione gathers his players around him in the locker room. “This is our moment,” he says. “It’s not Carr’s moment. They’re overconfident. They’re ripe for the picking. We can beat them if we play our game.”

Marchione’s game plan is for Oliver, Drew Lomond and Brian DaSilva – Vanier’s big guys – to wear down Carr’s big guy, Theo Davis. Make at least seven passes before you shoot, he told them. Slow the game down. Work for good shots.

“Anybody have anything to say?” Marchione asks.

“I just want everybody to leave it all out there on the floor,” Nedrie says. “Everybody.”

Assistant coach Steve Meehan bows his head and clasps his hands in prayer. “Our Father,” he begins. The boys join in. “Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …”

The players stream into the gym and begin warming up. Suddenly Keenan jogs over to Marchione, stops and whispers in the coach’s ear.

The two men shake hands. Minutes later the game begins with Keenan back in the starting lineup.

Marchione’s plan works in the game’s early minutes. Drew and Oliver score points close to the basket. Theo Davis commits fouls trying to stop them. Then Vanier mistakes lead to points for Carr.

Even worse, Oliver twists his right ankle midway through the second quarter and hobbles to the bench. At halftime Carr leads 30-19.

Oliver returns in the third quarter and blocks a shot. His slam dunk gives him 14 points. But then he twists his ankle again and shuts it down for the night. He limps to the bench and unties his shoe.

As Carr extends its lead to 17 points, Oliver’s brother Brandon slides over and asks if he’ll return to the game.

“I’m not going back in there,” Oliver snaps. “I’m not gonna hurt myself for the rest of my life to run with these guys.”

With their star player on the bench, Vanier still gnaws away at Carr’s lead in the third and fourth quarters, closing the gap to six points. But they get no closer. The buzzer sounds. Carr 66, Vanier 57.

Brian DaSilva spends the next day with girlfriend Tonya and their daughter, Aamiyah. He sits in his living room and cradles the baby while watching a basketball game between the University of Texas and Texas Tech.

Nedrie Simmons heads downtown in the afternoon to his part-time job, washing dishes at the Royal York hotel.

In a bungalow near Victoria Park Ave. and Lawrence Ave. E., Oliver Prince celebrates his 19th birthday with family and Drew Lomond. A homemade cake – chocolate with candles and cream-coloured icing – sits on the dining room table. Brandon shows off his basketball shoe collection to some younger cousins.

Oliver blames Marchione for last night’s loss. The coach had no game plan, Oliver says. A few days before the title game he read on an Internet discussion board that Vanier’s players were good enough to win the game, but the coaches were bad enough to lose it.

That’s what happened. The Internet never lies, Oliver says. The coaches lost that game.

Copyright ©2003 Toronto Star
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