Long Shots Chapter VIII: The Final Hoops
For some of the Vanier Mavericks, the end of the basketball season sounds the buzzer on school. But for a driven, lucky few, it may be just the start of new slam-dunk dreams, writes Morgan Campbell.
7 June 2003 – Toronto Star
Drew Lomond rides shotgun in a friend’s car as he and three buddies cruise around Mississauga on a Friday night. He whips out a cellphone and calls someone he knows from the area.
“Yo, I got a question ’bout that city where you stay at,” he says with a drawl picked up on a recent trip to Texas.
He wants to know where to find a strip club, any strip club. Drew turned 19 a week ago – the legal drinking age in Ontario – but tonight he’s celebrating something else. He’s about to accept a scholarship offer from an American university.
It almost didn’t happen.
Drew started out slow early in the season, failing to make the team’s starting lineup and scoring fewer than three points a game. By the end of the season, however, his play had improved and coaches from U.S. schools like the University of Toledo, San Jose State and Southwest Texas State were all showing a strong interest in him. A scholarship seemed certain.
Then in mid-March, shortly after the Jean Vanier Mavericks lost at the provincial championship tournament, Drew received a letter from the NCAA Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse. The organization, which ensures prospective scholarship athletes meet certain academic standards, told Drew his grades were too low to accept a scholarship.
So Drew solved the problem the best way he could – he quit school after March break.
He had failed both Grade 11 English and Grade 12 English, then scraped by when he repeated those classes. His marks dragged Drew’s overall average down to a C-. He needed a solid C.
If Drew wanted to win a scholarship, he’d need to improve those two grades through correspondence courses. And to concentrate on those classes, he reasoned, he needed to leave Vanier. So he dropped out.
So did Brian DaSilva. Like Drew, he never returned to classes after the March break.
Shortly after his girlfriend gave birth to their daughter Aamiyah in January, Brian had begun missing some classes and basketball practices as he tried to juggle school, sports and fatherhood. His coaches were worried that the 19-year-old might “blow off” school as soon as basketball season ended.
They were right.
As soon as the season ended Brian started a job at Wal-Mart, working 3 p.m. to midnight weeknights, unloading cargo for $9 an hour. “F— school,” he told his friend and teammate Nedrie Simmons. He had a daughter and a job.
Nedrie Simmons, meanwhile, finally applied to a Canadian university.
All through the season he held out for a U.S. scholarship offer, believing that his toughness and hustle on the court would compensate for his small size. But American coaches never contacted the 5-foot-7 player. At the end of March he decided to contact them, drafting a letter and sending it to coaches at more than 50 American universities.
Dear coach, he wrote, I wish to express my interest in the basketball program at your university and any potential scholarship offering you may have … I strongly believe that I would be an asset to your program … I would welcome the opportunity to discuss my career goals with you or a member of your staff and I assure you of my determination to succeed.
He also applied to Dalhousie University in Halifax.
By April, Nedrie was riding high. Two U.S. schools had responded to his letter: Binghamton University in upstate New York, and Wheeling Jesuit University, a small school in West Virginia. In addition to Dalhousie, two other Nova Scotia universities – Acadia and St. Mary’s – were showing an interest in him. He even learned some CEGEP colleges in Quebec had their eye on him.
And he made an all-star team – selected and coached by Vanier’s head coach, Don Marchione – made up of the best players in the city. The team was set up to play a four-day post-season event, April 12 to 15. It would start with an exhibition game against an all-star team from Michigan, and conclude with a tournament involving all-star teams from in and around Toronto.
Nedrie saw it as another chance to prove himself against the best players in the city, and an opportunity to shine for scouts from both Canadian and American schools.
Oliver Prince, Vanier’s star player, also made the all-star team. But Marchione was still worried about him. It used to be that U.S. coaches noticed his superior talent. By the end of the season they were noticing his temper, too. Although Oliver was still receiving recruiting letters, Marchione feared that U.S. coaches might lose interest in him.
About a week before the all-star tournament, a coach from Canisius College in Buffalo called Marchione asking if he could attend a practice to scout Oliver and another all-star player named Silver Laku. The coach watched the practice and afterward met with Marchione and his assistant coaches. He wanted to talk about only one player, and it wasn’t Oliver.
Not that Oliver was all that worried. His plan has been to return to high school in the fall for another year, making up for time lost while recovering from the head injury he suffered in a road accident almost two years ago. Another year would give him that chance to solidify his status as a top recruit for U.S. universities.
He may change high schools, though. Oliver says he’s no longer happy at Vanier, blaming Marchione for some of the team’s losses. Marchione plans to remain at Vanier.
Oliver might move in with his father in North York and go to school there. Sometimes he says he’ll move to the U.S.
He’s just not sure.
Three important events occurred during the all-star tournament in mid-April. First, the squad from Michigan stayed home. Spooked by reports of SARS, the players’ parents forbade them to travel to Toronto. The exhibition game was postponed, then cancelled.
Second, Nedrie’s father came to one of his games. A former champion boxer, Nedrie Simmons Sr. was disappointed when his son spurned boxing for basketball. He hadn’t been to a basketball game since his son was in Grade 9. But he showed up for the tournament’s first game, and saw Nedrie and his team win by 63 points.
And finally, Nedrie and Oliver patched things up.
The pair hadn’t spoken in more than a month, not since the league championships back in February. Each was mad at the other’s performance in that game. Then, on the second day of the all-star tournament, Oliver offered Nedrie a ride to the gym.
During the game that night, Oliver played a lot and Nedrie played very little. He spent most of the game at the end of the bench with his arms folded, miffed that Marchione wasn’t putting him in. Now and then, when Oliver came off the court, he sat next to Nedrie and lent a sympathetic ear.
Marchione wasn’t deliberately trying to slight Nedrie. In fact, he could have pulled him off the all-star team altogether, after Nedrie acted up at an exhibition game the previous week. At that game Nedrie, again upset over his lack of play, had removed his shoes in a show of protest. The assistant coaches told Marchione he should cut Nedrie, but he refused to do it. He knew that basketball coaches from Acadia, Dalhousie and St. Mary’s planned to watch Nedrie play at the all-star games.
Those Canadian coaches did wind up coming. While in town, one of them, the head coach from Acadia, wooed Nedrie the finest way his budget would allow – by treating him to lunch at Wendy’s, all expenses paid.
Drew never felt more loved by U.S. college coaches. In mid-April and despite his shaky grades, Rice University in Houston was interested in him, as was Bowling Green State in Ohio.
During the third week of April, he visited Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, all expenses paid. His education started right away. He met a few guys from the team for some pickup ball, and by the second game he was wheezing. The pace of the game amazed him. Guys down there were as big as Drew, as fast as Nedrie and they never stopped running.
The education continued at dining halls on campus and restaurants in town, where Drew learned that everything in Texas has some spicy Mexican flavour. Even the pizza.
His lessons ended on the dance floor of a nightclub near Drew’s hotel. The professor’s name was Kelli. She was 22 years old, half Latina, half white and all sexy. She was a student at Southwest Texas, and she looked like Catherine Zeta Jones with blonde highlights in her hair. She and Drew danced all night, and she promised they would meet again when he enrolled in September. Drew didn’t get her phone number, her e-mail address or even her last name, but he was sure he would find her again. The basketball coach and all the players knew her.
The coach also assured Drew that his grades wouldn’t be a problem. He told Drew that if he could finish his correspondence courses and present an improved transcript by August, he’d still have a scholarship.
A few days after Drew returned to Toronto, a letter arrived at his home. It came in a white envelope with a Southwest Texas State University seal in the corner.
The letter was written on the blank side of a Southwest Texas basketball brochure. Just below Andrew’s name somebody wearing two-tone red lipstick had kissed the page.
I hope to see you next year.
There was another set of lips and some more words in the right corner, just above where it says “1997 NCAA Tournament Appearance.”
Say yes to SWT!
The exclamation point was dotted with a heart.
That settled it for Drew.
At noon on Saturday, May 3, he sat down at the kitchen table of his home in Agincourt with two pieces of paper.
The first was a “grant-in-aid,” certifying that Southwest Texas State will cover the costs of Drew’s education next year. The second was a National Letter of Intent, which certified that Drew intended to attend Southwest Texas State.
He signed both.
He had a scholarship now. At least he would, when he passed Grade 12 English.
|Copyright ©2003 Toronto Star|