Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Early lessons from the Canisius hardwood...

Early lessons:  Basketball at my high school was - and is - a big deal.  In fact, the Buffalo Catholic League - and Buffalo basketball in general - is better than you would expect.  Teams are well-coached and disciplined, coaches are respected and admired, and players are blue-collar tough and surprisingly talented.  Cliff Robinson came out of Buffalo.  So did Bob Lanier.  You probably never heard of Randy Smith but look him up - he was MVP of the 1978 NBA All-Star game (over Dr. J!) and he owned the NBA ironman record for most consecutive games before AC Green broke it.  (He also regularly abused me in pick-up games when I was a soph/junior and he was training for the '88 NBA Legends Game.)  Trevor Ruffin played for the Suns and the Sixers and once led the NBA in points per minute as a super sub (fyi...Trevor also torched me in pick-up games).  Eric Eberz had a great career at Villanova (ok, there's a theme..Eric went to my rival high school and once blocked my shot into roughly the 12th row).  Lenny Stokes played for Cincinnati.  Jonny Flynn plays for the Timberwolves.  Current Michigan coach John Beilein is a Buffalo guy and recruited me out of high school.  Christian Laettner was the top-dog in my era and his squad won the New York State championship a couple times.  You get my point.

My middle school did not have a basketball team.  I played local Boy's Club basketball (one season on the 11-and-under team and one season on the 13-and-under team) and I had no exposure to city basketball or to what I imagined that level of play to be.  And as you might expect, I was slightly intimidated by the prospect of making my "big city" (I know, I know...you can guffaw at the concept that Buffalo could ever be "big city," but as a kid who grew up in France and in the Buffalo 'burbs, it was to me), private, all-boys, gloried-and-storied tradition, high school freshman team. 

Canisius vs. St. Joe's at CHS

So, motivated by fear and by stories that over 100 kids would be trying out for 15 spots, I did what any thirteen-year-old-boy-in-the-pre-internet-and-pre-cable-television days would do:  I worked my ass off.  I suppose the benefit of relative isolation in the 'burbs (and on a 1000-acre estate, no less...my mom was the cook for the owners of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team so we had a "servant's house" on the estate) was the emphasis on drills, rather than playing, that isolation allowed.

[This, by the way, is a topic for another blog, but may explain some of my disillusion with modern basketball...back then we had to practice fundamentals, whether alone or on a team...today's AAU structure for kids just means games, games, and more games...do they ever actually practice anything anymore?]

So I spent that summer in the driveway, doing shooting drills and dribbling drills and defensive slides and anything else I could think of.  Like Jerry Rice in the prior post, I was motivated by the fear of failure, of embarrassing myself or my parents, and I wanted more than anything to just make that Freshman team.  And along the way (and I say this with the obvious benefit of hindsight), I learned a valuable lesson that I carry with me to this day:  self-esteem is not something you can stumble on, or uncover, or magically develop.  It's something you earn for yourself.  With work.  Lots and lots of work.

Anyway, let's fast-forward to October/November 1985... my world was a blur.  Canisius High School was demanding, both academically and culturally.  The Jesuits expected excellence.  It was nearly impossible to "slide by."  For me, this was the opposite of public middle school, and - once acclimated - I took to it like a fish to water.  Imagine being respected for having good grades rather than having to hide your report card from the bullies.  Imagine being revered for being a good athlete rather than being shunned by the "cool kids" who hung out on street corners in 8th grade and raided their parents liquor cabinets.  It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me, and at the absolute best time.  

Basketball season, however, loomed.  Would I make the Freshman team?  Would I play, maybe even start?  I held out hope...my goals were humble, and I had confidence in my past summer of work.  I began to piece together clues as to my chances:  Students at Canisius were divided into 4-5 sections that usually shared the same groups of teachers and same classes in any one semester.  And for that first semester, I remember we had a pretty competitive basketball game in Phys Ed.  But while I felt that I had held my own, I did not read too much into it...after all, I still wasn't sure how I measured up against the freshmen in the other sections.

When it came time for try-outs, though, a few kids in my section made a shocking announcement:  they were not trying out for the Freshman team, but instead for the Junior Varsity.  As a relatively quiet - and certainly naive - kid, I had no idea what to make of this.  Did they know something I didn't about the other sections?  Did they know something I didn't about the sophomores?  And judging by the guys who made this announcement, and the absolute confidence they showed, I was intrigued.  I should also mention that this was an era of the two-working-parents-who-had-more-than-enough-on-their-plates, which was in stark contrast to today's "helicopter" parents, hovering around every turn and involved in every decision.  So I don't ever recall mentioning any of this to my folks, but I do remember thinking that I was just as good as those guys who were so positive about their JV chances.  And in my mind, if I flopped, I'd just get downgraded back to the Frosh team and be no worse for the wear.  So I decided:  if those guys are going out for JV, I probably should too.

JV try-outs, like so many things at that age, were also a blur.   Maybe there were 50 kids out for the team that first day.  Maybe there were more.  The JV coach was an intimidating guy who had a Magnum P.I. look and an ex-athlete's swagger.  In fact, Coach Dave Butler was something of a Canisius legend, having excelled in football, basketball, and baseball during his time as a student, and then earning a football scholarship to college.  Now back at Canisius, he coached three sports and had a familiarity with the football guys - the guy's guys - that made me feel like Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.  As a result, he scared the crap out of me.  He demanded discipline, he was highly organized, and he seemed to only mingle with students he already knew and who had already proven themselves as athletes.  In short, I felt very much like an outsider, and my confidence was fading fast.

[It's also worth pointing out at this point that our Varsity team was highly decorated and expected to compete for the Catholic League championship - and maybe more - that year.  The Varsity guys walked among us like gods: Jerome Rodgers, Kevin Milligan, Mike McCarthy, Ray Flannery... these dudes were right out of the Chip Hilton books I devoured at the time.  It was all incredibly intimidating, and I can't even imagine how much extra pressure having girls around would have added to the mix for me - thank god it was all-boys and I could pick my battles at that age.]

But as luck would have it, either because of the sheer number of players trying out or because of his obsessive-compulsive organizational style, Coach Butler decided that the first two days of JV try-outs would be minimum playing and maximum fundamentals-testing.  Imagine that.  I had spent the entire summer doing basketball drills alone and now I was going to be graded - and subsequently rewarded - for that?  I began to think it all might work out for me after all, and I was more than a little hopeful...

A funny thing happened, though.  The testing didn't quite go as I had expected.  While Coach Butler - tape measure, clipboard, and stopwatch in hand - measured our sprint pace, our defensive slides, our vertical leap, our time in dribbling end to end, or dribbling around chairs, or revolutions of a basketball passed around our waists, he shared none of the results with us.  I remember little but grunts and scowls as he noted my times.  This lasted for two days, Thursday and Friday, and none of us had any clue as to where we stood.  We had anxiously looked to the coach for hints on our standing, or lack thereof.  But for two days he continued to yuck it up with the sophomores and to treat the frosh - especially the ones he did not know, me included - like the peons that we were.  I started to feel deflated and - looking around - got the same vibe from my fellow freshmen.  A couple of early and obvious cuts had already been made from Thursday to Friday, but even though a few of us were still around on Friday afternoon, we were beginning to get the drift.  Just like a turkey on the third Wednesday in November: after Friday's testing ended, we expected the axe to fall.

But somehow, it didn't.  Try-outs, and thus final cuts, had been extended another day...and into the weekend. This presented an interesting logistical dilemma.  For those of us in the suburbs (most of us, actually), coming back in for a Saturday try-out when no one was of age to drive presented a real issue.  Most guys thought their parents might bring them back (if they had no prior commitments...again, this was a time when parents lives did not revolve around their kids), but no one felt good about it.  In fact, most of the freshmen felt that it was just an oversight on Coach Butler's part that he failed to post cuts on Friday night...and that we'd all be struggling to come into the city on a Saturday for absolutely nothing.

One of my classmates, let's call him Tim Bosgrove, was particularly incensed.  I was impressed by him, really.  For a fellow freshman, he clearly had more confidence - and much bigger balls - than me.  Listen, guys, he argued, my parents are busy tomorrow.  They're not gonna bring me back in here.  And what for anyway?  Butler hates us, he has no use for us...he's just gonna cut us regardless.  Tim had a point, to be sure.  And he was convincing.  Really convincing.  My 13-year-old self nodded along to his argument.  Hell, my 38-year-old self is still nodding along.  After a few minutes of this, it was agreed by the group that Timmy B would speak for all of us, and to ask Coach Butler his true intentions for Saturday practice.  Somehow (and I wish I could remember how that happened), I was nominated to tag along. 

We found the coach among the seats in the auditorium, holding court with a parent or alum or two.  He eyed us warily as we approached.  I was quiet as Timmy B launched into his soliloquy.  Coach Butler patiently watched, betraying no emotion whatsoever.  Finally, Timmy got to the point:  ...so, we were just wondering...you know...based on how things have gone...with Saturday practice and all...I mean, do you think it's worth it for us to come in?  Butler first arched his eyebrows, and then honed a narrow gaze toward his inquisitor, countering with the question that any teacher or coach could rely on in this situation:  Well, Timmy...do you think it's worth it? 

Caught a bit wrong-footed now, Timmy stammered in an effort to regain his balance.  Well, umm.  I'm really not sure, that's why I'm asking...umm...ah...it's just that it might be hard to get a ride in tomorrow and all...  At this, Butler nodded nonchalantly, uh-huhn, and then switched his focus to me.  So what about you? he asked.  I either said something incredibly articulate like I dunno, or just smiled weakly and shrugged.  I don't remember.  But I do remember Coach Butler's next comment, and it's one of those silly phrases that is indelibly seared into my brain, for reasons unknown.  It just affected me somehow.  He stood, shook his head slightly, and said with a smirk...well, ya gotta do what ya gotta do...and walked away. 

Whaaaat?!  It had totally backfired.  He gave us no clues to work with, and we had probably pissed him off to boot.  Now he would hate us whiny freshman even more than before.  And he ultimately left us with some kind of friggin' koan like what is the sound of one hand clapping?  I mean, to a young 9th grader...what the heck does ya gotta do what ya gotta do mean??  How - exactly - do I interpret that?  Was Coach Butler saying, hey, it's no big thing, if you don't want to come back, fine with me...don't come back? 

That had to be it.  He meant whatever...do what you want.  He really didn't care.  Any spark of hope that I held out for myself was extinguished in a wash of confusion and despair:  I saw my chances of making the team at near zero, I had no idea how the skills testing even went, and I had only played some minimal (3-on-3) basketball to that point.  It all seemed like a waste of time. 

Except for those words, which continued to rattle around in my brain:  ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  And ultimately, forced to make a choice, I did just that.

Looking back, I think it was another important lesson (again, hindsight makes this easy).  In thinking about it later that night, I took Coach Butler's phrase to mean:  make a decision, and take responsibility for your own actions.  I can't say exactly how it all went down, but somehow I got back the next day.  And what I discovered that Saturday morning was - at least to me - nothing short of amazing.  Remember, when approached the afternoon prior, the coach did not betray the smallest possibility of the slightest potential of the tiniest glimmer of my chances (or anyone else's) of making that team.  The guy was a rock.  But on Saturday morning, there it was posted for all to see:  in black-and-white, across the board, on each and every test, I had finished at the top.  And he probably knew that all along.  

The rest is far from history...but of that season, I will say this:  I don't remember if Timmy Bosgrove made it back that day, but whether he did or didn't was irrelevant - he played freshman ball...

In the end, two freshmen made that 1985-86 JV team (lefty Chris Mullin-clone Mark Popadick was the other).  Apparently that had not happened in some time.  And as a freshman, I started and played every game.  I won every sprint in practice.  I soaked up the coaching and the discipline and the opportunity to play against other city schools, both in the public and catholic leagues.  I learned to enjoy when other teams sought to pressure us, because we would instead calmly and clearly make them pay for their assumptions.  I won the Coaches Award for determination, hustle, team play, all of that...and I cemented friendships with the class above me that remain intact to this day.  It was, in the best possible sense of the word, the beginning...

And yeah...I was a little angry at Coach Butler for not telling me, hey kid, you better come back, you scored off the charts on the fundamental testing...you are making this team.  But - in an early indication of a theme throughout my Canisius experience - the Jesuits teachers and lay-person coaches like Dave Butler treated us like men...and he let me figure it out.  He forced me to think about the consequences of my actions, to do what I had to do, and to trust myself rather than give mind to the prattling of others.  What an invaluable lesson.  And I haven't forgotten it, or its corollaries:  do the work, be humble, try your best, take responsibility for your actions, man up, ignore the crowd, believe in yourself. 

And that was my introduction to high school basketball.  Thank you, Coach Butler.

That's it for now, sorry for the length if you made it this far... Next up I hope to tackle that freshman-to-sophomore summer and then sophomore season....we'll call that one, the jump.  And I don't even know where to begin with regards to Ray Calhoun's and Luther Winfield's influence on me that summer... it'll be interesting.

Stay in touch,


  1. Interesting reading. Looking forward to your account about your MALTA days.


    Piero Selvaggi

  2. you so looked like Anthony Michael Hall in Breakfast Club. Why didn't you just post your 8th grade photo? if i only knew how to change it......and you think Max is a dork?! you were the original, Buhn.

  3. I'm pretty sure I beat you in in a few sprints.

    Tom Sallivan

    PS I'm a pretty big fan of Magnum also