Coach Donohue had rules. They were unwritten, but we all knew them. He had rules about being clean shaven: “You need to stand closer to the mirror next time,” he’d say if we showed up with too much stubble. He had rules about taking our hats off when we came inside, about making sure we didn’t stay out in the sun for longer than thirty minutes, and about not chewing gum in public. “It makes you look like a cow,” he’d say in his native Brooklynese.
But the number one unwritten rule was that the first seat on the bus was his.
I played basketball for Jack Donohue on the Canadian national team for eleven years. We travelled all over the world. We had our hearts broken many times. We laughed a thousand times more. And once, my teammates and I lifted Jack onto our shoulders to cut down the nets after dreaming the impossible dream and fighting
the impossible foe—Jack’s favourite line from his favourite musical, Man of La Mancha. We had dreamed of beating Team USA, and we’d finally done it on our way to a gold medal in the 1983 World University Games. On home court, no less.
I was a kid the day I celebrated with Jack on my shoulders. We all were. With a head full of long, dark hair, I had the whole world ahead of me.
Thirty-two years later, in 2015, I was sitting on a bus in Mexico City, thinking back to that earlier version of myself. I wasn’t a kid anymore; I was a man, a father of three grown children. What hair I had was shaved short and as grey as Jack’s had been. And I’d taken the torch that Jack had passed; I was the head coach of the Canadian men’s national team.
I was clean shaven, I wasn’t chewing gum, and I was in the first seat on the bus. Jack’s seat. Behind me on our charter was the most talented basketball team Canada had ever assembled. There were eight NBA players on our twelve-man roster; six had been first-round picks, two of whom had been taken first overall.
As it so often did, our whole summer—the next four years, in some ways—came down to one game. If we won our semifinal against Venezuela that day, we would qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. There was a time—when Jack was the head coach and I was a player—when Canada had been a fixture in Olympic basketball. But since Jack had retired in 1988, Canada had been to just one Olympics. It was time to get us back to where we’d been and help these players achieve something real and pure, something that they’d never forget.
Jack’s teams had never been this talented, but we’d been true teams, savvy and tough. All that bad food and those long flights
and battles when we felt as though we were alone in a foreign place fighting for one another—sometimes literally—had created a bond that lived deep in our bones. I wanted the same thing for the guys on the bus with me. My goal was to win, to do something on the international stage that no Canadian team before had pulled off: to stand on the winners’ podium at an Olympic Games or a World Championship.
But to do that, we would have to beat Venezuela.
As the bus wound through traffic, the players had their headphones on, staring out the window at the city of 21 million, all of whom seemed to be on the road at the same time. Some of the guys were nodding to music I wouldn’t recognize. Others were scrolling through their phones, catching up on news back home. The rest of our staff and I made small talk, but there wasn’t much to say. Our work was done. We’d had our meetings, gone over our video, installed our game plan. That’s the worst part of game day: the wait.
Jack’s message on the eve of a big game—and in international basketball, every game is a big one—was to treat every game the same. Prepare the same way, adhere to your routines, trust your habits. Make something too big, and you’d send the wrong signals to your players. Take an opponent too lightly, and you’d pay the price.
In the locker room before the game, I tried to channel Jack.
“You know the stakes,” I said to the team. “Win and we’re in. Venezuela is tough, we know that. Let’s get a foot in the door, and then we’ll break it down.”
The game was a battle right from the tip. The Venezuelans were holding and grabbing, and the calls weren’t coming. Cory Joseph, our heart-and-soul point guard, was getting the treatment.
The Venezuelans double-teamed him, and he was getting banged around. That was a bigger problem than usual because Nik Stauskas, one of our best ball handlers, was beside me on the bench. Two nights before, he’d eaten a burrito from a street vendor. He’d spent the next day and night in hospital, hooked up to an IV. He had tried to play, but after two days without food, he had nothing to give.
Venezuela was in control of the tempo. As the first half was winding down, one of its guards hit a pull-up, fading three at the buzzer with Cory draped all over him. The shot gave Venezuela a one-point lead heading into the half. In the second half, things picked up right where they’d left off, as we battled for every inch up and down the court.
As the fourth quarter wound down, it finally felt as though we were in control. With just over three minutes to play, we were up seven points. But then Venezuela hit another three at the end of the shot clock to cut the lead to four. We traded misses, and then Venezuela came back another three. Our lead was almost gone with sixty-nine seconds left. Kelly Olynyk—as skilled a big man as Canada has ever had—brought the ball up to relieve some pressure on Cory. But as he stepped on the logo at centre court, his foot slipped out from under him. We should have seen it coming—players had been sliding on the logo for the whole tournament. Olynyk lost the ball and reached up to foul the Venezuelan defender to prevent a fast break. They made both free throws, and, just like that, the Venezuelans were up by a point with barely a minute to play.
The Mexican crowd, hoping to play Venezuela in the final, started cheering against us—chants of “Vene-zuela, Vene-zuela” rang through the stadium. I called a time-out and drew up a play for Andrew Wiggins to get the ball to Andrew Nicholson in the post.
Wiggins made a smart read after the inbound, driving to the basket and dishing instead to Olynyk, who scored. We were back up with fifty seconds to go, but Venezuela wasn’t done yet. They scored on a layup to take a one-point lead. On our next possession, Nicholson was fouled and given two free throws. He missed his first but made the second, and we were tied with twenty-four seconds to play.
Coaching is about thinking of a dozen different things at once. You’re trying to solve problems, but with each advancing second, the equations are changing. When do you use your time-outs? When do you call in your substitutions? Are the best free-throw shooters on the floor? If so, will I be able to get our best defensive group out when I need them? What are the matchups, and whom should we attack? It all happens fast. Preparation is critical, but sometimes in such moments, the best thing you can do has nothing to do with what’s happening on the court but what is going on inside the players’ heads. You simply have to make sure your players are calm; remind them to breathe and focus on the next play, leaving what just happened behind. A veteran team makes things simpler. They’ve been in these moments before; they’ve been in them together. They know how to walk through the fire.
This time, though, we got burned. Venezuela had the ball. We had our best defensive lineup on the floor and our best rebounders. We expected them to put up a late shot, leaving just enough time to have a chance at a put-back but not enough for us to score from our end of the floor.
We guessed right. Our defence was great, and Venezuela’s shot drew iron. The rebound went straight up off the rim. As I watched the ball hang in the air, for a split second I felt relief. Looks like we’re going to overtime, I thought. With that ball suspended, I was ready
to bet everything that we were going to the Olympics. But then reality came crashing back. There was a scrum, bodies were flying. Then a whistle. The foul was on us.
In my fifth decade of international basketball, I felt I’d seen everything. But this was something else—a loose-ball foul with a fraction of a second on the clock. Venezuela had two free throws with 0.3 second left. Not far from our bench, a group of reporters from Venezuela were losing their minds—they couldn’t believe what was happening, either.
The first free throw went in to put Venezuela up one. The shooter intentionally missed the second so that the clock ran out, robbing us of whatever sliver of a chance we had for a desperation heave. The final buzzer sounded, and it was over. We’d lost. We weren’t going to the Olympics.
The mood in the dressing room afterward was tense. I looked around at the young players, a mixture of anger and heartbreak painted across all of their faces. I felt for them; I’d been in the same situation more than once.
I thought about what Jack would have done. So many of my seasons under Jack had ended just short of the ultimate goal. Almost all of them, really. Only one gold medal is given out; only one team ends its year with the ultimate victory. Each time, though, Jack would thank us for our time and our commitment. He’d encourage us to learn and grow from the disappointment, telling us that we’d be better for it. Once again Jack was with me as I turned to address the guys in the room.
“You guys fought hard out there,” I told the team. “I’m proud of each and every one of you. I can’t make this feel any better right now, but I want you to know—this isn’t the end, it’s a beginning.
You’re young, and this is one of those hard lessons you have to learn. Don’t let this stop you. The best is yet to come.”
I’m not sure my guys wanted to hear it any more than I had when I played. But like so many wise words you hear when you’re young, they truly make sense only when you’re the one giving the message.
Jack knew, better than anyone else, that when you really love something, there are times—a lot of times—when your journey is going to hurt, and it’s going to leave a mark. But that doesn’t mean you stop dreaming big dreams. Jack taught me that, and I’ve never stopped.