Sunday, February 22, 2009

Phantom Power: Sometimes in February

A jaded journo should not feel tears stirring afterwriting a headline; you're supposed to be cool and detached.

Still, there they were yesterday, after typing in, "Long live the Boys in Red: Bathurst ballers triumph over tragedy" for a a small item in today's Ottawa Sun, right below the SUNshine Girl. Apologies in advance for getting caught up in a story about perfect strangers.

The thread which runs through the story about the Bathurst Phantoms is knowing that in every small community in Canada, there's a group of boys who live to have their fingertips caress the pebbled surface of a basketball. There's no one catch-all explanation, just like there isn't for why kids in the suburbs listen to L'il Wayne. Give them a ball, a basket, enough room to manoeuvre, and they're happy, whether it is playing one-on-one in the driveway, two-on-two or three-on-three at the small court with 8-foot-high goals behind the public school.

The victory belongs to a team, a town and the Boys In Red, of course. The Bathurst Phantoms should know that there is a lot "there but for the grace of" to go with their victory. You know most of the details about the Phantoms, whose team name, randomly enough, is derived from a local legend that you can see a sailing ship in the waters north of Bathurst. Similarly, one suspects that after yesterday, the Boys In Red will live forever.

One can only assume to know what it's like to have a basketball jones in Bathurst. The just-the-facts is that the Phantoms, led by Bradd Arseneau (pictured), a survivor of the crash which took seven of his teammates and a teacher 13 months ago, Elizabeth Lord, won the New Brunwick AA championship yesterday. Arseneau, who scored 25 points in yesterday's final while wearing the No. 7 of his late teammate, Nathan Cleland, suffered four broken ribs and a bruised lung in the crash, and his mom, Lucy O'Neil-Arseneau called him the "lucky one," which only hints at the horror.

Words fail at imagining what it must have been like, so it was no shock that Bradd Arseneau "declined interview requests" after the game. It's a failure of conventional journalism that anyone would even think he would take questions. It was way too heavy for an 18-year-old.

The bond you get playing basketball can be unlike no other in any team sport, not better, just unique. Bathurst had that ruptured, and yesterday completed some healing.

Bathurst High has about 700 students. That means fully 1% of its student body was lost, in one weekend. This also comes in the shadow of great stress for the community. On Friday, the day before the championship game, a mining company which is a major local employer was in court to obtain creditor protection. Within the next two weeks, the owner of the local major junior hockey team, the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, will probably file papers to relocate the team.

No game can transcend all of that, but the Bathurst boys touched the hearts of people who might never visit their town. It's part and parcel with having grown up, in the country, as they say, and having played basketball avidly, if not athletically, as a teen.

There is some major memory burn of how back in 1994, '95, '96, when the temperatures rose, we didn't despair that we would be unable to play pond hockey. A winter thaw was an opportunity for my friend and teammate, Wegs, to get on the horn and get some guys together to play on an outdoor court in Bath, Ontario, behind the elementary school that I went to for junior kindergarten.

Wegs,would carry a push broom from his house to sweep the court clear of slush and gravel. It would be January, in Canada, four guys playing an endless game of 2-on-2. Once in a while, you'd have 5-on-5, but the court was really too small. You would start out wearing your tearaway track pants, a thick sweatshirt, toque and gloves. As you got moving and started to heat up, you would shed a couple layers.

We were not good at the game; Wegs was the sixth man for the Ernestown Eagles and we did make it to OFSAA, somewhat by guile by mostly by Smart (Rob had transferred from Napanee to Ernestown, starting the chain reaction that found its way to the Carleton Ravens a few years later). It was was a misnomer to say I was the 10th man, since if we had had a 53-man roster, I would have been 53rd.

Nevertheless, looking back it felt pretty Canadian to be out there, blind to the time of year and you ran up and down the court, jockeying for rebounding position, reaching out for a rebound, throwing in the little half-assed runner that I had developed to compensate for being too slow and lead-footed to get to the rim, even in a pick-up game. Like a one-time Ernestown student named Gord Downie later sang, "You're never more hot then / when you've got something on."

That was my hoops experience. It never left. The burn always flares in late February when high school and collegiate are down to the one-and-done, balls this close to the bandsaw portion of the season, which is probably a confession on my part that I'm pretty immature. Everyone's trying not to go home. It doesn't define you as a person, not by a long shot,

There has been some sniping about the fact Bathurst, a Triple-A team, was allowed to drop down a division for this season (their opponent for the final, Campobello Island, is Single-A), or why this story should get such play in the media. Well, Bathurst's win, which did so much for them, brought home what it was like to have basketball on the brain, as a Canadian. It's not our place to suggest it, but one hopes they get a tribute to herald their accomplishment. A pregame tribute at the next Raptors home game would hit the spot.

Basketball team 'did the impossible'; Tragic accident constant shadow (Richard Foot, Canwest News Service)


Anonymous said...

Two great showdowns in KASSAA this afternoon. Donnie Gibson's brother almost pulled the Ernestown Eagles through in the junior game. However, Frontenac battled through in the fourth quarter and took the game.

KCVI knocked off two-time defending champs, Holy Cross Crusaders, in the senior final.

sager said...

That would be Cameron Gibson, right? Good for him and ESS (and no, I wasn't aware the Eagles were in the junior final, playing Neil Acharya's alma mater, no less).

That is the first senior boys title for KCVI since '93, when the league was still known at CFSSAA (as in County of Frontenac; only when Napanee joined the league in 1994 was the name amended to acknowledge the schools from Lennox & Addington). I'm not sure, but it might the first for a school in the old, pre-amalgamation Kingston since then.

I couldn't in good conscience hope for Holy Cross to win, on account of it not only siphoning off students from ESS, but having the gall to have ripped of our colours (adding grey to green fools no one, Crusaders).

Dennis Prouse said...

I think it's hard for people from the big city to imagine just how badly an event like this can decimate a community. Bathurst is down to about 12,000 people now, and like many cities in Atlantic Canada the population is aging quickly. Hopefully this provides people with some closure.

High school basketball is such a bonding experience, I think, because of the relatively small size of the team, and the intimate court on which they play. There are only about 8-10 kids on a team, so the bonds develop pretty quickly. Contrast that to a 30-40 player football team, where you can have backups who really never do become part of the team core. I have never understood the push to try to make Canada a world soccer power -- when you look at our weather and population, it is an exercise in futility. Every school in this country, OTOH, has a gym, and an increasing number of urban kids who aren't necessarily welded to hockey. Canada could become a force in international basketball pretty quickly with a concerted effort.

Anonymous said...

Yep, Cam. Drained three straight long bombs and it looked as though he was going to lead the Eagles to the victory but it wasn't to be. The two Grant brothers had strong games. They are great athletes. Great in baseball and they play on the same hockey team as Scott Harrington (Keli led the team with 85 points this season, while brother Kris was third in scoring behind Harrington with 61 points).

It was nice to see KCVI win it. The Blues were well coached, hustled more than Holy Cross, and just came together better as a team than the Crusaders.

All in all, both games were great. Intense but fun atmosphere at Bartlett, and the games were tough but clean. Refs called a good game too.

sager said...

Keli and Kris were about half of ESS baseball team last spring ... one's a catcher and the other twin is a left-handed pitcher.

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