Coach Dan de Souza spends a lot of time on the road with his teams, but one trip nearly did him in
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I wonder if you’ve ever considered just how much music a high-school coach has to listen to? Or how much time we spend sweeping the gym floor, arranging games and practices and inspiring the kids to give their best? You might have even wondered what happens on those away-game tournaments. But if you ever considered the music, you’d be far kinder to your teachers. You would hug your teacher. Over 30 years of teaching and coaching, believe me, it adds up to a lot.
It hasn’t always been pretty. There’ve been lean years. In the late eighties/early nineties, there was Milli Vanilli on the way up to Algonquin Park for a camping trip. Four hours of Blame it on the Rain does something to you. They don’t even do that to detainees in Guantanamo.
The millennium wasn’t much better. Katy Perry’s Hot N Cold playing again and again on the way back from a tournament was a difficult time. “You’re in then you’re out, you’re up then you’re down.” You don’t just shrug off insight like that. The three-hour drive with one girl’s team turned into a moving slumber party with hair braiding, gum snapping and giggling. I am sure there have been moments in your career when you questioned your choices; mine came as Katy Perry destroyed the Beach Boys’ California Girls.
Then there was the era of rap, circa 2013. It’s loud. Not as in, “turn it down” loud, but as in chest throbbing, I think I’m having a stroke, loud. It’s also the era when the kids started to “freestyle.” They became moving poets; trying to create their own verses to songs. The music is a back beat and each player takes a turn “spittin’ bars.” I’m not so good at “spittin’ bars” and neither are the boys. You’re not allowed to rhyme “ah” with “ah.” As in, “I’m a monstah / For sure ah.” I pulled the van into the parking lot of the school. At last, I think I am free of it.
But the same beat was playing – this time by the opposing team’s mascot. The thing was pelvic thrusting behind me as I brought the team into the huddle. “Be a teacher” I was told a long time ago.
“Great dignity in teaching” they said.
Now that I look back, it was in Blind River, Ont., when it all began to unravel. We left the school on a December morning at 6. A simple five-hour jaunt up the Trans Canada will be my chance to convert the young to my music. I will introduce them to Long May You Run. We will sing along, I dream, and I will tap the steering wheel to the beat. My eyes will flash in the rear-view mirror, “See boys, see he’s singing about where we are going!” They will ask me about Neil. I will play Old Man and they will see me in a new light.
But this basketball trip, as with all basketball trips, past, present and future, begins with the fight over who rides shotgun and, by default, who controls the music. Neil will never make it on the playlist. This will be a trip dominated by the Tragically Hip. We will listen to the Hip in one form or another in one mix tape or another, on both legs of the journey.
When I check into the Mom and Pop motel after a long, long drive, the owner keeps looking over my shoulder and asking “Are they good boys?” I reassure him, but he seems nervous. And then I see what he sees; the van rocking from side to side, two wheels off the ground, as the boys jam to Little Bones. The windows are fogged and they sing at the top of their lungs.
It could be quite a weekend.
There’s the games themselves, which are endless and relentless. There’s the host school inviting all the teams to a dance on the Friday night. There’s me, in my pyjamas, clearing every teenage girl in Blind River out of the motel parking lot after the dance. There’s my point guard developing a throat abscess, collapsing after the semi-final game. There’s his trip to a Sault Ste. Marie hospital, in an ambulance, and my co-coach having to borrow a car and stay for two nights on a friend’s couch until the parents arrive. To this day, I have no idea how the coach got home.
There’s the Innkeeper on Sunday morning asking, “Would I like to take the empties back to the beer store?” It’s one of the few times there is absolute silence in the van.
Then there’s the knifing snowstorm home; a white-knuckle drive along old Highway 69. We are asked to leave a Pizza Hut in Parry Sound, Ont., because the boys have devoured the entire Hut. Serves them right to advertise “all you can eat for $5.99.” The van, at this point, is a rolling compost pile encrusted in road salt; food wrappers, empty cups, chips and, of course, the unmistakable smell of adolescence having played four games and not having showered.
Late into that drive home, the van is quiet. Most of the players are asleep except for Matt in the shotgun seat. He begins to talk. They always begin to talk at this moment. It’s Matt this time, but it could be Daniel or Katie or Pat or Kelly or Phil. Each will stare out the window, while the music is low and will ask me questions or will tell me about his or her family or his or her dreams. I won’t say much, nod a bit, shift in my seat. They’ll talk and talk, coming to conclusions about themselves that they will only find in the reflection of a window at night.
When I drop the last player off, it has been a 12-hour drive. He turns to me, “Sir, you are so lucky.”
“You get to do this every year.”
Yes, yes I do.
Dan de Souza lives in Newmarket, Ont.