By TONY SEED
I’M not so involved in sport these days. I play some masters’ basketball on Sunday nights during the winter and some cricket during the summer.
But, once a year, I fold up my tent, take five days off and travel to eastern Dartmouth and Cole Harbour. My time is no more than the selfless contribution of a legion of other families from the community, who also take this time off, enough to staff and run nine gyms. Here’s why:
There are tournaments and tournaments … and there is the Justin Coward Memorial, held each March just before the school break.
The tournament carries on the ever-fresh memory of Justin Coward, an extraordinary youth, a promising student and athlete, who died tragically at the age of 13, and especially the values of sportsmanship, friendship, unity and excellence he upheld in his all too brief life.
Almost 600 mini and junior basketball players – 59 teams, up from 49 last year – together with their families from all over Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine participated in the 4th Annual Justin Coward Memorial Basketball Tournament held from March 6-10. Teams competed in fourteen divisions, as well as an NBA 2-ball shoot out, and played a minimum three games. Games were held in nine schools on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights and all day – and I mean all day – Saturday and Sunday.
I took in some 20 games – as a gym co-ordinator, judge and appreciative spectator. Overall, the action was intense, disciplined, close and evenly matched.
But one thing stood out. If the biggest loser in the recent Winter Olympics was the amateur ideals of sportsmanship, friendship and participation, the biggest winner in the Justin Coward was precisely these – the highest ideals of sport.
Perhaps it is because this is sport for the youth and consciously organized amongst the youth and the community, rather than for NBC or CBC – the marketing of celebrities and the promotion of the great-nation spirit.
Perhaps it is because there is so little for youth and children today, and what there is lacks the selfless spirit, inspiration and motivation of such lofty ideals imbued by the Justin Coward.
Perhaps it is because the youth themselves are expected and organized to become involved and assist in all aspects of the tournament along with everyone else.
Perhaps it is because the Justin Coward consciously addresses people’s concerns about sport, education, culture and the problems youth and children face in dealing with life. It strives to embody a vision and a hope for youth, instead of taking their own lives, taking up the lives of loafers or school dropouts, or in general of being indifferent to others. Not to forget the “winning-is-everything, the-only-thing” approach that’s all too common in our society.
It is a tournament that isn’t really about basketball, even though it is a mass event that centres around basketball. I’ve described it as a festival of sport. I believe this is something new in Canadian sport.
I don’t want to assert that the past has produced nothing good. That would be falsifying history. Shunpiking has written about the annual Coal Bowl Classic in New Waterford, Cape Breton – a unique tournament that promotes an appreciation of the real history of the area’s coal miners amongst Canadian youth, and embraces them with their famed hospitality and culture.
No, the ideals and ethics are not new. These universal values are as old as the Olympian oath and civilization.  They are neither vague nor fleeting and transitory. They persist today and are cherished in the face of the tremendous pressure of the commercialism of sport because they are rooted in the very soil of humanity – in the very reasons human beings take up sport and recreation.
At the same time, it cannot be said that the criteria that the Justin Coward has set already existed on such a popular scale.
“I never really appreciated the Justin Coward until this year,” says Professor Isaac Saney of Dalhousie. “Girls are on the same plane as boys, younger players with the older. It gives something very precious to young people – values and vision. It is just a beautiful story.”
Steve Benton, the former Halifax Windjammer, has a similar response: “It has taken on a life of its own.”
Young athletes compete with real joy, vigour and vitality, humility and camaraderie. Kids from big cities and villages, town and country, inner city and suburbs, boys and girls, young and old, short and tall, black and white, Canada and the USA run the court non-stop, then pull up after the final whistle, shake hands, hug and become new friends.
Is Competition Everything?
“Friendship First, Competition Second” is an explicit aim of the Justin Coward, as is “Carry the Ball, Carry the Books”.
The slogans are prominent – in the 20-page tournament program, on the four colour poster that each player gets and which they describe simply as “just awesome”, in the short presentation speeches given after most games by Justin’s father, Curtis Coward, or other volunteers.
They are not just marketing slogans, or merely an idea, an intellectual exercise. More importantly, they are manifested in deeds, in life.
“At other tournaments the coach or the scorers just mark the player down who scored the most baskets and then they award him or her the MVP,” a parent from the St. Margarets’ Bay Slam told me after a Bantam C Girls preliminary.
“But here the MVP award doesn’t just go the player who did the scoring. Your criteria takes into account teamwork, hustle, defence, and fair play.”
He went on. “We had heard good things about this tournament and so we wanted to come. Our players are all liking it. They all get something, boys and girls, the C, the B and the A teams – a poster, a program, some product, as well as the intangible. No one player gets an MVP award more than once – it is spread around. So three or four players from each team will go home with it.
“One of our girls was quite cutting.
“She said, ‘here we are going to tournaments, and only the Elite A teams are rewarded. Yet we all pay’.”
St. Margaret’s coach Barb Campbell added that she almost wept when she read the program about Justin and his spirit.
With 14 divisions, twenty eight teams reach the finals – one out of every two. Half of all the participating players thus receive silver or gold medals.
Coach Brad Meisner of the Fall River Rebels in Bantam B Boys likes how the Justin Coward emphasizes participation and team work. Everyone is on an equal level with the kids – the referees, the parents, the volunteers – it’s a total, quality experience.
When Josh MacDonald is rewarded with an mvp for his all-round hustle, grit and team play, rather than a team-mate who scored far more baskets, Brad agrees, saying “thank you … and he really needed it too.”
His team, though down throughout the game to the bigger Cumberland County Pacers, never gave up – they played their hearts out right up to the end, and had fun.
David Carvery, the dedicated coach of the Africville Lakers – the ultimate Midget A Boys champion – has a player, young Nathan Kays, who seems to be a clear foot-and-a-half shorter than his team-mates but with a smile a mile wide.
Nathan played every other shift and was an integral part of most plays. One team made the mistake of not guarding him: he drained three treys.
His team-mates, sort of real “cool guys” from the inner city, made sure he got the ball. “Basketball is played with five players, so what’s the issue?”, one Laker told me matter-of-factly.
The Dartmouth Boys and Girls Club fielded a co-ed team. And Mary Hernandez of the JC Rockets, perhaps the best dribbler in the entire tournament? The crowd at Auburn High School, packed this year to the rafters, broke out in prolonged applause when she dribbled through an entire team – the Amherst Midget Rebels – to run out the clock. Rod Gilroy, the easy-going coach of the Rebels, smiled and applauded too.
He had brought 13 players. We had reckoned on ten per team and we had ten packages. “I know, I know, but I didn’t have the heart to cut three, so I brought them all,” said Rod. No problem. We found enough for each. This coach played his whole team, even in close games.
Albert Street Eagles, a team from a small middle school of 560 students in Fredericton of the same name, won its Bantam A Girls bracket in a well-played game against New Minas Heat, an all-star team drawn from five Annapolis Valley schools. In the award ceremonies, coach Daryl Lisson spent more time praising the disciplined play and coaching of their opponent, one they had lost to four times in a row, than on puffing up on his own team. One of the assistant coaches said to me modestly, “It’s such a great tournament, I hope we’re invited back.”
Not everything’s a bowl of cherries.
North Preston lost to Maine Hoops 69-61 in an exhilarating Bantam A Boys final, Canada to the USA. Maine Hoops hail from the coastal area of Bath – an eleven-hour drive for their three participating teams and families. But Preston astonished almost everyone – rebounding from its preliminary game when it was smoked 44 points 107-63 by Maine, a taller and fundamentally sound squad – and led throughout much of the first half with a frenetic, full court press. Maine bends but does not break. A game of heart and passion, where every player left it on the floor.
There’s a sidebar to North Preston, and that is class. Undefeated throughout their season, they lost in the provincials to the Africville Lakers. They did not pick up a single technical (e.g., unsportsmanlike conduct) all year. After the final, they didn’t whine, grouch or hang their heads, immediately going to the brothers and shaking their hand. “They lost the championship,” said Mickey Fox, “but in that showed who were the real champions.”
Unfortunately, the Moncton Wizards lost two games in their Bantam A Girls bracket, and went to an exhibition game with a team already guaranteed a spot in the finals the next day. But this team just went home, leaving Moncton high and dry, facing a long drive to New Brunswick. No problem. The JC Rockets, who had finished their full slate of preliminaries, voluntarily turned out late Saturday afternoon so that Moncton would have their third game. The Wizards won it.
The overall response has been overwhelmingly positive. Comments vary from team to team, but there is an underlying enthusiasm in reactions.
Elizabeth Johnson of North Preston, whose son was playing for the Bulls, stressed that the Justin Coward must go on and on. “It is our community’s event. It belongs to all of us now.”
Here is Justin’s legacy – a very definite, living conscience.
Curtis sums it up well. “The response from the teams and families have been great. We are now said to be the quality tournament with class and one that creates friendships and contacts amongst the East Coast.
“Now, if that doesn’t help continue Justin’s spirit, then nothing will.
“It is like the fans, families, and the players are catching on to the vibes and spirit of everything Justin presented when he was with us – have fun, give 110 per cent, and respect and help others who are fortunate or less fortunate.
“That’s what education and sports has forgotten, and Justin is putting it back in.”
1 The Olympic Oath spoken at the opening ceremony reminds athletes of the Olympic ideals: “the competition should be friendly and fair, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, and participating in the games is more important than winning.” All the other Olympic traditions reflect these basic ideas.
Adapted from Tony’s column on Alex J Walling’s sportsite.ca
First published in Shunpiking Magazine’s 6th annual Black History Supplement, March, 2002