Basketball came to Chisasibi in a big way last month courtesy of the Northern Lights Basketball Camp. An all-star team of guest coaches was on hand to teach the kids what they knew.
One of Canada’s most famous basketball names, Jack Donohue, attended as a special guest coach for three of the five days. Donohue has become a legend after coaching the game for over 35 years, including 18 years with the Canadian Men’s Olympic Team. In all, he coached at six Olympics.
Other illustrious guest coaches were Robby Phillips, who played for four years at Taylor University in Indiana on full scholarship, and Mike Chesser, who played for four years at Ball State University on a full scholarship.
The camp was held Sept. 23 to 27, and a 3-on-3 Tournament followed Sept. 28 to 29.
Sarah Glisky conducted the following interview with Jack Donohue during the camp. Sarah is the recreation coordinator for the Chisasibi First Nation and founded the Northern Lights Basketball Camp three years ago.
Sarah Glisky: You’ve coached and played with some of the biggest names in basketball. Can you name some of them?
Jack Donohue: We played against all of the great players who are in the NBA, I would say. I mean Carl Malone, John Stockman. I got to be pretty friendly with Charles Barkley. We didn’t play against the crazy guy who plays for Chicago—I’m trying to think of his name… But we played against many, many great players.
The players I coached who went on, starting in high school— Joe Isaacs played with the Mets; Albert Kenney was a young guy whose induction into the Hall of Fame I just went to, played many years in Europe, one of the great European players; John Hays played baseball; another one went to UCLA and then on to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Can you tell me that story you told me earlier about Charles Barkley?
We beat the United States up in Edmonton in the World Student Games in 1983, publicly the biggest moment that Canada’s ever had in basketball. But whenever I see Barkley he kids me about it. He’ll tell the reporters don’t go near that guy; that guy’s a cheat, they cheated us up in Canada, those Canadians you can’t trust them.
But I had a great experience with him. I believe I was in Portland for a pre-Olympic tournament, the first Dream Team, and he was surrounded by reporters. So he yells something to me. I was just going to wave hello, and in a way it was a little embarrassing because I was afraid somebody on the Canadian team would see me, but he grabbed me and threw me over his shoulders like a fireman. “I’m getting this guy. I’m going to straighten him out.” We just went in an alleyway and he says we’re never going to get to talk with all those people. We just sat around and chatted for a little bit. He’s a charming person and I think he really controls the press.
Are you still active in coaching clinics in Canada?
I do an awful lot of clinics. But the camps I don’t get to do as much as I’d like to. I used to have my own camp for about 10 or 11 years while I was in the States, and I really miss that in Canada— working with young players.
The reason I came up here for this camp is because of you Sarah calling and really being polite about it. It’s a term I use—you chased me without being impolite. Some people can’t handle that. Some people it’s either be polite or do the chasing. Last year it didn’t work out. I was really disappointed we couldn’t get up last year. When this came up I said I’m getting up right away.
And it was a challenge working with some of the Native youth. I’ve worked with Native peoples in British Columbia and Alberta, but it was with adults—teachers and coaches more than young people. And I enjoy young people more than anything else.
How is the camp here different from most camps you’ve done?
Well, I don’t think it was much different from many camps in the past. It was well-organized. Everything was kind of laid out. There was enthusiasm of the players, especially the older players. It was really refreshing how excited they were about basketball and how hard they worked. So except for probably the enthusiasm of the athletes, I don’t think it’s any different than any other camp I’ve been to. It’s a matter of organization and having a pretty good schedule and working on it.
What types of basketball skills did you focus on with the youth?
I think we talked an awful lot, the three of us, about the fundamentals. The thing they have to learn is the basics of the game. Every team, when they have a bad streak, they go back to basics. These guys, what we try to remind them is they’ve got to start with those basics. They’ve got to have a good stance, they’ve got to be able to shoot the basketball, they’ve got to be able to handle the basketball and they’ve got to be able to rebound. And then passing and catching, which we spent quite a bit of time on.
So we worked on the fundamentals of the game and then got the opportunity to throw in some of the nuances, with the blocks, screens, and two- and three-man plays. They got a chance to use those things when they did scrimmage.
How would you evaluate the calibre of the kids who participated in the camp?
I think there are players in the camp who could play college and university basketball. Which is the only criteria I would get as to how far people could go. At this particular moment, very few of these players play in college and university. If they do the work, because they are young, when the time comes to go to university and college, if they put in the time and effort that they put in here in the last week, then they’re going to be ready to play.
How was the response to your instruction at the camp?
I thought it was great. I mean everybody listened and that, as a speaker, as a lecturer, as a coach—the only thing you can ask is that people pay attention. And these kids really paid attention and went out of their way to do what we were teaching them.
What additional values or messages did the youth leave with after the clinic?
I just hope that they left with a better sense of the game of basketball—but only basketball in perspective, that basketball was just one of the many things they did. So a better sense of basketball, but then I hope that they had a better feeling about themselves. I think when young people try something that they’ve never done before and either fail at it, which is the usual first step, and then finally conquer it, that’s a good life skill—the fact that here was something that wasn’t comfortable, wasn’t easy, and yet now it’s become comfortable and pretty easy for me to do it.
So a better sense of their own self. More belief in themselves, which I believe is the greatest criteria for success in every one of us, which is how we feel about ourselves since everything is interpreted by the way we feel about ourselves. And, secondly, maybe a little more feeling of control about their future. And we use that term— If it’s going to be, it’s up to me. And that means accepting the fact that I am responsible for where I am going.
If you could reach one child with one message, what would that message be?
Believe in yourself. That would probably be the message. There are a lot of messages—I wouldn’t want to give just one (laughter)… But that’s probably the best one.
Now that you’re working as an assistant with the Vancouver Grizzlies, how will you be spending your winter?
I’m working more as a consultant with the Grizzlies and the job hasn’t been defined yet. Last year, what I did was some public relations, public appearances for them, spoke at a couple of banquets and worked with the coaches. Just to be a sounding board really. I helped out very, very little in the draft. I wasn’t prepared to help out in the draft because I didn’t follow it as well as I could have. This year I will hopefully be able to help a little bit more in the selection of our players.
In the coming year, I will probably also give some management seminars to the people in the building who have nothing to do with basketball. For players or personnel who are interested, I will do some kind of presence skills course. I might fill in on the radio or on TV, although that’s not what I’m excited about. That would really be close to working, which I try to avoid as much as possible.
What are some of your personal career highlights that stand most prominent in your mind?
The biggest highlight in my whole life was my first child when she was about 8 seconds old I held her in my hands. I was in the delivery room. That’s probably the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me. And then my marriage to my wife.
One of my career highlights is the move to Canada actually. I was coaching, very successful, enjoying it, looking for something else. And then when I came to Canada I found an ideal situation for me. I was dealing with older players. They were totally committed to what they were doing. They had no distractions. We didn’t have the distractions of school, family, other things. We were together for short periods of time and totally committed to playing basketball. And did very, very well. We really accomplished an awful lot. To me, part of that was that they didn’t have the distractions. And then we made sure they had time back home because many of them had families and jobs.
And the other thing is relationships with some of the people. My best friends right now probably are two coaches I work with. People like that are great friends of mine, people I either coached or worked with.
Now that you’re not coaching a Canadian or national team, what do you spend the majority of your time on?
The majority of my time, if you talk to my kids, is spent in sleeping (laughter)… But I speak to companies and organizations on leadership, team-building, communication, and control and change. So that’s howl feed my family. I enjoy getting into the school systems as much as possible. And I spend a lot of time with my kids and I spend a lot of time resting also. Things that you do well, you should do them a lot. And I remind my kids I’m a good sleeper.
What are some of the countries that basketball has taken you to?
Although I am scheduled to go to Africa in the next couple of months, I have not yet been to Africa. But every other continent. China, Russia, places people would not think of—the Philippines. I have not been to Albania. But all around, all of the Iron Curtain countries we’ve played in. There’s very good basketball in the Iron Curtain countries.
When you were growing up as a child, how many hours did you play basketball?
When I was very young I did not play basketball. I played other sports. But once I got involved in basketball, which would have been around 16 or 17—and the reason I did that is I hung out with older guys and they used to do everything with me; they really treated me as an equal until we started playing basketball and then they wouldn’t let me play because I was no good and that really annoyed me. So I worked very, very hard on it.
But in high school, aside from other practice, they probably put in two or three hours every day playing basketball. National team players, aside from practice, probably put in five or six hours every day when they are not with the team. They put a lot of time into it. They do not sacrifice their family, they do not sacrifice their education, but they put a lot of time into it.
Now, what young people should understand is that’s the top of the heap. Those people have decided this is what they want to do. They’ve given up football, they’ve given up soccer, they’ve given up golf, volleyball. Young people, I think they should spend that same amount of time, but they should spread it out over a bunch of different sports. They should be playing a number of different sports to figure out what it is they really enjoy and they have a talent for. And when you’re 12 and 13, nobody can truly pick that.
Then as you get a little older—and I’d say 16 or 17 is a good age—I think you’re ready. At 16,17, you’re deciding on your career, you’re deciding on schools and things like that. I think then you can decide on sports.
How important do you feel grades are for athletes?
In the sport we’re involved in, basketball, it’s absolutely essential. We have recreational leagues all over the country. But they are not the epitome of basketball. For your age class, the best basketball is played in a school setting. That’s elementary school, high school, college and university. So marks are very important for a few reasons. They’re important away from sport obviously because they are an indication to future employers and others as to what you’ve accomplished.
But as far as sport is, it relieves you of the problems of worrying about school all the time. Because we’d like people when they come to practice not to worry about school. And if you’re not doing well in school, that has to bear on you. The other thing is that good marks will enable you to go to better universities. If I have a certain minimal average, I will probably have five or six places I can go to school in Canada, whereas if I have very good marks, it’s unlimited. I can go any place in North America or any place in the world.
A lot of people don’t realize that Karim Abdul Jabar could have gone to any school in North America. He had a 90 average in school. He was outstanding in school. He probably could have gotten as many academic scholarships as basketball scholarships. He went on a basketball scholarship to UCLA and that’s how he made his living. If you want to play in North America, you have to stay in the school system.
How were you able to juggle your family and basketball?
Well, I think my family might function better when I’m away. I think I confuse things when I come home (laughter)… Well, we have some pretty strict rules. We talk almost every day. Sunday is our day. Our family is together every Sunday. That’s right from when they were in elementary school. We put in at least two weeks every August on a beach—it’s a home but there’s a beautiful place to swim right on the Atlantic Ocean, just north of Atlantic City. We have not only our family, but my cousin and my sister’s family. So there’s about 40 of us who are down there every August for about the last 14 years. And weddings—with six kids you’ve got weddings all over the place. So I think we work pretty hard at keeping our family up to date.
Have you ever thought about coaching in the NBA?
I have thought about coaching in the NBA, but nobody in the NBA was thinking about me coaching. One or two times when somebody in the NBA talked to me about coaching, I wasn’t interested. At this stage, no, I wouldn’t want to coach in the NBA.
I think it’s a very, very tough job. I’m not sure how much coaching is done in the NBA. I don’t mean that the coaches aren’t smart. I just mean that there’s less and less influence of the coach on the player in the NBA than there ever was.
What would you say is the future of basketball in Canada and internationally?
In Canada, the game is very positive. And that’s because of the two NBA teams coming in. I thought that maybe the national Olympic team could create an excitement about basketball, but I had to realize that the media had a love affair with basketball every four years. That was for the Olympics and no other time. Now, there are people assigned to write and speak about basketball in television, radio and the newspapers. And there are more baskets and hoops up I know in my neighbourhood than there ever have been. And that’s where the game has to start, with young people and with camps like we just finished now.
Is there anything you wanted to add?
Just one thing. I mentioned to the kids we used mirrors a lot. They look in the mirror and think good things about themselves. We used that a lot because we realized early on that self-image was important. I have about half-dozen of these things and they’re on every mirror in our house. I don’t know where I got them. On it, it says the greatest message. It’s one of those decals and it says: “You are looking at the only person responsible for your future.” To me, if people can believe in themselves they can do impossible things. Every time you pick up the business paper, the sports paper or a scientific paper, you find somebody who has absolutely no right in the world to be on top of the world, and they just decided that’s what they’re going to do.
Thanks for the interview.
Okay. That’s super.