Jack Donohue and his unknown team

Matthew Fisher August 23 1982

Jack Donohue and his unknown team

Matthew Fisher August 23 1982

Jack Donohue and his unknown team


Matthew Fisher

It is an unbearably hot and humid summer afternoon, and even the spectators watching the practice are perspiring. Out on the court, above the squeak of rubber on wood, can be heard the solitary voice of a large, white-haired man who could only be from New York City. By turns humorous and tyrannical, he is explaining for what has to be at least the millionth time in his career how to set up his zone defence. It could be in Romania or Mexico or the Philippines, but the man behind the voice remains the same. Jack Donohue is doing what he does best: coaching

basketball. The next sweaty gym destination is Bucaramanga,

Colombia, where the world championships began this week.

The fact that Canada has a chance at a medal is almost universally held to be the responsibility of this cumpulsive 52-year-old junk food addict. Except for a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics, Canada had never done better than 10th at the Olympics or at a world championship when Donohue came to Canada in 1972. Two years later, at the world championships in Puerto Rico, Canada was eighth. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976 Canada placed fourth, losing the bronze-medal game to the 1980 Olympic champions, Yugoslavia, and this year’s team, says Donohue, is the best yet.

Despite his many coaching successes, Donohue, an amiable man with a quick wit and a closet full of funny stories, is best known in Canada as the king of the rubber-chicken circuit. Whether addressing the Queen in Ottawa or a group of students in Newfoundland, he can make people laugh. His yarns are never nasty and seldom lewd, drawn largely from the days of his youth in New York City.

But there is a third side to the coach and comedian. A devout Catholic, he is

serious and thoughtful about the society in which he lives. “I’m very concerned about the lack of patriotism in Canada. It is the only thing I worry about with raising my kids up here. There is a hesitancy [among Canadians] to commit themselves to something, whether it’s their country or basketball. There must be some advantages to this. I just don’t see them.” Is there another Canadian coach, professional or amateur, who has been invited to appear on public affairs programs to give his opinion of the Canadian scene? He was also one of a very small number of coaches in the country to support the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. And, unlike most of those who attacked it, Donohue’s team had a legitimate shot at a medal.

But, despite his serious side, Donohue recognizes that his humor is his hallmark. “It doesn’t bother me that Canadians think of me as an entertainer. If you do a good job speaking, people think you’re a good basketball coach


What does bother Donohue is that his team is not known to Canadians, although it is one of Canada’s best. “It is a shame, but our guys play for themselves first, each other second and for Canada third,” he says. “It is one of the problems we have in Canada. For example, the United States made more out of Ken Taylor [Canada’s ambassador to Iran during the hostage crisis] than Canadians did. He’s a built-in hero, but Canadians cheer for Gary Carter and pack Argonaut games. I think that if people saw my team play a lot they’d like them. But we’re not household names in Canada.” In 1980 and 1981 the Canadian team lost only twice, to Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico and to the Soviet Union in Romania by two points. Yet since 1979 Donohue’s team has not been on Canadian television.

Donohue’s coaching career began in 1950, when he was 20. While still at university he was an assistant coach at a high school in the Bronx. Two years later, with a degree in economics from Fordham and a master’s degree from New York University, he shipped out for Korea.

After the war he returned to the Bronx to coach basketball and baseball at St. Nicholas of Tolentino High School. In 1959 he switched to another Catholic high school, Power Memorial Academy, where he helped to build a basketball dynasty that still rules New York City. His teams included dozens of future professionals, including Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem AbdulJabbar), who was to become one of the best players ever.

Donohue arrived in Canada after seven years at Holy Cross college. “I was looking for another job and, in fact, was ready to accept one as basketball coach and dean of men at the Florida Institute of Technology,” Donohue re-

calls. “When someone dropped into my office at Holy Cross and showed me a letter they had received advertising a position in Canada, I decided to apply.

“I came to Canada through ignorance. I’m glad they gave me the chance to come. It was the second-smartest thing I’ve ever done. The smartest? Marrying my wife of 20 years, Mary Jane.” They and their six children live with a variety of pets in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata.

“When I first came to Canada I knew nothing about the country and if I had known I probably wouldn’t have come. The government was just getting started in sport. There was no money, and I had to break the Old Boy syndrome. The players weren’t bad. The problem was that they had no attitude, good or bad. The team was put together to play games, not win them. It was a complete change from Holy Cross and the big time.”

Within four years of his arrival, Donohue’s team was in the Olympic semifinal at the Montreal Forum. His star player was a wild, curly-haired guard from the West, Billy Robinson. “I cut Billy my first year,” recalls Donohue, “and I didn’t think he would be back, but he was. By 1976 we couldn’t play without him.”

He remains closest to his 1976 team and especially to Robinson, who now owns a bar on Vancouver Island and has three children. “They sacrificed more than any other team I’ve ever been associated with.” But he doesn’t think they could beat his 1982 team, which, he says, is the best that Canada has ever had. And it may be better than Canada’s team at the 1984 Olympics because some of his players are expected to turn professional before then.

The best of the new players, Stewart Granger, is a Montreal-born resident of Brooklyn. He learned the game on the playgrounds of the inner city. He now plays at Villanova, where he is entering his senior year. He is expected to be chosen in the first round of the National Basketball Association draft next spring. “Stewart is phenomenal,” says University of Manitoba coach Martin Riley, who has played for Canada since 1973. “He’s the best point guard Canada has ever seen. If he gets going, Canada is unstoppable.” Another probable first-round draft choice, Leo Rautins, is the best player ever developed in Canada. After graduating from Toronto’s St. Michael’s High School, he was a world all-star in 1978. Now a starting forward at Syracuse University, he is tipped to become one of pro basketball’s most cherished commodities, a six-foot, eight-inch white guard.

Other potential professionals include Boston University guard Tony Simms (of Toronto), small (6-foot, five-inch)

forward Jay Triano, a Simon Fraser University student who has already been drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, and Bill Wennington, a 19-year-old starting centre at St. John’s in New York who left Montreal for New York when he was 12.

“These kids are really good,” says the past president of the Amateur Basketball Association of the U.S. George Killian. “Hell, if they were U.S. citizens,

a lot of them would be on our team. I give Jack a lot of credit. He’s got the respect of his peers in the United States for what he has done in Canada. He seems to be a better coach than ever before.”

Such compliments slide quickly off Donohue’s back. “I’m part of it but I’m not as responsible as all of the players, the assistant coach [Steve Konchalski of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia] and the rest of the staff. Anyone

_ who confuses coaches with

players as far as end results are concerned is making a serious mistake.”

All of this may be true, but the players also want to play for him. Triano, who joined the team in 1978, says: “He has made it something to play for the national team. Everybody is pushing to be part of his team. He has been a great help to the sport.”

Rautins, who first played for Canada in 1977, says: “This team is the best I’ve ever been associated with. We’re so fast, so quick. It used to be that everyone expected me to do everything. Now, I’m just one of the guys. We may not lose a game.”

Donohue is slightly more cautious. “We’d like to be in medal contention. It won’t be a failure if we are fourth or fifth, but that’s where we are now. We’d like to improve on it and we’ve -, got the players to do it.”

¡2 Looking beyond the championships, Donohue sees Canagdian basketball continuing to I improve and he wants to remain opart of it. “This is where I want *to live,” he says. “Of course I I don’t always feel that way in January or February.”