By Sean Fitz-Gerald
At the centre of campus, nestled between Gerrard and Gould Streets, is Ryerson’s quadrangle. The square is covered with a lush green lawn, the only foliage visible in the city’s core. In the northwest corner of the quad lies the school’s athletic facility, Kerr Hall gym.
Ryerson’s gym is not decorated with any championship banners or trophy cases. Its bare, beige brick walls are covered in part by two murals of a blue and yellow Ram’s head — the school’s mascot — and in-house award banners for last year’s MVP at Ryerson. While other university’s murals and plaques scream history, Ryerson’s bare walls speak volumes about the school’s lack of athletic achievement.
During the basketball season the four sets of decaying wooden bleachers are normally covered with speckles of Ryerson staff, players’ parents, and usually friends of the players. But when a team like the Laurentian Voyageurs come into town, a quarter of the gym is filled with the visiting team’s supporters.
Every spring, about 500 students at a time fill the gym to write final exams, but during basketball games you would be hard pressed to find numbers of that kind filling the place.
When I applied to Ryerson’s journalism program four years ago, I didn’t even know the school had an athletic department. I played football and rugby in my Burlington high school, but since Ryerson didn’t have any fields big enough for these sports, I didn’t give the school’s athletic program a second thought.
Schools like Laurentian, Guelph, and even the cross town giants at the University of Toronto have a great athletic tradition. These schools, even though they may not be successful today, are still drawing support from their past glories.
Ryerson’s past glories can be written on a cocktail napkin. IN the past, it wasn’t uncommon for the Rams basketball team to go winless in a season.
If you asked the average student on Ryerson’s campus how they thought the men’s basketball team would do this year, they’d probably give you a confused look and ask you to repeat the question.
For years, university basketball was the pinnacle of the sport in Canada. Before the Raptors and the Grizzlies, the best a hoops fan could do to get a fix in this city, or anywhere in the country, was to watch Canadian university basketball.
The Ryerson program couldn’t provide this fix. Many years before pro basketball arrived in Toronto, the Rams were still getting their asses kicked by other schools. But then the Rams made the playoffs five years in a row starting in 1993-1994. Not that many people on the downtown campus cared.
It’s hard for the majority of students who commute from the suburbs to care about Ryerson basketball. Many take the subway or train for their morning classes, and then leave right after their last class, just in time to catch dinner at home.
In my first year, I commuted from Burlington. But I still wanted to cover sports. I started writing for The Eyeopener three years ago. What I saw was ugly. A victory for the soccer teams usually meant they stayed within two touchdowns of opposing teams. The volleyball teams couldn’t keep athletes in school long enough to win. The hockey team always started the year well, but faded badly as the season wore on.
Then there was basketball. The women’s team had struggled, but usually played well enough to keep games entertaining. The men’s team was always in the playoffs, but fell short of winning anything substantial.
A Coach, and His 18-Year Run
The men’s team was the closest thing to a winner the school had. The team had made the playoffs for the past five years, but was always eliminated early, losing to the Laurentian Voyageurs two years in a row.
The teams’ long-suffering coach of 18 years, Terry Haggerty, has seen some of those 0-12 teams. When he was an assistant coach at York, his team once outscored a lowly Rams squad 43-3 by halftime.
Haggerty is in his early forties. Bespectacled, in silver-rimmed glasses, Haggerty has a sprinkling of sale and pepper on his and his closely trimmed moustache. A fight with pneumonia several years ago left him unable to keep in shape, and as a result he once weighed more than 270 pounds. He’s managed to lose more than 70 pounds, but still has a slight belly.
The first time I met Haggerty was two years ago in a dark tunnel underneath the bleachers at U of T’s Varsity Arena. His team had just lost to the Laurentian Voyageurs in the OUAA East division semifinals. It was a close game, but Haggerty was still pissed off.
It probably didn’t help that I was in first-year and had never covered a basketball game before. When I asked Haggerty if his team would miss its all-star forward Scott Belasco now that his eligibility had run out, he furled his brow at me.
“Scott’s been a cornerstone of the program,” he said, exploiting my ignorance of the team. “It’s not coincidence that we’re in the playoffs four years and he’s been here four years.”
He kept is eyebrows lowered as he spoke, as if to say, “My, you are an idiot, aren’t you?”
You can never tell when Haggerty is being sarcastic. He speaks in a very low tone of voice that can sometimes make it seem like he is disinterested in the conversation. Before coming to Ryerson, Haggerty earned a BA and MA at York in physical education. He was also an assistant coach with the Yeomen for two years.
His teams have made the playoffs for the last six years. He’s had some phenomenal players: Alex “The Beast” Beason finished playing university basketball, but still holds the Ontario records for most points in a season (401) and most points in a game (52). Haggerty has had some good teams, but like every other coach in Ryerson’s history, he had never been able to win a provincial title.
Now, however, he’s got some young players to deal with. This year, his team had six first-year athletes. One of this new players, rookie guard Ben Gorham, had transferred to Ryerson from a school in New York, where he was playing on an athletic scholarship.
A Rookie With Great Expectations
Even though his blood is Indian, Gorham was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden. He moved to Oakville when he was 17 and has played on three city championship-winning teams. Gorham has wildly curly black hair, with a little moustache and goatee covering his light brown face. The team’s roster lists him as 6’5” and 185 lbs, but he’s probably 15 pounds less.
In practice and in games, Gorham wears the waistband of his long shorts well below his hips, exposing his underwear of choices, usually Joe Boxer. It doesn’t look like he’s running on the court, but moving in slow motion. but when the ball is in the opponent’s end, Gorham dashes off with quick speed, usually getting there first.
He never stops talking. In a game or in practice, Gorham jokes and trash talks teammates and opponents. During the stretching session before one practice, Gorham and fourth-year guard Dave Petropolous, almost a full foot shorter than Gorham, started doing situps while the rest of the team was still working on their quadriceps (thigh muscles).
“Hey Dave, what are you doing, we’re supposed to be stretching,” Gorham asked loud enough for the echo to fill the gym.
”I’m done stretching,” Petropolous replied.
“Well I guess you’re right, your muscles are only half the length of the rest of ours,” Gorham said, before a round of chuckles filtered through the team, Petropolous included.
Gorham doesn’t like to play defence. His trademark on the defensive side of the court is to fall onto his backside the moment an opposing player even bumps him slightly. His theatrics are done with the hope that he can draw a foul, thereby ending that defensive set.
Gorham’s strength is offense. The second an opponent takes their eyes off his shoulders to look at the ball, he’s gone to the net. If the Rams need a clutch jumper, he’ll usually find a way to get the ball to the hoop.
But the most daunting thing about Gorham is “The Stare,” as some fans have come to call it. When Gorham thinks he’s been given a bad call, or if an opponent runs into him, he glares at the offending party as he walks away. He looks like a guy you definitely wouldn’t want to meet alone in a dark alley.
After watching him play in a couple of practices and a few exhibition games against a local college and Rams alumni, I saw him lead the team in scoring in November with 20 points in a season-opening 98-94 overtime win against Queen’s. I never got a chance to speak with him before. So after the game, while talking to Rams captain Brian Smith, I spotted Gorham walking out of the change room and toward the exit, so I asked if he could wait two minutes to talk to me.
“Yeah, sure thing man. I’ll just be down there,” he said, pointing down the hall, away from the team’s change room.
Less than 90 seconds later, I realized he just ditched the interview. I scoured the halls and ran back into the gym, but there was no Gorham.
A Young Team, Brilliant and Inexperienced
“How the fuck could you give it away like that?” Haggerty’s voice filled the hallway as the change room door closed again. Five minutes later, Haggerty left the room and headed one floor above to his office. Assistant coach Lui Cinello warned me, “You might want to give him a few minutes there.”
Cooled off and in an almost reflective mood, Haggerty eventually returned to the change room hallway to speak with me.
“It’s a young team — at times they do brilliant things and at other times they just drive you crazy,” he said.
As the team filed out of the room, players looked hard at the floor as they walked past their coach.
This was the night after the Rams had won their home opener. They lost by seven in a sloppy game against the University of Toronto Blues in front of about 40 fans in Kerr gym.
About 20 minutes before, when the game ended, Haggerty, dressed in his game-time garb os slacks, shirt and tie, walked slowly and calmly from the home team’s bench in the south end of the gym across to the change room. When he reached the hallway, students and staff paused their conversations and automatically split to either side of the hall to let him pass.
The Rams had several opportunities to win, but bad shot selections and overall poor judgement cost them the game. The mood in the hall was tense as Haggerty opened the door to the change room and entered. Folks in the vicinity of the room covered their ears; when the thick door closed, nothing could be heard outside. But when Cinello entered the room, Haggerty’s loud and angry voice filled the hallway.
“He’s got a right to be pissed off,” Gorham said, this time waiting for me to catch up with him as he walked for the exit. “You can’t give away games like that.”
One of the last players to leave the room was second-year centre Sasha Ivankovic. If it wasn’t for his 6’6”, 225-pound frame, his goatee and young face make him look like he could still be in high school. Ivankovic, last year’s Ryerson rookie of the year, was the last to exit because he had the most athletic tape to tear off his aching body. Ivankovic badly sprained his ankle in a three-on-three basketball tournament over the summer, and it still hasn’t healed fully.
Haggerty used Ivankovic sparingly through the game because of the injury.
“He pulled me out because he noticed I wasn’t as good or running as well as I can,” he said. “I was a bit off today.” When Ivankovic speaks, he starts his sentences off very slow, dragging out his first words, before rolling out the rest of his thoughts lightning fast.
Ivankovic is usually banged up because he always faces the other team’s big man. Playing centre, he takes some of the worst beatings while fighting for rebounds under his and the opponent’s net. Elbows, shoulders, knees and feet are always waiting to smash into his flesh.
It usually takes one or two good knocks to his body before he gets mad and starts to dominate the boards.
A native of Brampton, Ivankovic is in his second year of the diploma in arts program. Most students at Ryerson only take this course for one year so they can upgrade their marks and get into the program they wanted at Ryerson.
“I really just came here at first to play ball,” he said one day while waiting to get his ankle looked at by the student athletic therapist, Lenny Ferraro. “But now I’m looking into the AIM [administration and information management] program.”
Apathy Killed With a Few Diehard Fans
“I was trying to think of some better marking ways to get people out to games, and I was wondering if you guys [The Eyeopener] would be up for doing anything,” Ron, the manager of basketball’s event staff asked me one day during a game. Events staff is a crew of students responsible for running everything from the score clock to the snack table.
Fans are dismal at Ryerson games, and Ron said the sprinkling of posters around the school doesn’t work. He’s a fan of the team, and was disappointed that more people didn’t come out to games.
A home loss to the Concordia Stingers last semester brought only 100 fans out. Of those 100, fewer than 40 were students.
But there are always those diehard Ryerson supporters. On the southeast bleachers, you’ll always see Leona Mouliakis. Mouliakis, a senior customer service rep at the RAC, has been a fan of the Rams for more than 11 years. She’s been to every home game his season, carrying an old school heel she rings proudly each time her team does well.
Gordon and Helen Armstrong have been coming to watch their son, Rob, play at both home and away games for the past four years. Armstrong Sr. says he’s never been into playing sports because he was sick in his youth. But he’ll never miss his son play.
Sitting close the the Armstrongs is chemistry and biology prof John Easton. He has say through a couple of the school’s winless seasons, but he won’t stop coming out to the teams.
When I walked outside the gym, I saw at least 20 groups of students heading west to Queen Street and the night club scene. None of them were talking about basketball.
The athletic department advertises the games across campus through letter-sized posters stapled onto bulletin boards.
They have used this method for years, but the campus’ apathy for sports in general had not been altered. Ron wanted to get more people out to the games in second semester.
In Jorgenson Hall, the epicentre of student traffic at Ryerson, not one of the posters advertising the last games of the semester were still visible. They hadn’t been removed, just covered by advertisements from the student government and other student groups.
So when I headed back to the newsroom in the basement of Jorgenson, trying to think of ideas, I started talking about the team around fellow editors.
“I don’t care how they do, I just think some of them are cute,” one of the female editors said. “Do they take their shirts off in practice? If they do, I’m there.”
New Team With a Few Surprises
The Rams schedule had them playing only six of their 20-game season before the Christmas break. When the first semester ended, the team was a porous 3-3. By the time the students came back in January, the Rams had won five of six exhibition games it played over Christmas break.
One of the wins was against the University of Victoria, a team ranked third in the country at the time. Another game was a close 84-75 loss to the fifth-ranked Brandon Bobcats.
The Rams shocked the western teams for two reasons. Firstly, none of the ester teams have had any exposure to the type of basketball the Rams play. Ryerson is never covered in the mainstream press and hasn’t been on television for other teams to scout. Secondly is the Rams style of defence. Unlike other teams, who allow the opposition to march the ball into the offensive half of the floor, the Rams employ a strategy called “The Press.”
That’s when the Rams pressure the opposition to give the ball up early while still in their own end. The Rams send two players to the opponent with the ball. This pressure can force the player to rush his pass and create a turnover , burn a timeout, or simply lose control of the ball.
The team bus pulled up to Jorgenson Hall in the middle of the night after making the five-plus hour drive from Ottawa. The team had lost their first game of the second semester to the Carleton Ravens. It’s 2:45 a.m. and instead of going home, Haggerty remains in his office on the third floor of West Kerr Hall for another 45 minutes. Even though he’s had time to cool off from whatever happened at the game, it’s obvious he’s had a bad night. Because of a major snowstorm that hit southern Ontario, the Rams had to cancel a game against the Ottawa GeeGees and settle for one game against the Ravens. Haggerty said the referees in the nation’s capital sent the Ravens to the line for 53 free throws, which led his team to the loss.
“We’ve played the best teams in the country and we haven’t fouled this much,” he said, holding back a diatribe of cuss words.
“Normally we’d stay over but because of the rescheduling, we had to come back,” he said. “It’s best to get the guys into classes today.”
Following the controversial loss, the team went on a blistering five-game winning streak at the end of January, including a slim wi over the defending provincial champion Laurentian Voyageurs at home. The Voyageurs’ loss to the Rams was their first of the season.
Laurentian’s star 6’10” centre, Ted Dongelmans, stood outside the gym after the loss and poked almost confused by the Rams’ win.
“You don’t like to come here and lose, but we weren’t concentrating on going undefeated all year,” Dongelmans said.
But the Rams were happy, especially fourth-year guard Dave Petropolous, who was packing his gym clothes. Usually, the 5’7” reserve guard walks around the halls surrounding the gym with a mean look across his face. The first time I saw the little guy, I thought he was just a tough guy who played ball. But I found out that he is one of the most likeable and committed guys on the team. Petropolous will graduate from the early childhood education program this spring, and wants to teach elementary school.
“We knew from the beginning that we had a good team and it was just going to take us some time to come together,” he said.
Two Leaders, Two Styles
Rams co-captain Rob Armstrong has been with the team for almost four years now. A fourth-year business student, Rob is reserved and well-spoken off the court. ON the court, even in practice, Armstrong hates being taken out.
Karim Gilani, an ultra-thin 5’10” freshman benchwarmer, jogs onto the court to pull Armstrong off so he can get some reps. Armstrong glares at him and tells him, “Go take someone else off.”
“But it’s your turn,” Gilani said. With one last stare, Armstrong stayed on the court.
Armstrong is just about the only traditional “clean-cut” member of the team. With his blue eyes and short blonde hair, he is unassuming enough. But he does have a tattoo of his family’s Scottish crest on his right shoulder.
The Rams had just come off a huge 20-point win over U of T in the Blues gym. The home team never looked like they could even compete with the Rams.
“I can’t think of a game we’ve won by more than seven points,” Armstrong said after practice. He had changed into track pants and a grey hooded sweater. “This is a good feeling.”
But Armstrong has been on some of those good Ryerson teams that didn’t go anywhere in the playoffs, so he was reserved in praising his team’s success.
“I don’t want to get too excited because things could start to go bad for us just as soon as they went good.”
Armstrong admitted he hadn’t been playing his best. He said he’d been swamped by assignments and spent many of his nights studying for tests and writing papers.
“Maybe I’ll enjoy this more when I get my marks back,” he said.
Although he doesn’t have Ivankovic’s size or Gorham’s speed, Armstrong leads by example. He’s responsible for most of the Rams’ outside shooting game, but is always back on defence pulling down rebounds or fighting for loose balls. To fill a sports cliché, Armstrong does the little things right, and gets very little attention.
Armstrong’s predictions came true. After the Rams beat the winless Laval, they plunged from second place in the OUA East to a tie for fourth after a four-game slide took the momentum out of their sails.
Now, if the Rams even wanted to make the playoffs, they would have to win one of a two-game series against their fourth-place partner Ottawa Gee Gees.
“We’ve won one game, and you all are acting like we’re something,” Rams co-captain and graduating senior Brian Smith yelled at his team in disgust. He didn’t hold the wins over the mediocre Queen’s, U of T and York squads high. “We’ve only won one fucking game.”
Smith hadn’t been playing well of late. His shot selection was off and it almost seemed like he was trying to do too much on the court. He would take shots with two of the opposing players blocking him and would try to make passes that were impossible.
Smith wasn’t happy and he showed it in the practice leading up to the team’s game against the Carleton Ravens.
The mood at the practice was light. Led by the constant trash-talking and joking of Gorham and Will Sealy Jr., the Rams weren’t executing the plays properly in their workout. At least that’s what Smith thought.
The night before the first game against the Gee Gees at home, Smith played one of the worst games of his five-year OUA career. He shot 3 for 23 and couldn’t complete any passes.
Smith said the team, as is Thursday night’s rite of passage, went out drinking on pub night. He said he normally has time to sleep the effects of the booze off, but that Friday he had a lot of errands to run, so he couldn’t get the sleep he needed.
“I’m just going to forget about this,” he said. “I’m just going to go home and play with my little daughter.” Smith has a five-year-old daughter who has become the unofficial mascot for the team. Before practices or even some teams, his little girl plays hide-and-seek with the team, hiding behind the players legs.
The next night, the game was back and forth. It came down to an overtime frame. If the Rams lost, the season would be pretty much over because stye would have to beat Ottawa on the road, as well as Laurentian — two unlikely prospects.
The game came down to two free throws. The pressure seemed to roll off Smith’s back as he shot two fouls shots at the end of the frame. The situation met the requirements for every sports cliché — Brian’s team was down by one point with four seconds left. If he missed then, the team would surely be out of the playoffs. The anticipation grew. After dribbling the ball for a moment, he sunk both. They won.
The Rams ended up losing to the Gee Gees in Ottawa, but beat the York Yeomen to clinch the fourth and final playoff spot.
Pee Police Pays a Visit
The Rams had a bit of a following during their last practice before they left for Laurentian. A group of about 20 soccer players were mulling about and waiting to play their weekly indoor soccer game. Beside me, a 5’8” man in blue jeans, grey sweater and baseball cap was sitting on the east bleachers watching the team scrimmage. He had a small white grocery bag full of bottled water propped up against a large black bag which looked to contain several empty bottles.
Looking at the clock on the east wall of the gym, the man, in disbelief, then looked at his watch to confirm that it was already 8:30 p.m. “What time do these guys usually go to?” he asked.
I told him tonight, Thursday, was their late night for practice so they probably wouldn’t be done until 9 p.m.
“Aw, Jesus,” he said. “Oh well, I guess that gives me more time to pick my guy. I’m the pee police.”
He was from the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports and was here to test three Rams players’ urine for banned substances.
When Haggerty nodded the practice over, the man walked over to Gorham and quietly told him what he had to do.
“You want me to do what?” Gorham responded theatrically enough to draw the attention of the soccer players on the court. “I’m not going to pee in no bottle, man.”
The man, dwarfed by Gorham’s 6’5” frame, patiently explained that if Gorham didn’t make peeper, he wouldn’t be allowed to play anymore.
“Okay,” Gorham said with a mildly frightened look overtaking his smirking face. “But I don’t have to do it in front of you, do I?”
The man nodded as he escorted Gorham into the athletic therapy room across the hall from the change room and closed the door.
“Hey, next you’ll have to shit in a bottle,” one of the Rams players yelled as the team walked giggling into the change room.
There was one more game left in the season, up in Sudbury against the Voyageurs — the team that had eliminated the Rams from the playoffs for the past two years.
Trip to the Enemy’s Den
Around noon on the last Saturday of Feburary, and after a night’s rest in their own beds, both the men’s team and women’s team, who also clinched a playoff spot with a win the night before, arrive at the school for the bus that would take them to Sudbury.
Minutes after the PMCL liner pulls up to the school on Gould Street, the players start to file in. My photographer, Tom, and I put our gym bags in the lower compartment and head on board. Once inside, we are greeted with a stereo blasting Cher’s “Do you believe in love” and a member of the women’s team dancing and singing the vocals.
The song ends as the driver, Don, gets onto the bus. He is followed moments later by Haggerty. Don gives a not to Tom and I and walks with Haggerty towards the pair of seats covered in paper in front of us.
“People came onto the bus and asked whose papers those were,” Don said. “I said they were Terry’s and they moved on.”
“They know better than to take my seat,” Haggerty replied, almost under his breath.
With the bus loaded, Don closes the door and yells over the chatter while giggling, “ It looks like we have two winning teams here. Are we gonna clean some butts when we get to Sudbury?”
After a mild cheer from the 40 or so players on the bus, Haggerty turns away from the driver and heads for his seat.
“I don’t know if we’re going to clean them, but we’re definitely going to kick some butts,” Haggerty says.
At 3 p.m., the bus pulls into Parry Sound, “home of Bobby Orr and the 30,000 island tour” for dinner.
“Parry Sound, this is an exciting stop,” Haggerty said, straight-faced. “If we were an American team, the guys would have returned credit for studying the geological formations on the way up. You think I’m kidding,” he says to me.
Rams co-captain Brian Smith, sitting near the back, doesn’t want to even think about studying right now. When he gets back to school Monday morning, the fourth-year business student has to write a midterm.
“Man, I’ve got so much studying to do, I know I won’t get to it,” he said. “You don’t understand the amount of crap I’ve gotta read this weekend.”
Still two hours away from the hotel in Sudbury, the bus left the McDonald’s parking lot at 4 p.m. as the sun began to dip below the tree line.
With the movie Pulp Fiction now in the VCR, all the groggy eyes on the bus were set on the screens. All eyes except for Haggerty. Even as assistant coach Bob Marsh and women’s coach Sandra Pothier took a nap, Haggerty was busy drawing up game plans and drills for his team to work on before the game.
Coach’s Strategy to Show Little to Nothing
The Laurentian campus is as spread out as the land around it. The gym is a 10-minute walk from the front gates. The university is made up of modern-looking buildings and grey brick.
As we stepped off the bus, we were hit with a blast of freezing air. The sun had disappeared as night fell on this northern mining town, and it was well below freezing now. The practice wasn’t real in that it was only an hours ing and consisted mainly of the players working on their shooting techniques.
The Laurentian gym, which could easily fit the Ryerson parking garage inside its walls, is decorated with 32 provincial and national championship banners. Of the 32, a mind-numbing 18 are from basketball. “Pride and tradition” is the slogan on the wall underneath the score clock, painted in the school’s yellow and blue colours. There is an unmistakeable feeling of tradition inside the Ben Avery gym.
On the hall just outside the gym are pictures and stats of Laurentian athletic greats, as well as the architects of the teams’ success. Laurentian is the defending Ontario Champion, and heavy favourites to win the OUA again this year.
Even though this game has no real impact on the standings, it still carries some importance for the Rams. As the fourth and final seed in the playoffs, Ryerson is guaranteed another game against these Voyageurs next Thursday in the opening round of the OUA East divisional playoffs.
With the game not 10 minutes old, it becomes painfully clear that the Rams are not a match for these Voyageurs. The tenacious defence and meticulous ball movement in the opponents’ offensive end is lacking from Ryerson’s game. Behind the Rams’ bench, a group of 20 Laurentian fans are screaming and banging pots and pans together to distract the team.
“Terry, you better call a timeout, your boys are in trouble,” one says. Right after he says it, one of Laurentian’s guards hits a three-point shot, and through the sea of cheers, he says, “Haggerty, your boys are in deep shit now.”
Haggerty is playing his starting five sparingly. Gorham will finish the night having played little more than have of the 40-minute game. Smith, who rarely sits down at all during a game, only pays for 24 minutes.
The Rams lost badly, 86-62, and prepare to head back to Toronto to play this same team int he first round of the playoffs.
Haggerty went to a different restaurant after the game so the players were able to grumble about why none of the starting five played the whole game. They wonder and complain about why Haggerty didn’t let them goo all out against the number one team in the division.
“I just think some people didn’t want to win,” rookie forward Jan-Michael Nation said in regards to some coaching decision. “I don’t think some people wanted to win the fuckin’ thing.”
“Shut up, Jan. You’re full of shit,” Smith replied, looking to quell the growing revolution within the team.
As his team is getting ready to get back on the bus for the ride home, Haggerty mingles with the Laurentian coaches in the bar that is set up adjacent to the gym.
He doesn’t look worried.
“We achieved our first major goal, which is to get to the playoffs,” he says while walking toward the bus.
But getting to the playoffs is going to be a little tougher for Haggerty, who can’t stop coughing violently. He learns later in the week that he has developed pneumonia.
Playoff Upset, Hopes Ignited
After three days of light practice, the Rams pace around the halls inside York University’s Tait McKenzie Centre waiting for the women’s game to end so theirs can begin.
The Voyageurs had eliminated the Rams from the playoffs for the past two years. No matter what Ryerson did, they could just not overtake the team from Sudbury in the playoffs.
Nervous looks grew on the players’ faces as the minutes ticked down to seconds and the women’s game drew to a close.
The Laurentian faithful had taken the bus down to Yorka nd were in full force during the women’s game. The Ryerson women lost by almost 20 points.
The men’s game begins the same way it did in Laurentian, with the Voyageurs jumping out to an early lead. Unlike the last game, however, Haggerty keeps his starters in the game and the momentum shifts.
As the game progresses, the Rams experience something they have never seen before — fan support. People were yelling and screaming each time a bounce went Ryerson’s way.
As the clock ticked down in the second half, it started to look like the Rams might actually be ale to pull the win off. The stack of wooden bleachers across from the Laurentian bench, full with justness than 300 Ryerson fans, was vibrating from the crowd jumping up and down.
The Laurentian fans, some of the most feared in the conference because of their tenacity while cheering and banging their pots and pans together, were silent as the electronic score clock showed the Rams ahead by six. With time in the second half running down, Gorham spotted Nationa running down the floor and into clear territory. He sent a bullet pass that landed in Nation’s arms as he streaked to the Voyageurs’ unguarded hoop.
As Nation took flight in the middle of the key, the Rams fans went wild. Nation two-handed the ball through the net as if to put an exclamation mark on the upset. After losing by as much as 11 at one point, the Rams turned the game around and closed the gap. Ryerson went into the half with a one-point lead and held on in the second to win 74-66.
“It was a great win. I feel great,” Rams co-captain Rob Armstrong said. “All [that happened against Sudbury] is forgiven, all is forgiven.”
After the game, Haggerty, so sick that he could barely climb the two flights of stairs leading up to the change room, suggested Laurentian may have been set up for a let down.
“We didn’t really show them anything in Sudbury, did we?” he asked as his phlegm-infested throat struggled to push the words past his faint grin. He tricked them in Sudbury. As I walked onto the school bus that was carrying about 15 Rams fans back to Ryerson, smiles were on the faces of just about everybody. When the doors shut, the students began to chant, “Go, Rams go.”
Fans Witness Historical Game
The Ryerson contingent for the OUA East final the next night doubled. More than 40 students took advantage of the free bus provided by the athletics department and many more drove. Armed with pots, garbage cans converted into bass drums, and megaphones, the 500 fans started screaming from the opening tipoff of the championship game against the Carleton Ravens.
The Rams surprised the Ravens and won 50-44 to claim the school’s first title ever.
As the clock ticked down, the fans began to chant, “Hal-i-fax, Hal-i-fax,” because for the first time in history, the Rams would be playing in the national championships, held for the past 13 years in Nova Scotia’s capitol.
Standing on the edge of the court, he watched as fans mobbed the team, avoiding the single police officer charged with keeping order. Ryerson’s athletic director for 33 years, Bob Fullerton, watched the team celebrate at centre court. As he look on, he began to cry — not sobbing, but there was a lump in his throat as he looked at the team with pride.
“I want to cry,” he said. “I’ve been here for 33 years. I can’t talk… the fans were great.”
After the game, Haggerty sat on the team bench for almost 10 minutes, staring around the gym.
When he finally got up to talk to and congratulate the players, it was already his turn to cut down a piece of the Carleton net. With all the strength his pneumonia had left him, Haggerty climbed up the ladder and cut the last two strands of string down and pointed to his team.
He looked like a rock as he walked out of the gym and down the stairs to the change room, keeping the aura of a grizzled coach who’s seen it all.
Petropolous told me later at Mick E Fynn’s that the coach broke down while addressing the team after the door had been securely shut.
The team was supposed to go to Oakham House for its post-game celebration, but they had been beaten to the pub by the fans at the game. Not wanting to wait in line, they headed north to Fynn;s.
Smith was walking around the pub with the net from York still around his neck as he drank with the rest of the team.
When I walked in, Armstrong greeted my by putting his arm around me and thanking me for “the great coverage this year.” He couldn’t stop smiling — his season, his final season, had been extended by at least three games.
Final Game Brings Careers to a Close
Armstrong was the last player to walk out of the men’s dark green change room inside the Halifax Metro Centre. As the final buzzer sounded to finalize Ryerson’s consolation semi-final loss to the Bishop’s Gaiters, Amrstrong, his eyes red, paused to look into the stands.
His father, Gordon, was in tears. This was his son’s last game as a Ram.
As Armstrong walked through the tunnel between the stands toward the change room, four Ryerson faithful leaned over to give him a high-five as he walked off. The last one in the line of hand-slaps was his father. Armstrong slowed as he grabbed his father’s hand before going into the change room.
Armstrong is not the only one leaving.
Smith has been Armstong’s teammate for three years. He came to Ryerson after playing two years at Carleton.
He’s leaving the team now that his five-year eligibility has run out.
Smith will look to play basketball somewhere in Europe next year, but still wishes he was going to be a part of the team.
“They’re going to be back here next year,” he said.