By CLAUDE SCILLEY
By their own admission, the Queen’s Golden Gaels are giving up a lot.
When Ontario University Athletics wrote the women’s basketball schedule in the summer, it showed the Gaels with a home game against the Windsor Lancers. If you’ve got to play the five-time defending national champions, it’s best to do so with the amenities of home, and without an eight-hour bus trip leading up to it.
With one phone call, the Gaels gave it all away.
How do they feel about that?
“We were pretty fired up,” fifth-year Gael Jenny Wright recalled of the day they heard the news.
It’s not what you think.
These Gaels were fired up with delight.
There was nary a grumble in the room when coach Dave Wilson shared the news. Those were squeals of glee emanating from the team meeting where the Gaels learned they were going to be part of the National Basketball Association’s all-star weekend in Toronto.
Gone was home-court advantage against the team that this week is ranked No. 10 in Canada, and all the things that go with it, such as home crowd, familiar facility, home cooking, one’s own bed and such. Now, Queen’s has to travel, immediately after playing a formidable foe, no less—West division-leading Western—Friday night. Meanwhile, as luck would have it, Windsor, with a game Friday night at York, will be waiting for the Gaels in Toronto.
There are two weeks left in the regular season and first place in the East division is in the balance. For a team with legitimate aspirations of reaching the national championship tournament, that’s a pretty stiff price to play, n’est-ce que pas?
No question, but to the Gaels it’s worth every intangible nickel.
“We’ve really put ourselves in a hole on this one,” Wilson said. “We lose our home court, we lose our gate, we lose the fact that we’re not travelling and they would have had to travel to us after playing York—but it’s just one of those things. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime.
“We couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
You’ll find no dissenters among the players.
“You could look at it that way,” Wright said, listening to the logistical drawbacks of the exercise, “but at the same time, it’s such an opportunity. Our coaches are always talking about taking opportunities.
“They know what’s best for the team. They wouldn’t do this if they didn’t think we could handle it. I’m super excited.”
It all came to pass in the fall, when the OUA contacted the NBA about the possibility of being involved in the periphery of the league's annual all-star game, the first of 68 being held outside the U.S.
When the NBA was receptive, the OUA then started looking around in search of a competitive game to showcase. “Windsor and us are two of the top teams in the league,” Wilson reasoned, recalling the day the idea was broached to him.
“The call I got from my boss was, ‘Dave I need to talk to you; come with an open mind.’ She thought I would be dead-set against it. She understands, competitively, this is not (the best) but it’s an opportunity of a lifetime for our players, so there was no question we wanted to do it.”
The game will be played Saturday afternoon at 4:30 on centre court at the Enercare Centre, the convention and trade show facility on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. It will be the main attraction amid a number of courts that will be set up as part of the league’s fan festival.
“It’s kind of cool, to have our team get to experience the whole NBA all-star weekend,” said Emily Hazlett, the fourth-year guard from New Brunswick with a legacy at Queen’s that goes through three generations of Kingston Hazletts.
“I don’t think any of us have even had the experience to be in the same city as they’re playing it. It’s kind of cool that the one time it comes to Canada, we get to be a part of it.
“I just hope we get to see some NBA players.”
Clearly, there will be two reasons for the Gaels to be excited about the prospect of Saturday’s game. Obviously, there will be the buzz of being in the middle of the fan fest activities swirling around them, but there also will be the challenge of playing one of the top teams in the land.
The two aren’t necessarily compatible. Wright said the key will be how well she and her teammates avoid the distractive nature of the milieu and use the energy of the day in a positive way. “Instead of letting it get you psyched out, use it in a way to get activated and get your mind excited and get your body pumped up.”
She’s confident they will be able to do that.
“We do this thing before our games where, after we’ve warmed up for a bit, we’ll go downstairs to talk with coaches but before that starts, we take a minute of silence,” Wright explained. “People can take it to get themselves pumped, or if they need it to chill out, they can take that minute to take a breath, to focus on what you need to do to get the job done.”
It seems to work, Wright said. The Gaels are, after all, 11-3. "With some better than others," Hazlett opined.
While the convention centre setting might play havoc with the shooters’ depth perception, among the ills of playing in an unfamiliar place, for now that’s a secondary consideration, Hazlett said. “We want to get to nationals,” she said. “Not everyone’s played at UNB (site of this year’s championship). We talk all the time about learning from adversity and growing from each game. Being put on a different stage to play, having to travel on the Friday to play Saturday … being able to experience a new gym like that will help, moving forward.”
“If you see it as a big game, we want to be in more big games down the road, so why not take the opportunity to partake in one (now)?
“We have an opportunity. We may as well seize it. It will be pretty nice to compete on a stage like that.”
Hazlett said there’s no question Wilson made the correct decision, when he decided to go along with the plan. “Dave always has our best interests in mind when he does anything for us,” she said.
“It will be the only time any of us get to participate in the NBA weekend.”
Both women said they’re fans of the pro game and, as much as they profess that it will be business first in Toronto on Saturday, they don’t pretend they’ll be able to shut the atmosphere completely out of their minds.
“Hopefully I’ll run into Steph Curry,” Wright said, grinning, speaking of the reigning NBA most valuable player. “That’s my plan, always to bring a marker around, just in case you run into someone and can get their autograph.”