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A time when kids were carted to their parents' sports - and not vice-versa
2020-10-03

The current pandemic has thrown the standard ultra-active family, those with kids involved in multiple sports, for a loop.

Pre-pandemic, it was not the least bit rare to find parental sets whose entire week was chock-filled with games and practices, workouts and friendlies, tournaments at home, or on the road.

Obviously, that's not the case currently. Nor was it the case in the era of their grandparents, a time when the local newspaper sports reporter would find himself covering far more activities involving adults, than those involving the kids.

Sure, high-school sports were still big - but the notion of kids beginning the ascension of their athletic careers while still in their pre-teenage years had not even begun to take hold.

Sharron (Hackenbrook) Stevens remembers that era well.

Inching closer and closer to her 79th birthday, the native of North Bay would wed her high-school sweetheart, Billy (who sadly passed just a few years ago), mere months after the pair would graduate from Scollard Hall (him) and Chippewa Secondary (her) respectively. A fan of all things sport, Billy Stevens seemed like a natural fit for the boarding school format just to the east of Sudbury.

"He thought he would try it, with all of these sports, and his cousin went to St Joe's College (in North Bay) at the same time," said Sharron. "Billy played football in high school and I used to go watch him practice, went to his football games, his basketball games, all while we were dating."

"That's where my interest in sports started."

And though the birth of all four of their children in a span of just three and a half years would prove hectic, the die had been cast in an early sixties sports landscape that was far different than today.

"We lived on Pine Street, that was our first apartment, and the first local basketball that Billy played, after we were married, was at King George School (now the Montessori School of Sudbury), outside on the court," said Stevens. "I would go up with the carriage and watch the guys play."

The truth is that it wasn't simply basketball that would keep the men of the time busy. There were typically more options available to the over twenty crowd than there were for the kids, who could always supplement their organized sport experiences with the more casual pick-up games that were all the rage at a time when finding 15-20 youngsters to compete might involve hitting up less than twenty neighbourhood houses, in all.

"There was a bit of a lapse when the basketball sort of died out, and that's when Billy started playing hockey," said Stevens. "Our kids were involved with the playground (Downe), and the playground had men's hockey too. I remember Billy went into the boards, one time, hurt his shoulder and decided that he couldn't be doing this anymore, given that he had a family."

He would transition to squash, even coaching the sport for a decade or two, as well as golf and alpine ski. Not that they would equal his initial love of basketball. "Just after St Paul's Church was built, Billy and John McKibbon (1964 Olympics) would play, every day, in the basement of the church," stated his wife.

"His aunt had the key."

Though Stevens would go on to enjoy several years of men's basketball with Mel McCarthy, amongst others, the latter arrived to the sport with far less initial passion that his teammate. "I grew up in the Donovan, played hockey for Holy Trinity, and was going to play hockey when I went to St Charles College - but they had a lot of good hockey players at the time," noted the 81 year-old.

"They were just building a new gym and they didn't have a lot of guys my height interested in playing basketball. To be honest, I wasn't that interested." For the record, McCarthy stood roughly 6'1" as he entered secondary school, topping out at around 6'4" and perhaps giving an inch or so back with age more recently.

Where helicopter parents might now be the norm, that concept was the furthest thing from the minds of the adults through the fifties and sixties. "I started playing senior ball when I was in grade ten, just because I was tall," McCarthy recalled. "At our high-school basketball games, and most other sports - hockey was different - parents never showed up to watch."

"In terms of fans for our regular high school games, you might have a half dozen people there, unless it was finals during the city championships or provincials. During the regular season, almost nobody showed up, except for the girlfriends."

It certainly wasn't as though parents needed to be counted on for the transportation needs of their aspiring young athletes. "The schools that were competing against each other were still very close to each other; it was all within walking and/or running distance. Most of the time, we would just get to the games on our own."

If physical proximity was a plus, an off-setting factor surely would lie in venues that could not hold a candle to even the worst of current high-school facilities. "At St Charles College, we had a very small gym," said McCarthy. "Tech's gym, at first, was almost as small, until they put in their new addition."

"Mind you, they had that swinging backboard at Tech. It would move if you hit the backboard with the ball. I'm not saying that you had to wait for a long time, but you kind of had to wait until it came back. Our disadvantage, at St Charles, was that we had a cement floor with asphalt tile. Sudbury Secondary had wood floors, so it was much easier to play on that floor, so much easier on your joints."

If the likes of McCarthy and others with his background could also not tap into the years of club basketball involvement that so many local high school players might currently enjoy, there was at least a template to improve quickly. "We would play in the high school league and the industrial men's league at the same time," he said.

"When I was in grade 12, playing just for St Charles College, I played 45 games for the year."

The cross-over of the two leagues allowed for basketball keeners of varying ages to cross paths. McCarthy would become quite familiar with the likes of Billy Stevens, Don Punch, Chucker Ross, Wayne Eadie, Roy Landrye, Bob Helpert and others on the court.

Sponsored initially as the Helpert Pistons, McCarthy would move along, enjoying a few years as a member of the International Hotel squad. "You always wanted to play for Adam Borovich, because he supplied you all of the beer that you would need," he said with a laugh. "He would come out with two full trays of beer to get us started, after the games."

"Not that he lost any money, given that we usually stayed for a few more beer after getting one or two from him."

Yes, it was a different era, indeed.

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