To listen to the likes of Cory Bailey and Brad Hann and Shawn Swords and others recount their memories of the Laurentian Voyageurs men’s basketball era of the 1990s, there was clearly an element of magic in play.
To a man, they will cite the coaching wizardry of one Peter Campbell as the incredible elixir that created the backdrop for a decade or so run that accounts for several of the most memorable moments in program history.
Yet, as Bailey explains, it really had very little to do with the Xs and Os of the sport.
“Coach had the ability to add guys that just seamlessly came in and integrated themselves into the culture of our team,” noted the former OUA East Division MVP and two-time all-Canadian (1995-1996; 1996-1997), originally from Scarborough and now into his third decade of calling Sudbury home.
“He had an eye for watching a guy play and having a feel for how that player reacts to certain things on the court, how he interacts with other players, how he interacts with his coaches. A lot of that goes a long way in figuring out a person’s character.”
Campbell sought out character player: character players like Cory Bailey, inducted into the Laurentian Alumni Voyageur Hall of Fame in 2014. Listening to the tales of his youth, it’s easy to see how the youngest of four children in the family could fit the L.U. men’s basketball mold, at least the one that existed in the eyes of one of the winningest coaches in OUA history.
Though he idolized his brother, twelve years his elder, watching his early basketball mentor as often as he could, Bailey was far more of a multi-sport athlete. In fact, to this day, the 48 year-old graduate of Cedarbrae Collegiate could enlist as a spokesperson for the views now espoused within Long-Term Athlete Development Models, all of which frown on early sport specialization.
“I went to what I feel was a really, really good high-school, in that our coaches and teachers were so influential in our lives,” said Bailey. “All of our coaches were really good friends and a lot of them thought that having their athletes not focus on just one sport would benefit them in the long run.”
“I don’t know that I would have wanted to just play basketball from September through to April,” he added. “Being able to excel in a different sport was a great challenge, and kept you at a place where there was a real excitement for the start of the basketball season.”
Perhaps it was the time that he would split, almost equally, between volleyball and basketball, that helped to keep Bailey so grounded. Perhaps it was the fact that while his junior teams dominated on a local level, he was likely the fourth best player on the team.
Either way, there was a sincere, genuine surprise and excitement with which the young man greeted the post-secondary attention that was suddenly coming his way through his senior years at Cedarbrae.
With Ottawa and McMaster also very much in the recruiting mix for the talented 6’0” guard, it was time for Peter Campbell to display an initial sense of the magic that would ensue. “Peter came across as a straight shooter, he had a great sense of humour - he was just so charismatic,” said Bailey.
That direct appeal, along with the fact that a childhood friend was already playing varsity soccer at Laurentian, clinched the deal for Bailey. It was the fall of 1993 and while most who know him well would suggest there is a wonderful humility to the young man who would garner team Rookie of the Year accolades that winter, his eyes had yet to be opened, at least when it came to Voyageur basketball.
“When I came to L.U., coming from Toronto, I thought I would play a lot, right from the beginning,” he said. “I had never watched Laurentian play and at that time, I thought Toronto was the mecca of basketball. I just assumed I would be a star in Sudbury, right from the beginning.”
“I get up there and see Brad Hann and see Shawn Swords and see Jason Hurley and a couple of other guys, and I’m still figuring I can play with these guys. Then we started scrimmaging and I was like, oh my God, these guys are good. These guys are really good.”
If Cory Bailey needed to be knocked down a peg or two, upon his arrival - and he certainly would not be the first or last high-school star to require a little grounding at the next level - he seemingly did not alienate his new teammates in any way, shape or form along the way.
“Thankfully, from day one, all of those guys made me feel like a brother,” he said. “It was eerie the bond that we had, right from the get go. I think a lot of that had to do with Peter Campbell and the type of guys that he brought in. Older guys instilled in the younger guys exactly the mindset that Peter had.”
Year one started with seven straight losses. Bailey would not become a starter until November some time. Yet the year culminated with a trip to nationals and what remains one of the most memorable OUA finals in the history of the fabled Ben Avery Gymnasium.
“We were playing Ryerson, and I had never seen anything like that,” said Bailey. “The gym was insane - it was so packed. There were people between the bleachers, people out in the hallways. It was just an amazing experience.”
Though they envisioned making an annual trek to the CIS playdowns, Bailey and company actually fell short in back to back years before closing out with two more visits to nationals in his final two years as a Voyageur.
For as much as his time there was special, it was certainly not perfect.
“I’m not saying in the five years that we never fought or had arguments,” Bailey said with a laugh. “You might be pissed off at Coach during practice, but it was so easy to talk to him after. You were always able to have an open dialogue with him.”
“He was literally like a second father to a lot of us, especially those of us that came from further away.”
Understandably, Bailey has trouble reconciling the heart-felt visions of his time at L.U. with all that is currently challenging the campus he once called home. “When we got here, it was such a supportive community,” he said. “People were so friendly, so down to earth.”
“When I was there, the registrar used to come to our games; most of our professors would come to our games; everyone viewed it as Laurentian. Now, there seems to be a separation. I run a business, and to me, that’s like my hostesses not helping out the servers. You can’t run a business that way.”
And you most certainly cannot, if the end goal, in part, is to create a little bit of magic for all those involved.