For The Thrill Of It: How the Sound of Summer spends winter

Will Hill
12/4/2009 10:23:28 AM
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Walking into the gym, you hear the voice. Even over the squeaking shoes and bouncing balls of pre-game lay-up lines, you can still make it out and recognize it.

And why not? For nearly three full decades now, you've heard that voice while driving in your car, working in the garage, sitting in the backyard at home or out on the dock at the cottage or anywhere else your radio picks up the call of the Jays' game.

But it's different here. When the game gets underway, he's not calling balls and strikes, but calling instead for his kids to move the ball on offence. And the defence here isn't set at 'double play depth', but rather in a trapping 1-3-1 zone. This is how the Sound of Summer spends his winter. Broadcasting great Jerry Howarth, having just completed his 28th year as the Voice of the Blue Jays, is on this day tipping off his 13th season as coach of the Rams. That would be the Rams junior boys high school basketball team from Etobicoke Collegiate Institute.

"The Blue Jays keep me young, but these kids keep me young too, they really do," says coach Howarth of his team, made up of students from the Grade 9 and 10 classes from the school on the city's west side. "This is one of our better teams I can recall. We have kids representing 14 different countries, so it's a very strong reflection of multi-cultural Toronto."

As the game moves quickly through the first half, you begin to realize these Rams also provide a strong reflection of their coach. Thinking of how best to describe their style of play, you realize you're hitting upon the same words you'd use to describe Howarth as a broadcaster. Hard-working. Prepared. Smart. Disciplined. Calm. Efficient. Selfless.

There's certainly no look-at-me chest-thumping or jersey-popping theatrics with these Rams, like you see so often these days in the NBA. The two biggest cheers from the Rams' own bench are reserved for a pair of teammates that each stand their ground in the face of onrushing opponents. They are both sent sprawling to the floor, but draw the charge, possession of the ball and the approval of their teammates and coach. The Rams build a 13-point lead at the break.

Watching from the court side stands is Paul Dias, the coach of E.C.I.'s senior boys team. A long-time friend to Howarth, he is asked if the students on the junior squad know about their coach's "other job" or properly understand just how famous he is across Canada. Taking a quick look across the court at the Rams bench, he says, "I'd say about half of these kids know." Then with a shrug and a smile, he adds, "But Jerry is Jerry...." He doesn't need to say anymore than that. Anyone who knows the self-effacing Howarth knows the last thing he'd ever do is draw attention to himself or his celebrated broadcasting credentials.

Howarth barely draws attention to himself here. While some basketball coaches are known to prowl up and down the sideline, he spends much of the game sitting quietly in a plastic chair just to the left of his team bench. Instead of barking at the referees, he quietly leans in to exchange a few words with his own players before running them down to the scorer's table to sub in with a quick nod and a pat on the back. During timeouts, he doesn't ever yell or carry on. For goodness sake, he even carries the bag of balls and water bottles to and from the locker room himself, instead of getting a first-year player to do it. In short, he doesn't make a big deal of himself on the court at all, even though, as a likely future candidate for Baseball's Hall of Fame, he absolutely is a pretty big deal away from it.

"I think some of the kids know [of my background], but day one when we end practice by running sprints, well then I'm just coach," says Howarth with a laugh. "Within a short time, they just come to know me as Jerry, the coach at Etobicoke Collegiate, and I like it like that."

15-year-old Abass Ahmed is the starting centre on this year's team. He freely admits that when he showed up to play basketball he had no clue his coach was one of Canada's most beloved broadcasters. Standing well over six feet tall, the youngster already towers over his coach. But, it's clear that doesn't stop the Grade 10 student from looking up to Howarth.

"He has a lot of patience," says Ahmed. "He's kind and so dedicated to what he does for us. He really pushes us to always do the very best we can and I think that's what helps us most."

As the game moves into the second half, Ahmed shows a deft touch around the basket and a natural ability to block shots and rebound effectively. He plays an important role for the Rams as they hold off a furious fourth quarter run to beat the visiting George Harvey Hawks by two points. None of this is mentioned by Howarth when he happily greets Ahmed's parents outside the locker room after the game. Instead, he talks glowingly of the young man's great report card and of his polite and respectful nature. From their smiles, you can see this means far more to the parents than any of the totals their son posted in the game's box score.

You can also tell it means something to Howarth. It has to. This is a man who spends seven months of the year (eight, if you're lucky enough to make the playoffs) following the Blue Jays pursuits on a daily basis. He lives out of suitcases, subsists on press box food, hops on one plane after another and puts in especially long hours at the office (even if that office happens to be a ballpark that others have paid handsomely to enter). No one would ever fault him, if he took some time off in these winter months. It is called the off-season, after all. And yet, every October he tells you he's drawn back here, lured by the promise of what he calls a "blank slate" -- a fresh crop of kids to work with in a brand new basketball season.

"Here I get to mentor kids," says Howarth. "I tell them, you can do anything you want in life. Just have fun playing basketball with our team, then go and get your diploma or degree and then go follow your heart and do whatever you want. Having those kids come back years later and saying 'Hey coach, I'm in college' or 'I got my university degree' or 'coach I'm in broadcasting' or accounting or whatever it happens to be, that's very fulfilling for me."

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