Perhaps, in this wide world of sports fanatics, there are people willing to sit down at a kitchen table and talk basketball…nothing else…for six hours. But add to the fact that the subject is Canadian basketball and those numbers will dwindle drastically. The late Jack Donohue was one such willing individual. It was 20 years ago, nearly to the month, that this scribe had the opportunity to go one-on-one with the legendary Canadian icon.
Coach Donohue would spend three more years as head coach of our senior men’s national team before calling it quits in 1988. The 17 years spent at the helm would, to this day, find him in the history books as the longest-serving head coach in amateur or professional sports in Canada. And now I had him to myself for six straight hours in my kitchen. He was killing time before one of his many speaking engagements.
We had met a few times prior to this date. Once in the role of coach-to-player and a few more times as coach-to-reporter. Brief conversations with no real personal value to either of us. But it would be during those six hours – and later conversations and meetings – that the discovery was made that Donohue was more than basketball. More than wins and losses. He was first and foremost a family man. He was always the first request for speaking engagements. He motivated. He laughed. He loved. Although born south of the border, he was a true “Canadian” right up until his final breath before passing away April 16, 2003 at the age of 70.
Sitting over coffees and toast, he admitted that when he arrived in Canada in 1972 he was not too sure how long he was going to stay. “When I came here in 1972, I don’t know how I felt, but I know I was ignorant of what was going on,” recalled Donohue. “I didn’t know the problems that were here. But we, by that I mean mainly the national team, were just in the infancy stages. But credit has to be given to the people who kept basketball alive through the 1960s and 70s’ because obviously the winning wasn’t there and there wasn’t great government support; the things that usually keep you going strong.”
Another sip of coffee.
“There wasn’t overall interest in the national program, so basically without these people who kept basketball alive there would have been no 1975 when we first beat the Soviet Union. Basketball was not allowed to go out of style. When I got here there were so many factors that happened and we were lucky.” Although he was of Irish decent, “Luck” had little to do with Donohue’s success in the world of round ball. “Hard work” is more to the liking. A solid work ethic that started way back.
His initial touch with fame came in the early 1960s’ when a 14-year-old by the name of Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. decided to enroll his 6-foot-9 frame at New York’s Power Memorial High School. Now don’t get me wrong, Donohue wasn’t some flunky coach waiting for a miracle to come along. He had been turning out winning teams at Power Memorial, a Catholic school in midtown Manhattan, for several years. In fact, he had won the New York City Catholic School League even before he had ever heard of or laid eyes on Alcindor. Donohue had produced countless players for a higher education in college or university hoops.
Despite his record, no one outside of the Big Apple really knew of his exploits. All that would change with the arrival of Alcindor. We could fill several pages with the accomplishments of Donohue with Alcindor in the pivot, but to save you the time, I’ll simply tell you this – it would be a few years later, while in the pro ranks – that Alcindor would change his handle to Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. Donohue recalled his early days with young Ferdinand.
“It was super to coach him. You have to remember he was only 15 or 16 years-of-age at the time and he worked so hard and there were so many good things. Everyone knew that he was going to be very big. He wasn’t a good player then, he was just a big kid and he wanted to play. “He didn’t have a big head and he was determined to work. He was very proud that he had these talents although they weren’t developed yet. But he was willing to work. He was just learning to play the game at the time. And I’d have to say that he would be the most gifted player I have ever coached.”
Following a stint in the college ranks (Holy Cross 1965-72), Donohue grabbed hold of his chalk and whistle and made the trek north of the 49th parallel. “Don-a-who?” was the question of Canadian hoopsters on the rebound. The challenge was on for Donohue and he approached it with the tenacity of a 5-foot-6 guard rebounding against a 6-foot-10 power forward. “When I came here in ‘72, I’m not even sure the national team was a factor then because it wasn’t publicized,” recalls Donohue. “Very few people realized how they would even get to the national team.”
With his dedication to the national program all that changed and the national team became “solidified” and “was now competitive in almost every tournament they got into.” Donohue believed that basketball was an easy sell, “It’s so easy for people to get into basketball. We have a gym in every school and that’s all you need to get the kids interested. I think the real future of basketball in Canada is in the coaching association.”
Of his own coaching legacy Donohue had this to say in later years.
“My coaching? I want to be known just as a guy who did his job. I have no great aspirations. When you finish coaching you finish coaching. But I would hate to have someone think I never did my job well. The thing is that I always have this idea that if I get arrested for being a professional basketball coach, I just want to make sure they have a lot of evidence. “And when the evidence is laid upon the table, the key item, would have to be the “Miracle on Hardwood’” staged 1983 in Edmonton.
“It had a tremendous impact,” said Donohue of Canada’s gold medal performance at the 1983 World University Games (Universaide). “It really got the attention of the public more than anything else that happened in basketball prior to that.” “It’s something I’ll never forget. It was like the birth of my first daughter. When she was born I held her in my arms when she was 30 seconds old; I’ll never forget that. It (the win) was great and wonderful.”
The 1983 World University Games, of which this writer had the opportunity to be involved in, would finally start the fast break to national attention. Fittingly enough, although Donohue never knew it until years later, the lady who escorted the gold winning Canadian team to the pressroom was none other than the grand-daughter of Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian and the inventor of basketball. So who knows? Maybe the good doctor was there all the time, lending a guiding hand.
Donohue was head coach of the Canadian men’s basketball team for 17 years and was the longest-serving head coach in amateur or professional sports in Canada. He coached at the Olympics four times and won the gold medal at the 1983 World University Games in Edmonton. He led the Canadian basketball team to a fourth-place finish at the 1976 and 1984 Olympics. He was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame, retired from coaching in 1988 and entered the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.