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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Basketball, an Island, and a Volcano: My Journey to the Caribbean.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell this story. After all, it happened a long time ago and a lot of people have heard at least parts of it. Still, it is sports related and it has never been written down. So, I thought it might be of some interest and worth hearing. Plus, I have to admit that it’s a pretty incredible story. It’s very long, so grab an adult beverage and relax. Hopefully you'll enjoy it.

See that picture? Hours before that volcano blew I was standing at its edge with my Caribbean basketball players, peering down into it. Got your attention? Good. Let’s backtrack . . .

It all started almost 14-years ago at the University of Maryland, where I was working at Gary William’s Basketball Camp. At the camp I’d become acquainted with an international coach who had worked in several countries, including a stint as the Greek National coach. He’d also been the National Coach of a tiny island in the Caribbean. The country’s name was Montserrat. I’d never heard of Montserrat at the time, but that would soon change.

A few months later, in the early spring of 1995, I got a call. On the line was a gentleman with a distinct British accent. He informed me that he was a businessman from Montserrat who also happened to be a supporter of their national basketball team. He’d been given my name by the coach previously mentioned, and he informed me that said coach had stepped down and Montserrat was looking for somebody new to train their team. Would I be interested? After getting some details (paid fare to the Caribbean, free lodging and meals, an island in a tropical paradise) I agreed. Hey, I'm not stupid. At the time I had no misgivings. It wasn’t until later that I started to second guess myself, but by then it was too late.

Doing some research, I found that Montserrat was in the British West Indies, w-a-y down in the Caribbean. It's a tiny island 12 miles long and 7 miles wide that happens to have a volcano in the middle of it. Really, it’s just the tip of a mountain sticking out of the ocean. The elevation goes from the Caribbean Sea (0’) to the top of the volcano (over 3000’). So, imagine if you will a location you’re familiar with 12-miles from your house at 0’ elevation. Imagine yourself standing at your house, also at 0’ elevation. Now imagine a 3000’ volcano between you and that location. Got a visual now?

The departure date arrived, and we were ready to go. Marianne was along for the adventure, basically trusting that I knew what I was doing (not always a wise move). We had a flight to Miami, then boarded a British West Indies flight to Antigua. Antigua had a cool little open air airport which we liked a lot. After an enjoyable layover there, we were ready for the final leg of our trip. The flight from Antigua to Montserrat was, shall we say, a little more of an adventure. The plane was the kind with the big propellers, it was full, and to say we stood out in the crowd would be a huge understatement. There were lots of stares and whispering. We were the last ones to board, and we were in the very back of the plane. It didn’t help our confidence when the pilot was putting our bags in the plane. He was jamming them in a hatch just below and outside the door, and we could clearly see him. The door kept popping open and our bags kept falling onto the tarmac. Finally, he got the door to stay shut. All I could think about on the flight was our bags plummeting into the Caribbean Sea. That and the fact that I'd never been on a plane with goats and chickens before.

Little did I know the excitement was just beginning. The short flight nearly over, we saw the little island quickly approaching. The only problem I could see was the fact that we were heading directly for some huge cliffs that ran along the beach. I was to find out later that the runway was near the beach, and in order to land the pilots had to fly directly towards the cliffs, make a hard turn at the last second, and swoop down on the runway. Nice of them to warn us. I was a nanosecond away from screaming like a 9-year old girl at a Jonas Brothers concert.

Having landed safely (and finding our bags were still with us), we set out to find our contact at the airport. The problem was, the only people around were several soldiers in jeeps with rifles slung over their shoulders. That, as you might imagine, didn't exactly settle our nerves. We were directed to customs, where we were then met by a decidedly unfriendly soldier who seemed pretty sure we were nefarious evil-doers determined to destroy the island and all who inhabited it. Seriously, the cat was picking through our bags like he was on a mission. I half expected the guy to pull out a bag of planted hashish, smile, and say, “Ah, what have we here?”

Luckily, a phone rang and the man picked it up. He looked at me and said, “Coach Shoe?” After jamming my heart back down my throat I said that I was indeed Coach Shoe. At that point all was forgiven, our belongings were hastily jammed back into our luggage, and we were off. It seems our van had arrived. Hell, they even threw in an official Montserrat National Driver’s License for me to boot. We were feeling much better.

It didn't last.

The ride from the airport to what turned out to be our condo was uneventful, if you consider a 5-mile journey at night on a narrow 2-lane dirt road around the side of a volcano and through a rainforest with 20-foot high elephant ear plants uneventful. At that point I begin to wonder what I had gotten us into. After all, all the arrangements had been made by phone, I knew absolutely nobody there, and we were on a tiny island over 2000 miles from home. Hey, I'd seen The Island of Dr. Moreau. Lucky for me I didn’t think about it much. My mind was on the fact that Marianne was squeezing my arm so hard I’d lost all feeling on the right side of my body.

It turns out that the people of Montserrat couldn’t have been nicer. The accomodations were fine. Yeah, we had geckos running up the walls, but as our condo manager told Marianne, "Honey, if you have geckos you won't have the bad animals in there." Wait. What? We thought it better not to ask.

We ate in the best local restaurants and were treated like celebrities. When we walked into a restaurant everybody knew who we were, and we ate exotic foods like Giant Tree Frogs and Goat Soup. Lots of goats in Montserrat by the way, and I must say they’re tasty. The fruits were incredible. We asked for mangoes once and the waiter just went outside and picked a few off a tree. Same thing for cashews. Who knew that cashews were the stems of a fruit that grew on a tree? Not I. There was also a very popular drink that the island folk kept giving us. It was a Rum Punch that was very good but was, uh, surprisingly strong, and people kept sending them to us. Let’s just say that you’ve never lived until you’ve had a few Montserrat Rum Punches, jumped behind the right-hand side steering wheel of your loaner car, and headed down the left-hand side of a curvy jungle mountain road. I must say it was a cross between exhilaration and horror, kinda like the plane ride over.

After a day or two of checking out the island, I finally got around to having my first practice. The court was outside, and when I first arrived there was an animal lying at mid-court. A big animal. It was some sort of a water buffalo type beast with big horns. I cautiously walked over to the wooden bleachers, eyeing it warily all the while. I was pretty much expecting it to get up, paw the ground, and make its charge. Finally a kid, probably 10-years old, wandered over and stood looking at me. I told him who I was and asked if he had any suggestions on moving Babe the Blue Ox from the court. He promptly picked up a stick, walked over, and essentially made so much racket the animal got up and lumbered off, but not before taking a huge dump right in the jump circle. Being a regular jack-of all-trades, the kid grabbed a piece of cardboard and cleaned that up too.
Here’s what I learned that day:
  • Montserratians don’t care about, and have no sense of, time. Practice was to start at 5:00 P.M. and guys started showing up at 5:20 P.M. The last guys to arrive got there at 6:05 P.M. As one of them informed me, “Relax. You’re on island time now, coach.”
  • There was only one basketball on the island. Seriously. Later on I sent a bunch of balls down, but during my time we had just the one. I told the kid who owned it to not let the buffalo step on it.
  • The guys were intelligent and could flat-out play. Of the 20 or so guys who showed up at that first practice, probably 15 could dunk. Another surprise was this – I’d sent an offense down a few weeks in advance. I asked the team if they’d had a chance to look it over and they promptly snapped through it like they’d been doing it for years. I couldn't believe it.
Over the next couple of weeks I trained the team during the day. At one point the local TV crew came to film us and interview me for the news, and I was excited to watch that night. I figured we were pretty big news on the island. But as it turned out there was another, more important story that led the news. It was a segment about a woman who’d come to Montserrat to teach the locals how to tie-dye T-Shirts.

We’d been to the only real city on the island a few times, the capitol city of Plymouth. It was a quaint little town with lots of shops and small local restaurants. No McDonald’s or anything here, and the only beer you could buy was a brand called Carib. Every Saturday farmers would come to town from around the island to sell whatever they grew on their small farms. We have plenty of great memories of just walking the streets of Plymouth.

Every so often, you could hear a faint rumbling coming from the volcano. I would usually glance up at it, and at one point one of my players must have noticed the look on my face and said, “Don’t worry Coach, it’s been doing that for hundreds of years.” Indeed, the volcano hadn’t erupted in recorded history. I just smiled and nodded . . . but I kept looking.

We were to leave the island on a Monday, but due to a change in plans we decided to fly out on the Friday before. That Thursday the guys asked if I would be interested in taking a hike up to the top of the volcano. I said sure, and Marianne agreed to go along. It was a long hike. On the way we saw all sorts of beautiful tropical vegetation. I remember rounding a corner and seeing a really big Iguana lying there, but one of the guys clapped his hands and it slithered away into the underbrush. Along the way there was a beautiful waterfall where we stopped and took some pictures. We finally made the top, and to be honest, it was a little disappointing. No boiling, spouting molten lava to be seen. Just some steam and a strong smell of sulphur. We sort of peered down in for minute or two, looked at each other, and turned around and left.

The next day we departed, and by Monday we were in the Outer Banks. That afternoon, we got a call from a friend. She said, “Boy, you got out of there just in time, huh?” Excuse me? She then informed us that the volcano had erupted on Montserrat. It wasn’t until we bought a USA Today and read the story that we believed it was true. The volcano had begun erupting on July 12th, less than 36-hours after we had departed Montserrat. It would eventually bury the capitol of Plymouth in 39-feet of mud, destroy the airport and docking facilities, and render the southern 2/3 of the island uninhabitable. The basketball court? Long gone. The volcano would continue to erupt through the 90’s and took the lives of 19-people. Almost 3/4 of the people of Montserrat ended up relocating to other countries, and the beautiful island has never been the same.

I read that the people of Montserrat are trying admirably to restore their tropical paradise to its former state, but the volcano, though dormant again, is still there.

When we were in Montserrat during that unbelievable summer of 1995, one of our guides took us to small stream called Runaway Ghaut. Legend had it that anyone taking a drink from the stream would be destined to return to Montserrat. Marianne and I both took a drink, hoping the legend would prove true.

We’re still hoping.

7 comments:

  1. Hey Coach Shoe great story, great memories working with you and hope we can both go back to Montserrat and meet some of the wonderful people and some of the same basketball players who you worked with and coached in Boston. I am working on getting you back their so keep hoping and praying everything works well...
    Mackie

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  2. How did you manage to set the detenators without all those basketball players seeing you?

    Great story - "nefarious evil-doers" - yeah, that sounds like you two.
    Question - have you seen Marianne since?

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  3. Incredible story. Have you been in contact with any of the people there recently?

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  4. I'm still in contact with Beresford Mack, who left the first message to this post. Hopefully I can get back down there some day.

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  5. Incredible story about the volcano on Montserrat. Just incredible.

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  6. I was there Coach! I was very small but I remember watching you guys practice that summer. My grandfather was later killed on the side of the mountain. Our isand has never been the same.

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  7. This is a great story. I'm just about to visit the *other* Montserrat (a mountain in Spain), but I always wondered what the island was like. I guess I'll never get to know, unless the volcano stops and they build houses on top of the mud. Or they dig out Plymouth and move the mud elsewhere. I wonder how big the island will be when the volcano stops? It could become an entirely new continent.

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Man, that chick beside me is smokin'.

Imagine waking up and seeing this on ESPN. I look like I'm having a stroke back there. Good Lord.

Imagine waking up and seeing this on ESPN. I look like I'm having a stroke back there. Good Lord.

3:30 AM, after the Louisville game.

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