Beyond the court

Photo by Justine Chiu

Roy Rana has coached the Ryerson men’s basketball team since 2009. His list of accomplishments stretches long – in this year alone, he led the Rams to qualify for their first OUA Finals since 1998-99, and guided the junior men’s National Team to win bronze at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship. Still, most know little of the man behind the whiteboard.

[I]t’s about 30 seconds into the first game of the Ryerson Rams’ 2012-2013 preseason and Oklahoma’s Tulsa Golden Hurricane has already scored the first two points. Ryerson coach Roy Rana sits calmly with a bit of a hunch on his padded blue fold-up chair. His facial expression remains constant. Ryerson receives their first foul and Rana scolds, telling the player to keep his hands down. His team had an excellent season last year, making it to the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championships, competing in front of vast crowds in Ottawa against the number one nationally ranked Carleton Ravens, then —for the first time since 1999— moving on to the National CIS Final 8 in Halifax. However, today it seems this expert team has gotten off to a rough start. Rana has a look of irritation, but remains calm nevertheless. This serene attitude is something that he carries into his regular day-to-day life.

“It’s pretty low key for me,” he says of his life outside of coaching. His partying days are over and at the moment it’s all about making the most of the city he has always lived in with his kids, Shekher and Priya, and his wife, Stephanie. He describes himself and his wife as “city people”, doing the things that regular downtown couples gravitate towards; dinners, walks and cafe lounging. Homework assignments, trips to the parks and school parent council meetings are also regular elements of his routine outside of the gym. He is a family man when he isn’t coaching, but even when he is his kids are often there on the bleachers cheering on dad’s team. Both of them have been interested in hockey but are beginning to give basketball a shot. Is this a result of Rana’s influence? He says they are regularly at practices and immersed in the sport anyways that their interest isn’t a surprise. They both know the team members well.

He may have an intense training regime for the group of university athletes but during the off-season this summer, he relaxed in Toronto, enjoying his down time and managing to do a significant amount of reading—something he loves but doesn’t often have time for as he is so devoted to basketball. Some days he spends 12 to 14 hours on Ryerson’s campus working and coaching. His friends have had their ears talked off about the team during coffee dates on Dupont Street, while Rana sips an espresso detailing the team’s latest victory.

The word “team” does not only apply to the times of try-outs, drills and training. He and the athletes have been out for dinners, movies and even to his house. “To be honest this is an obsession, not a job where you work eight hours and then you go home and you can separate it,” he says trailing off. After a thoughtful pause he speaks again. “It can be challenging, that’s for sure.”

He’s not exaggerating. Though they were successful last year, the Rams have certainly had their downfalls. Over the past two years they’ve had more than their fair share of injuries—in fact, they became Canada’s most injured university basketball team, according to Rana. One of their most talented athletes, a transfer from Sheridan College, had an ankle fraction last September that was so bad he is only getting back in the game now. As for the other injuries, he lists them: Broken hand. Broken foot. Broken wrist. He notes that these are “freak accidents” and not usual injuries in basketball such as pulled hamstrings or injuries from overuse.

“It’s depressing,” he says. “It’s hard to see young people go through that. My heart goes out to those kids.”

While Rana says players did acknowledge the low points and felt discouraged at times, they never lost hope. One-on-one coaching time played a role in keeping their spirits up during the bad times.

Last season, bad times extended beyond plentiful injuries. The Rams also lost a lot of games early on in the season, which Rana insists only gave them motivation to improve more later. “You want to be your best in February, March and if you’re losing games in November, December, that’s just part of the process.”

This continuous improvement is a process involving intense practices and outside sources like watching videos and seeing their strength and conditioning coach. It can all be demanding not only physically, but also mentally. Every drill is to be done as close to perfect as possible.

The stress of it all might be comparable to midterms or final papers for most other university students but it can’t be forgotten that these 20-somethings bear that burden too. How does a full time student manage to train on a sports team at this high of a level? It’s an intricate mixture of mandatory study hall sessions, stress management and expert scheduling. The study hall sessions alone must be attended by each athlete for certain number of hours per week regardless of GPA. A missed study hall is an offense that Rana takes seriously and is often seen as worse than even missing basketball practice. In the case of an ultimatum between academics and athletics, Rana explains that academics come first and that he always tries to be understanding when one of the young men has to miss out on training in order to complete a hefty final assignment or study for an important exam. Even his scheduling of practices – what times they take place at,how long they are and how hard they are—all revolve around their student life as much as possible. “It’s not an easy thing being a university athlete. It takes a lot of time and effort from an athlete’s standpoint. They are very special people,” says Rana.

When it comes down to the game and all the preparation and conditioning, the athletes are never doing it by themselves. The high points, the low points, and the route to getting to where they want to go are all part of the stress and excitement that the coach shares with them every step of the way.

Rana is used to experiencing the game from a coach’s perspective. Before Ryerson, he spent years as a high school coach. “I loved every minute of it,” he said. He began coaching CW Jefferys Collegiate Institute in 1995 and coached at Eastern Commerce starting in 2000 for nine years. He saw a lot of his guys receive recruitment letters from the country’s universities with the most skilled basketball players. Some received scholarships from athletic universities in the U.S. as well. He reflects on his pre-game emotions back when he was a high school coach at one of Toronto’s basketball powerhouses and says that he was always nervous before the boys went out onto the courts.

When asked how he feels now when the Rams step out onto a court with crowds as large as they were this past season in Ottawa, he says “There’s certainly a level of excitement. You want to get out there and get going.” The passion is obvious in his voice. After a pause, he thoughtfully adds, “I’d say it’s really a level of excitement more so than nerves.”
Back at the new Mattamy Athletic Centre, at the pre-season game Rana speaks in staccato sentences. “Go! Go!”, “Hurry up!”, “Block, block block!” When he corrects his players he gives them two quick claps.

These are essentially the same players that he brought to Halifax last year, minus a few and plus five. This equals an overall physically stronger team he thinks. Ostap Choilly and Yannick Walcott have transferred to Ryerson just this year. Matthew Beckford, Kyle Hankins, and Juwon Grannum are the fit guys fresh out of high school who he has been wooing to our downtown campus for years. The recruitment process takes time. New talent doesn’t just show up out of the blue. The kids never have to make the first move when universities are attending competitions and browsing results just to discover them. Rana would know, he’s the one sending the recruitment letters now.

A rubber ball whips onto the gymnasium floor creating an echo as Nike sneakers squeak their way across the court. From the sidelines of the Ryerson-Tulsa game, with his arms crossed in front of him, you can see that Rana is the only coach who gets up and paces, following the play.