Coach’s biography a slam dunk

Mike Boone, The Gazette

Published: Friday, December 15 2006

If everyone who loved Jack Donohue buys a copy of Dream Big Dreams, the biography will be a bestseller. And the second printing that Donohue’s biographer, Mike Hickey, is hoping for will be – to coin an appropriate cliche – a slam dunk.

Hickey coaches the women’s basketball team at Champlain College in Lennoxville.
A former coach at Sir George Williams University and Concordia University, Hickey is a disciple of Donohue, who coached Canada’s national men’s basketball team from 1972 to 1988.

Full disclosure: Hickey is a friend of mine. His brother, Pat, gave me my first job in journalism and I got to know Mike when I covered university basketball for the Montreal Star. After we figured out, in short order, that we were fellow anarchic spirits, locker-room interviews blossomed into late-night discussions in downtown saloons.
Hickey was a delightful drinking buddy until a few bumps in the road put him on the wagon.

Hickey attended “an Irish wake, minus the booze” in Ottawa after Donohue had succumbed to cancer two days before Good Friday 2003.

“I left the church,” he recalls, “and decided right there I was writing a book.”
Hickey talked to Donohue’s widow, Mary Jane, about his idea.
She was enthusiastic and promised full access to the family (the couple had six children) and to Donohue’s papers, which took a while to sort out.
“Jack was a pack rat,” Hickey says. “The guy made thousands of dollars giving motivational speeches on organization, and his own stuff was a mess.
“It was a gold mine. But there was no order to it.”

Wringing order out of the chaos, Hickey plumbed the motherlode and began talking to more than 100 of Donohue’s friends, colleagues and former players – including the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was Lew Alcindor when Donohue coached him at Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan.

Like everyone who played for Jack Donohue, Abdul-Jabbar had fond memories of a coach whose influence transcended basketball. In addition to man-to-man defence, Donohue – who had a master’s degree in education – taught Life 101.
He was a great wit, a masterful raconteur, a relentless dispenser of bonhomie.
Telling the life story of a New York City Irishman, right out of Central Casting, became a labour of love.Hickey, an Irishman from Long Island, wrote the manuscript in six months and then spent two years vainly pursuing a book deal.

“Everyone I talked to thought a biography of Jack was a great idea,” he says. “But none of those people were publishers. I ended up with some great rejection letters from people who said, ‘We love what you’ve done, but it doesn’t fit our niche.’ ”
After “going to the dictionary to find out what ‘niche’ means,” Hickey ended up publishing the book himself. He’s printed 3,000 copies and is trying – thus far in vain – to get Dream Big Dreams: the Jack Donohue Story on to the shelves of major book chains.

For now, it’s available at Nicholas Hoare on Greene Ave. and at the Concordia bookstore. The book costs $25 and can also be ordered online at the website http://www.dreambigdreams.ca


Balancing Jack’s legacy

By The Ottawa Citizen

December 14, 2006

Mike Hickey had just paid his respects to one of the greatest men he had ever met and, while driving away from St. Isidore’s Roman Catholic Church, south down March Road that April afternoon in 2003, he turned to his brother, Pat, and said, “I am going to write a book.” His brother, the writer in the family, asked just what he would be writing about and Mike replied simply: “Jack.”

A short three-and-a-half years later, the grand life of John Patrick “Jack” Donohue is immortalized in Dream Big Dreams, a wonderful tale of the American who became as Canadian as anyone ever born here and put basketball on the sporting map in this country while leaving a lasting impression on everyone with whom he ever connected.

The title of the book is an offshoot of one of two beliefs Donohue took from his father, John Joseph, who told him early on: “If it is important enough to you, shoot for the moon and if you come up short, you’re still in the stars.”
“Jack Donohue did a lot for me and he deserved that I do the best I could for him,” says Hickey, himself a career coach who crossed the path of Donohue on many occasions, even living with the family in Kanata for a short time in 1997. “It helped that I knew him very well.

“But I took his black book. It had perhaps 400 names and phone numbers in it. And I took about 50 and started calling them, one name a night. And sometimes I might call them back two or three times. What I got was wonderful stories.

“People loved Jack. I think, if anything, because he became so powerful as a speaker, that might be his legacy to many. To some, maybe his coaching career is downplayed. I hope this book helps balance that.”

Hickey, who grew up on Long Island watching a young Donohue coaching Lew Alcindor at Power Memorial High School in New York City, pitched the book to Donohue’s widow, May Jane, about a month after Donohue’s passing.

Her endorsement of the project provided Hickey with limitless access to family and friends, allowing the author to dig deep and take readers on a sometimes humorous, often passionate, thoroughly insightful look at Donohue’s life from childhood days in Yonkers to his young adult life when he shunned a goal of becoming a doctor to finding something he was truly passionate about — coaching.

The story develops as Donohue realizes one of his goals by becoming a head coach at Power Memorial by age 30. He would coach basketball in winter and baseball in summer, then branched out to begin a basketball camp in the Catskills.
The book mixes in Donohue’s personal life, which is almost interchangeable with his coaching. After all, Donohue’s greatest achievement is raising six children over a 40-year marriage. Second was making an entire country believe it could compete with the best in the world on the hardcourt.

By Chapter 13, the book has Donohue finally coming to Canada, and it’s quite a story.
At the time, Donohue appeared headed to coach a college in Florida when a friend dropped an ad for the Canadian national team on his desk at Holy Cross. Donohue took a flyer and applied.

How he finally got the job, however, is pure Donohue. As the story is told, someone from Canada called to ask him to come in for a job interview. He, in turn, asked how many they were interviewing. Told that it would be between 20 and 25, Donohue told the person to call back when they had the list down to four or five. He figured that was the last he would ever hear of Canadian basketball.

Instead, the Donohues were house-hunting near the Florida Institute of Technology when Donohue took the call that the Canadian national team job was his — if he wanted it. And when he finally announced “we are moving to Canada,” he caught his wife off-guard. She thought Canada was a small town in the U.S.
He said,
“I am going to coach the Canadian national team. It’s a country above Maine.”
The story gets even better with Mary Jane’s first trip to Ottawa to find a house, only to have her bags misplaced at the Ottawa airport. Customs officials asked her where her bags should be sent.
“To the Shadow,” said Mrs. Donohue.
“The what?”
“The Shadow, the hotel where we are staying.”
Fortunately, the alert customs official ascertained the Donohues were indeed staying at the Chateau Laurier.

The book evolves around the highs and lows in building a national program, of becoming medal contenders and riveting a country in 1976 at the Montreal Olympics, of winning gold in Edmonton in 1983 at the World University Games, and sometimes of not always getting where they wanted to go. Nonetheless, the sport of basketball in Canada always won because of Donohue’s influence.

It’s not easy telling the story of one of the all-time great storytellers.
Hickey had plenty of help in putting together 71-plus years of a life well lived.
But the family granted him full access to a “cluttered” garage and basement, both filled with things Donohue had saved. Newspaper clippings from his first days coaching high school right through to his days on the world stage and even later. Letters from people he corresponded with, people such as former prime minister Brian Mulroney, with whom Donohue would exchange letters once or twice a year.

Old tapes from a television series of which Donohue was host, about Canadian legends in sports. Notes he had made to himself over the years. Old newspaper columns he had written. It was almost as if Donohue was giving Hickey one final bit of assistance in making sure he got things right in the book. The most compelling chapters deal with Donohue’s final days, trying to find comfort at home in Kanata as his time wound down. “Some said take that stuff out,” said Hickey. “I felt it spoke of who he was.”
Once the book was complete, Hickey met with frustration in trying to pitch it to publishers.

Most publishing houses said it didn’t fit with what they were trying to do. One potential publisher said he could do 1,000 copies if Hickey reduced it to 200 pages. He said no and he skimped and raised enough money to get it completed, edited and self-published. Ann Anderson, wife of former Carleton Ravens standout Paul Armstrong, and Maya Prpic helped with the editing. Others contributed any way they could.

Dream Big Dreams is available online at http://www.dreambigdreams.ca, Britton’s in the Glebe and in Westboro and Leishman Books at Westgate .
© (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.