Friday, December 10, 2010

The Cold War Is Over

It has been about 4 years (may have been 40 years) since Arif Hussai and Ali Mirza last stepped on the court together at our Lake Success LA Fitness club. They are two native Pakistanians with an absolute passion for squash. I have become friends with both of them and they both have impressed me with their passion for the game and their resolve to get better and help make lesser players better. All roads lead through them for beginner/intermediate players, except over the last four years there's been a fork in the road: Arif one way and Ali the other way. No one knows for sure what happened between the two of them to cause this "cold war"; legend has it some business deal gone awry, others say it was a series of bad let calls during a match...who knows for sure, these kind of things have a way of evolving to the point where no one knows for sure why there's even a feud.

But the wall between the two was impenetrable. During round robin play last year when I tried to get the two of them on court none would have any part in it. At one point when one referee'd the other's match, over a call, a confrontation ensued and we had to spearate the two.

But these two older squash gladiators are remarkable in their own right. Ali Mirza is a lesson in intensity and never ever give up on a point. He is also a master of the mind game and frequently gets inside the heads of his opponents causing them to fluster and make mistakes. He'll take it as much as he'll dish it out. He will admit that he's had little formal training with squash, so his technique and style are awkward, but he makes up for it in tenancity and a fierce competitive spirit. Sometimes that fierceness rubs players the wrong way. He can be agressive and pushy on the court, but outside the court he exudes a charm and confidence that is different from the chip he has on his squash shoulders.

Arif, is a gentleman on and off the court but very wily. Many of the younger players hate playing him because in his back court posture he will nick any ball not tightly served up to him. The points are short, he aims to win without to much exertion. The younger players try harder than ever to get the ball past him, but with his great hands, he just routinely dumps the ball into the front court nick. When one of the younger players moves him away from the T, or from his post in the back, when behind in the score he'll push hard to play it back. When winning, he won't bother to try. Conserve energy and movement, don't tire yourself out. Frustrate the opponent and with the nicest smile and demeanor smile slightly after every front court nick.

During a Muslem holdiay a couple of weeks back, Arif, as he tells me decides to end this cold war. He's very philosphical about it. It was a good time to end the "war" and get on court together. So one day he came to the club and saw Ali at the courts; Arif gently patted him on the back and said hello. Quite a gesture to which Ali, according to sources, nodded hello in approval. Later that evening they came onto the court to hit around for the first time in a very long time.

Last night I watched them play a very good match, two old squash warriors renewing their battle on court. The squash was fun to watch as Arif moved Ali all around but Ali was game, and seemed to get to everything and retrieve it well. It was cause for celebration, believe me, it took a lot for these two to put their differences behind them, forgive and forget, and simply just play squash.

I hope to see these guys on court alot and to see them individually continue to get on court with the less experienced players and even compare notes and maybe eventually root each other in match play. I am wondering, it's hard to resist, just how the cold war would have gone if Nixon and Brezhnev played squash?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Run To The Roar...Review of Assaiante and Zug's new book

I had always thought if Trinity Men's squash had assembled it's astounding streak of titles and wins with American born players, then it would be something. I have always been of the belief that an American born player reaching the top ten at the professional level would be equivalent to the US Olympic Hockey team winning the gold in 1980...I never gave much consideration to college squash and not much more to Trinity College. Until now.
I am half way through Trinity men's squash coach, Paul Assaiante, and History of Squash author, James Zug's new book Run To The Roar. I had to stop to write a bit about what I've read so far.
From the opening page through the first half of the book this is a remarkable story of a remarkable man, "coach", as he is called by his players. This is a book about the true meaning of what it means to make sacrifices for your passions in life, for doing whatever it takes to achieve your goals, and to reflect, always reflect and stop and think did the end justify the means, was what you achieved worth those sacrifices? After some soul searching, it's only then, it seems that we begin to take on some wisdom. Ezra Pound said at 50 if you have no wisdom you are nothing. Paul Assaiante at 50-something or more, has wisdom, no doubt something far greater than the Trinity win streak or all the glory associated with it.
The book is the story of Trinity's squash 2009 men's varsity squash team. Filled with player matches, scores, discussions of squash, is woven in Assaiante, the man, the father, the coach, the friend....all of those titles a man seems to have throughout his life. He openly acknowledges and questions his failures and seems to push past his successes, which in the collegiate athletic world, are titanic -- getting to that point whereby (like many of us) he almost lies awake at night asking himself were the personal sacrifices worth his accomplishments: a failed marriage, single parenthood, a son, Mathew, lost to heroin addiction. Many of us admire a man when he owns up to his mistakes, perhaps this book is a bit of a journey for Mr. Assaiante, to comes to terms with the sacrifices he made, to ask first the question were they worth it, and of course, if he had to do it over again would he do it differently. In the asking of these questions, sometimes is as good as answering it.
The record, the streak, all those wins...Assaiante seems in the tone of his diversions from squash into his past and present personal life to say without having all those you love to share it with what can they mean?
When the ugly incident of Trinity's number one player, Baset Chawdhry and Yale Univeristy's Kenneth Chan hit prime time ESPN News earlier this year in the national collegiate title match for number 1 (and keeping the Trinity win streak alive), because of the unsportsmanlike and ugly behavior by Chawdhry, I for one was very critical of Assaiante and his handling of his player. I thought he was too lenient and forgiving of his player and was doing this young man a disservice by explaining away the player's behavior. I now understand Assaiante better and why he stood by his player, even though the player betrayed him and the team with his ugly behavior, he was in some sense standing by Mathew, his son, whom he gave up on many years ago and let his own child walk out of his life. He didn't give up on his young athlete even while the world was critical and coming down on the young man.
I am a single parent of two amazing children, whom I raised from the time they were very little and whom I am so proud of -- I often refer to them as my heart and soul -- which is which is anyone's guess. I made mistakes, tons of them, some I did out of arrogance when I should have been listening to, my daughter, especially. I made mistakes, alienated her, while my son and I basked in a commaraderie with squash, I ignored her interests in cheerleading, or just being a teenager. I lie awake at night, my body so sore from coaching squash all day, a passion as player, student and coach I've pursued most of my adult life, and think of my daughter and miss her now that she left home angry and hurt to go to school as far from me as she could -- yes, I would do it differently. I've questioned what I did as a single parent in so many different ways, I know I wanted the best for both my children, but I didn't know how to listen to anyone, not until it was too late. I can share in Assaiante's pain on this level.
I'm sure there are so many different ways to measure success, but maybe only one way to measure failure. If you've hurt someone you love you didn't succeed no matter how much you tell yourself and write about it or talk about it, that sense of failure, that sickening feeling, just never goes away.
I applaud this book immensely because it seems, probably like many who will read it, a book about being human...about this life and what we do in it regardless of the level of that success. As I'm ready to post this, I only hope I didn't read too much into Assaiante's personal journey because of my own, but who cares another's wisedom should inspire thought, reflection, and introspection as the wisdom of his book has.