VANCOUVER — One of the greatest rebounders of all time once said ‘Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory’.
Bill Russell may have stood 6-foot-10, but he wasted not an ounce of his gifts while patrolling the frontcourt of the Boston Celtics through the 1960s.
Roberto Mazzone may have none of the tangible gifts that when thrown together equal an NBA pedigree, but if you invited Russell to a practice at Vancouver’s St. George’s School gym, then asked him afterwards who stood out most, the betting money here is on the under-sized, 6-foot-2 power forward with the motor that rivals his own.
“He is a tribute to what passion can do,” begins Saints head coach Bill Disbrow, now in his 44th season as a B.C. high school head coach, of Mazzone. “He just goes at a pace no one else can match and he doesn’t know any other way. It’s 100 per cent the whole time, at both ends of the floor, in practices and in games.
“And he is a phenomenal rebounder because he just assumes that every shot will be missed,” continues Disbrow, whose Quad-A No. 9-ranked Saints earned a ticket to the Lower Mainland Quad-A semifinals after holding off a late rally to beat Burnaby South 72-68 on Wednesday. “We are a better rebounding team because he pushes us every day in practice. He has a motor that goes at the same speed all the time.”
MIND OVER MATTER
From a technical standpoint, very little is classic about the way Mazzone, coming off the bench for Saints as an energy player, executes the basic skills of the game.
“I’ve had my moments but I’m not much of a scorer,” he admits. “My shot isn’t the prettiest but I wouldn’t say it’s the worst. But in games, as long as I can make baskets I don’t care what my shooting form is like.”
Disbrow puts it another way: “He makes big shots because he just wills the basketball in.”
The prime example?
Last season, at the Lower Mainland championships, in the game to determine the zone’s third-and-final berth to the B.C. championships, the entire weight of the team was placed squarely on his broad shoulders.
Trailing by one point with four seconds remaining against Burnaby South, Mazzone drew a charge, stepped up to the free throw line and made both shots for a Saints’ victory.
“It’s sudden-death, our best player (Will Sauder) couldn’t play, so I started Roberto,” remembers Disbrow. “That charge he drew at the end was his eighth of the game, and that has to be some kind of world record. One of our coaches noticed the look in his eyes. It’s the same one we see in practice when he gets an edge. He makes a little smirk, and when that happens he never misses. He swished them both.”
It’s all part-and-parcel of a complex competitive nature, one that seems to come from so deep within himself that even Mazzone has difficulty describing it.
MOUNTAINS TO CLIMB
Earlier this week, Mazzone signed his papers to begin the next chapter of his student-athlete career with the UBC Thunderbirds.
Yet while set to don blue-and-gold in the fall, he’ll do it instead as a member of the school’s national championship-contending cross-country, and track and field teams.
And without surprise, the chunk of pure-guts DNA that Disbrow has seen on the basketball court at Saints is the exact same one that Mazzone’s new head coach at UBC has witnessed on the track and along the trails.
This past fall, Mazzone met his self-set goal of a place on the podium when he finished third at the B.C. high school cross-country championships in Kelowna.
“That course was virtually a mountain climb,” said Primeau. “It was more a hill run than a cross-country course and it takes an extreme amount of toughness to endure the lactic that is built up in the quads, hams and glutes over six to seven kilometres. That kind of tenacity will serve him well as a member of our team.”
For Mazzone, a childhood spent in a multi-sport environment, he says, has better prepared him to meet the rigours of high-intensity training in the two sports he has continued to play.
“I experienced different pain in all of my different sports,” he says. “But I am always trying to break down barriers by giving my absolute best. I’m always full of energy. It’s just how I’m wired.”
On the court, where he’s surrounded by talents like 6-foot-10 centre Jacob van Santen, forwards Louis Sujir and Mark Epshtein, and guards Adrian Bacic and Justin Huang, Mazzone brings his glue-guy best to the rest of the group by supplying an edgy style of play.
“As long as I’m not taking a flagrant foul or a technical, but I am disrupting a team, then I know I am doing something right,” he says.
The 15 points and nine rebounds per game he’s supplied for a very balanced Saints team over its last stretch of games may not seem spectacular. But it’s all of the other intangibles he brings, and the moments in which he scores and rebounds, which makes you stand up and take notice.
A PERSONAL CHALLENGE
When the current high school basketball season is over, Mazzone will have played his last game.
Yet the same package of intangibles we’ve seen on the court this season will simply be nurtured full time in the realm of middle-distance running.
Primeau, for his part, knows he is getting a student-athlete who will bleed school colours.
“I think the most important intangible that was expressed was about how much it would mean to him to become a UBC Thunderbird,” Primeau says. “So often in our recruitment of high school athletes, there is a question of ‘What can you do for me?’ That was noticeably absent in my visit with Roberto. Instead, he was telling me what he could do for us. I felt like it would be a reciprocal relationship, and that he wasn’t a customer, but a partner.”
For now, he’s focused on the hoops partnership at St. George’s where both he and Disbrow know that there are three other Mainland teams, all ranked ahead of them in latest Varsity Letters B.C. Big 10 rankings, standing between them and a shot at March Madness at the Langley Events Centre.
Only three berths available, so one of either No. 4 Kitsilano, No. 7 Killarney, No. 8 Vancouver College of No. 9 St. George’s will be left out of the Sweet 16 B.C. tournament field.
In the first of two semifinals Feb. 22 at the Richmond Oval, Saints will battle Kitsilano (6:15 p.m.). The other features Vancouver College vs. Killarney (8:15 p.m.)
And it seems only fitting that since we started our story of relentless rebounding by quoting Bill Russell, that we finish it quoting Dennis Rodman, who once said: “I’m hungrier than those other guys out there. Every rebound is a personal challenge.”
As a ninth-grader, Mazzone remembers watching YouTube highlight videos of Rodman.
“He wasn’t the biggest and he wasn’t the strongest, but mentally, he was focused and prepared,” Mazzone says, describing himself in the process. “It was something I was just born with. I can’t explain it. But I enjoy it when people are not on my side because I like to prove them wrong.”
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