A Canuck Man’s March Madness

WARNING: Contains basketball. And other things.

But lots of basketball.

The man would be me, and the madness — well, it may be terminal. As an international man of leisure, housework aside, I took in the all-Ontario AA (OFSAA) boys basketball championships Wednesday evening. (Lots to say about that, but not today.) An overnight bus trip and a Holiday Inn morning nap later, I was ragged but ready for Day 1 of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) men’s basketball Final 8. Play started at 11 a.m. in the reconfigured shell of dear old Maple Leaf Gardens, now called the Mattamy Centre and enclosing the Ryerson University athletic centre (and a Loblaws grocery store).I look up at the inner

I look up at the inner dome during games and remember the Leafs -- and the NBA Buffalo Braves! Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Ernie DiGregorio...

I look up at the inner dome during games and remember the Leafs — and the NBA Buffalo Braves! Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Ernie DiGregorio…

I am here because hoops has a hold on me, and especially because of my fascination with the (again!) top-seeded Carleton Ravens. They’re pursuing their fifth straight title (for the second time), and looking for their 11th win in 13 seasons. (This has been astounding for years, and too few notice. I notice. Yes, I do feel lonely at times. What makes you ask?)

I took notes. I noted things like this:

Game 1: Carleton Ravens vs. Saskatchewan Huskies

The Mattamy Centre is a great place to watch ball.  It’s tiny by NCAA standards, seating about 5000, and it’s not close to full. There may be 2000 to 2500 here now, and at least a third, maybe half, are school children — judging by the waving “thunderstix” (who is the genius that we thank for this invention?) all around the bowl bopping along to “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth…”. (I wasn’t among them, but they made me smile.) The floor is laid over a hockey rink, though it’s three storeys above the old MLG’s sacred surface. There are four rows of courtside seats opposite the scoring table and team benches.

And Philip Scrubb, the only man ever to be named national Player of the Year three times — and many Ravens faithful are furious he didn’t get it this year (what, did he get worse?) — is OFF and running and dealing. It’s already 28-10 over the Huskies by quarter time, with Phil driving and firing four three-pointers, including a 4-pt play at the buzzer. Sheesh. Normally impassive on the floor, he’s showing emotion early. Nice to see, actually; it’s genuine exuberance that he’s releasing in his last hurrah, and not Made4TV Emotion. (Heck, this game’s on local cable.)

Big brother Thomas hasn’t scored much yet as of 31-13, but he’s getting the shots he wants.

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Bruins and Ravens and Wins: Hey, WHY?

It’s all so blasé, a profoundly bland kind of humdrum yeah, so what? Even for those who actually pay attention, it gets taken for granted, but for the majority of people here in the capital of Canada an incredible sporting success story is little known and cared about less. Folks might have heard that one of those cute university sports teams, the one at Carleton – yeah, and it’s not even the hockey team, I think it’s basketball – well, it wins. A lot. A few national championships there, some will know; they’ll even sometimes play a game at the home of the NHL Senators. (Most recent commercial nomenclature: Canadian Tire Place. What it’s not called, but is: House of Hockey Worship; Puck Pagoda; Temple of Higher Shinny.) The Sens are fairly supportive, doing their good corporate-citizen best, but this remarkable basketball story, even with maxed-out local interest, gets the Place less than half full.

So listen up, Ottawa. Be warned, Canada! And pay attention down there, Excited States of Basketball – the Carleton University Ravens are poised to do something long thought to be undo-able, for any sports team, anywhere.

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What, So We’re a RUGBY Family Now?

UPDATE: A revised and condensed version of this sportsy meditation on sonship and daddery appeared at the on-line long-form sportswriting site The Classical on November 26, 2014. I still like the sprawling ME-ness of this piece, but the tighter form @Classical has lots to recommend it, too, even apart from costing you less time!

The thunder began at 5:45 a.m. The shower is next to our bedroom, and Rugby Boy was in it. (Spoiler alert: this time, he did not flood the bathroom.) I tried to imagine myself back into dreamland, but I fear the thunder. 6:13: Size 11 hooves rattle the beams as a herd of buffalo thunder manfully to the kitchen. (Wow, I think. Half an hour from bed to breakfast. He’s getting faster!) It didn’t look like dreamland was an option, but after a few more rumbles of downstairs thunder, I heard the sonic boom of the front door banging shut. 6:45! Wow the second. He’s going to be early for practice! What had gotten into my son?

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

I’d thought that I might get out of bed and bike over to see Thunderhoof and His Flailing Limbs on the high school rugby pitch for his 7:30 workout. Meanwhile, I continued doing what a tired old coot-of-sporting-colours does when sleep is hopeless: I thought about basketball. Rugby isn’t my game, and never was. Back in Canada, I’m a wanna-be hoops guru again. I’m reading and noting, observing practices and networking, and obsessing over possibilities and plans, to say nothing of all the technical adjustments and teaching points my stormy brain whips up for imaginary teams. (Fire in the belly: sometimes it feels more like heartburn.) I want to blame Thunder Bunny the Rugby Boy for my broken sleep, but his crashing about only punctuates my sentence of wakefulness. Besides, going to rugger practice with him might be <yawn> fun.

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Running in Canada, Heading for Home

Generally, I don’t miss the traffic-dodging adrenaline or the lung-scrubbing atmospheric particulates that are involved in getting out for a run in my eastern hometown of Dalian, to say nothing of Beijing. Still, running was sometimes good for me in China. Running is like writing is like prayer, for that matter: frequently, it doesn’t feel like something I want to do until I’m already in the act. (And hey, don’t you assume that, after arrival in today’s Dedicated Writing Niche, I just spent the first 95 minutes hunting Web distractions and brainstorming vision statements for non-existent basketball clubs! Sheesh. You people get so personal sometimes.) So here I am, talking about what I think about when I think about running, especially back home in a Canadian summer.

There’s lots to ponder about running, and about what happens between the ears when we do. I think about all kinds of things when I run. (I also play stale pop tunes in the jukebox of my brain.) I think about the differences between China and Canada. (I rehearse what I should have said in decades-old conversations.) I think. (I think I think.)

I think: I never went for runs like these in China.

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Ravens Back Tigers Into Corner and Peck Them Into Slump-Shouldered Helplessness

They only hit one three-point shot in the first quarter this time, unlike the six bombs they dropped on the startled heads of the young Memphis Tigers last Saturday night, but the Carleton Ravens still led by 11 after a quarter. Memphis, after overwhelming the UOttawa Gee-Gees (and their sad-sack practice jerseys) in the second half Sunday and blitzing the McGill Redmen Monday in Montreal, were back in the Ravens Nest to show that their fourth quarter against Carleton in game one represented the Real Tigers, not the 32 they were down late in the third of their 86-76 loss in the first game of their Canadian tour.

They couldn’t do it.

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Ravens Run Tigers Out of the Gym. Almost.

The place wasn’t even full, for one thing. As the Memphis Tigers returned to the floor 10 minutes from tip-off for the final, all-flushes-flying, let’s-get-this-party-started portion of their pre-game warmup, there were still far south of a thousand spectators in the Ravens’ Nest at Carleton University. True, it was a Saturday night in August, and the students weren’t back yet, but how often do we get to see top American college teams up close?

A long way from home, and a rude Ottawa welcome.

A long way from home, and a rude Ottawa welcome.

Hot young Division One coaching star Josh Pastner knows his stuff. (Gettin’ a little chubby, though!) He knew Carleton coach Dave Smart’s Raveniculous record – 10 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) titles in the last 12 seasons – though his ‘Net research was a year out of date, citing nine McGee Trophies in eleven. He knew the Ravens were a precise, rapid-fire machine on offence, and had heard, no doubt, of their fanatical intensity. He probably tried to communicate this to his high-jumping, young squad. He failed, as he might have known he would.

After all, even last year’s Tigers benchwarmers are used to home crowds of

Not the Ravens' Nest. The Tigers home experience.

Not the Ravens’ Nest. The Tigers home experience.

nearly 18,000, as they play in

the same FedEx Forum where the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies do, and not in this bland, amateurish northern equivalent of a so-so American high school gym. As do all the American players who come north for a summer tour of Ottawa, his lads learned.

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Spurs Win Again. We Don’t Get It.

I expected to be watching Game Seven of the NBA Finals Friday morning — I’m in China, lest ye forget — and instead I wrote this.


Nobody. Cuz we believe “the team with the best player wins”, cuz the NBA has marketed the hell out of individualism. And MJ did, and Shaq probably was, and so was Tim Duncan, once upon a time, but even back then it was always a team deal with the Spurs.

I forecast San Antonio in seven, so I’m still not adjusted. I’m programmed for an epic climax, as games 6 and 7 in 2013 were the best pair of basketball struggles I’ve seen, what, ever? At least since the Magic Lakers and the Celtic Birds in the ’80s. With the Spurs’ early air-conditioning this year, I’m revising history: they actually won last year, too, even though LeBron James held up the trophies and preened and narcissized “I’m not supposed to be here!” (Sorry, kid king. Noticing the clay feet more than is charitable.)

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NBA Playoffs: I’ll Ask You One More Time

Well, I’ve been busy, that’s why there haven’t been more NBA cud-chewing. I had an earlier series of NBA questions about the fire-breathing, where’s-the-basketball gossip-fest that the NBA Finals have made of themselves. Anyway, been runnin’: two weeks left of school, and three weeks in this amazing country. (If you’d like a sense of what it’s like following the NBA from China, there’s this blow-by-commercial-blow account from another Miami-in-the-Finals episode of Sports TV in the Middle Kingdom.) Anyway, Game 5 starts in an hour. Here we go.

Slingshot Lewis. It goes *in*, though, and has for a long time.

Slingshot Lewis. It goes *in*, though, and has for a long time.

Can you imagine how brilliant a shooter Rashard Lewis could’ve been had someone taught him how at a younger age? What would that behind-the-head slingshot, what little kids trying to hoist a rock towards an unreachably high rim, look like if he’d been drafted by the Spurs and coached by shot-meister Chip Engelland? (Surely, not like this.)

Is it necessary to point to subterranean racism when LeBron’s cramping in game one draws the howls of Internet Toldja Boys reminding us that he’s not only human but morally inferior? (Answers, like a jerk, his own rhetorical question: Yes.)

How do the Game One officials miss that four-steps-after-the –bounce journey by LeBron – even James Harden only takes three in his chronic travels – with the change in direction after the first two? (The Jerk, again: it was the Superstar call, plus he did it so smoothly. They froze. That would’ve been an oh-s—t moment in the whistle-blower film review.) Or does the fact that I’m still harping about the best players on the planet getting away with sloppy face-ups and 2 or 3 extra steps on drives — passes that my mediocre high school players never got — a sign of rampant resentment and unresolved OCD issues? (Don’t answer that.)

Was that meaningless last-minute corner three by Kawhi Leonard actually brilliant teamsmanship by Ginobili to get him feeling good heading for game 2, or am I just too Spursy? (No need to reply to that one, either.)

When it rains in San Antonio, does it always pour? (Meteorological Heat-check – get it? tee-hee – Metaphor Alert! An MHMA!)

What in the world were we seeing in Games 3 and 4?

How did the Spurs just keep getting better when the jock punditocracy wrote them off starting, when, 2009? And especially after the Thunder threw a wrench in that dominant playoff run San Antonio was on in 2012? (Back then, it looked like the Spurs had been solved. Remember?)

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Back on Track and Fielding My Age

Surrey goes all out, image-wise. They're the blue-clad spectators, here during the "march of the somebody-or-others". Like me.

Surrey goes all out, image-wise. They’re the blue-clad spectators, here during the “march of the somebody-or-others”. Like me.

When I wrote last June about my first in-depth experience of a Chinese university’s annual “Sports Meeting” — a low-performance track and field meet — I was still quite flabbergasted by the whole thing. It was an incredible show that put the circus into the “bread and circuses” recipe for keeping the mass of people contented and amused, and yet everybody takes it so seriously. I swung wildly between my reflexive love for young people giving their hearts to sport — even for a day — and my disgust with what a paltry, occasionally harmful and clearly manipulated “opportunity” the kids actually had. I liked that athletic kids got to run and jump, and hated that many participants and nearly all the spectators weren’t there by any shade of their own choice. The whole thing really wasn’t for the students at all. Mianzi, it’s called. “Face”: making the university and its officials look good, and the university experience a “colourful” one for a day or two between the grey student months. Look, you had the Sports Meeting. Wasn’t that fun? Umm.

I was also a little ticked that I and younger foreign staff hadn’t been invited to join in. Oh, we wore our hats and marched (badly) in the mini-olympian opening ceremonies, but there were faculty races, too, but no wai guo ren had been asked. Then, a week ago, I got a surprise text, asking me to join one of the funky sprint relays that Chinese meets feature. In this case, it was six men and five women, with two 100-metre, six 200-metre and three 400-metre legs. In a “training session” last Monday, I got smoked by young Mr. Zou in a 400 trial, which meant that I’d be a 200 Man, with a shorter distance to lose time in. The goofy thing is that 50-something males – well, at least one that I know of – can still get pumped about silly athletic contests. (Okay, love, I’ve got a week to lose five pounds! Did, too.)

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NBA Playoffs: Just Asking

Both the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs have won two games in their respective Conference Finals of the NBA playoffs. WARNING (to my mother-in-law and other unwary wanderers into this Sweaty Sporting Space: this post really is about the National Basketball Association, though it inevitably tries to wring Significance and a few drops of Societal Relevance from the perspiration-soaked towels waving as the NBA season begins to climax. (Eww!)

Names are dropped, but this isn’t TMZ. I’m just asking. So, here’s what I was wondering during the pair of off-days leading up to this weekend’s Games Three. They’re on Chinese sports television at 8:30 a.m. The Heat outpaced Indiana this morning (our Sunday), and the Spurs try to rope the Thunder into three-zip submission first thing Monday morning. I’ll be on the edge of my couch, thanks.

Dad, Blake, Mom.

Dad, Blake, Mom.

My Everything’s Coming Up Sterling Question: Race being such a, well, such a black and white thing in North America, I ask you – since we all have opinions on people we’ve never met – would Blake Griffin of the Clippers be on Donald Sterling’s no-fly list? Would Jason Kidd? Stephen Curry? All are quite confidently and curiously labelled “black”. (Or even  Steven Adams, that New Zealander with

So much younger looking as Nets coach than as Knicks player. But that wasn't the question.

So much younger looking as Nets coach than as Knicks player. But that wasn’t the question.

the massive brow ridges from the Thunder who looks like he might have some Maori blood?) Do you remember the old idea of people of colour who could “pass”, not for easy points in the paint but for being white?
(Does this still happen?)


My Hail to the First-Round Vanquished Questions:

Is it too soon to say that the Houston Rockets’ Grand Gamble won’t work?

How does Damien Lillard get that open for a three when Houston’s up 2 in the final moments of Game 6? (Old coach insists on answering his own rhetorical question: It’s about unselfish talking on the court, and defending during the regular season as if it matters to develop good habits. I was a big Kevin McHale fan when he played, but as a coach? Yeah, but could I get those guys to defend? Pretty darned doubtful.)

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