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SIV Week: Devils Rule in the NCAA Roundball Arena

As mentioned over in At First Glance on Monday — I know, it says ‘April 11’ but trust me, that post leads off with several hundred outstanding words of April-fresh commentary — this is “Stubbornness is Virtue” week. That SIVW declaration gave me a timely little excuse to meditate about my mother, and the stubbornness I inherited. SIV Week is mainly dedicated to finishing and posting the incomplete essays that plague my nights, and to get old biz out of my head. Like, say, the NCAA Final Four, the result of a March Madness that ends in early April and must be written about (Rule 37.3, clauses b-e, of the Howdy Index) before May. It’s April 30, yo.

Here are the hardcourt meditations of a man too far away, for five years, to pay much televisual attention to American college basketball, and then was too immersed, upon his return to Canada, in his club and high school coaching gigs (and too resolutely cheap and determinedly active and frantically multi-interested to pay for access to spectator sports television) to watch anything the NCAA had to offer unless it was Indiana or Memphis in an Ottawa gym in August, BUT whom, when he finally started watching the Elite 8 and the Final 4, got SO stubborn that he felt he HAD to write about it even when it was one week two three weeks past…

I’m thinking about basketball an awful lot. It’s the off-season, in some ways my favourite part of the year, because next year’s team not only hasn’t lost yet but also has a potential that is unknown and therefore exciting, and players who can grow and improve so much by next November. Yes. And I do love teaching kids to play, the individual skills of the game, ways to understand sport, whereas in season there are always the team needs and, of course, the whole winning anlosing dynamic. (Reader Alert: can you smell an excuse coming?) It was, in small measure, because of basketball and off-season club commitments that I haven’t gotten around to sharing my desperately awaited insights on what was a strong and storied Final Four this year. (Though mostly, it was because of disorder, distraction and authorial dismay. I got thoroughly dissed.)

[I wrote about the “fatal four” — Elite 8 losing teams — just down below. Sorry — can’t hyperlink right now.]

Sat., April 4. (Yeeeessshh.) Wendy & Bernie’s living room. For game one of the Saturday Night Special doubleheader, I did get my utterly under-keen 15-year-old – the one I’m trying not to plan my grand off-season vision and workout schedule around – to sit down and watch Duke-Michigan State. He knew nothing of either team, but liked the underdog Spartans, maybe because of some of the pastings our high school team took in tournaments we weren’t quite ready for.

The big names. Which one of these will not make the NBA?

The big names. Kaminsky, Trice, Okafor, Towns. Which one of these will not make NBA millions?

People loved this edition of the Final Four partly because of the high-profile coaches there – Kentucky’s Calipari, Duke’s Krzyzewski (didn’t even check, that’s how well I can spell!), Bo (the Badger) Ryan, and MSU’s Tom Izzo – three future Hall of Famers and one (Coach K) already bronzed. TV also sold the perfect, please-everybody configuration: number one-seeds in profusion meant a high quality of teams and athletes, and one lower seed was there to carry all the hopes for those who like the story of The Little (Multimillion Dollar, BigShoe-Funded) College Team That Could.

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Getting Your Howdy On: SIV Week Is Here

It’s my mother’s birthday. Were she still shuffling, flat-footed and bunion-aching, along this mortal coil of frayed and ravelled rope, she would be turning 95 today. She would be steamed. I’m so angry I could spit! she used to mutter when one of us, not always me, would race heedlessly past the wide but certainly finite fields of her patience. She loved life, doted on her family and especially those teeming crowds of grandchildren gathered around every Howden turkey. She’s a woman who suffered, and yet got pretty much what she had hoped for in life. In her last months, though, she’d had enough, and was quite-content-thank-you to be DONE with sleeping and waking and eating and all these things. One day in a hospital bed, she awoke, looked around with confusion and (at least the way I read it) growing dismay, and said, “Am I still here?”

Today is Enid Day. She died in 2006. (I remembered her, in one of my favourite and least-saleable pieces in JHdotCOM history, here: http://jameshowden.com/2006/11/enid-mary-elizabeth-howden/ . Sorry, still unable to hyperlink.) Her birth-day is when we most remember her. I got a note from Big Sister that looked forward to her third Enid Day in Nunavut, where she her last few years of “retirement” teaching some of the damaged and despairing children and youth of Cape Dorset. She was enticed there by my ex-wife, with whom she lives. (That’s a pretty good story, I figure, though not mine to tell, not yet.) So, happy Enid Day to them, to all my relations, and to you and me.

In memory of her, I have declared this SIV Week. I’m not sure who was more stubborn, Enid or my Dad, though I’d say both changed astral planes more easily than they often changed their minds. The stubbornness I rue with such arm-waving in my fourth son informs me — eventually, ruefully, guiltily — of just how cement-headed I so often and so chronically am. Solution? StubbornnessIsVirtue Week. SIV. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em; if you can’t alter it, exalt it! Winston Churchill was stubborn. So were Gandhi, King, Teresa. So am I, if only I could beat that adamantine forehead of mine against more meaningful walls.

Therefore, this having been declared SIV Week, I’m taking several half-finished things that I’ve written over the past while — and, for various reasons, chief among them cowardice, fatigue and cerebral untidiness, haven’t had the poop to complete — and I’m GETTING THEM BLOODY WELL DONE. (I also remain, certainly, cursed by Enid’s endlessly repeated counsel that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, which has led to more procrastination and dismayed unfinish-ing than either of us can abide.) So, first you’ll see, in the It’s All About Sports section, my final Final 4 basketball thoughts, though that American college hoops lollapalooza finished three weeks ago. Other gottawritems are even older, but won’t look so obviously out-of-date because they’re less particular.

So: I’m finishing stuff. I’m clearing the decks. Spring cleaning of the neocortical kind. Purging. Loosening my load, in hopes that new and fresh things might follow, but mainly out of brute determination to do-stuff-my-way-even-if-it-makes-no-sense-to-readers-’cause-Mum-never-gave-up-and-mulishness-should-sometimes-bear-fruit-even-if-it-looks-like-a-dungpile. It’s MY dungpile. I made it all by myself! Happy Enid Day, and Happy StubbornnessIsVirtue Week!!

The rest, below, is in explanation of what this site has done and does when it’s not SIVW.

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NCAA Hoops Lookback: The Fatal Four

Due to, in no particular order, the following factors –

  • a super-concentrated acidic splash by John Oliver, indicting and ridiculing the entire NCAA basketball enterprise (can’t hyperlink right now, but it’s here: http://www.newsmax.com/TheWire/john-oliver-ncaa-rant-players/2015/03/18/id/630823/ ),
  • my own manic attention to the CIS version of March Madness, spent watching the games of the (Ontario University Athletics) Wilson Cup and the following week’s Final 8 in Toronto (and a blizzard of hoops-related words that can be accessed just down there),
  • we don’t have a television hook-up, and apparently one of Howdy’s Current Foundational Principles (HCFP) is the refusal to pay for live-streaming of games on my laptop,
  • I don’t have many basketball friends,
  • increasing miles on the spectator-sport odometer, games-related grumpiness, impatience with commercials, crankiness over announcers’ clichés, and
  • (possibly?) growing good sense –

I didn’t watch any of the opening weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. (HCFP No. 2: the “play-in games” earlier in the week to decide the last four Cinderellas invited to the Big Dance of 64 do not count. Round 1 of the tournament starts Thursday, not Tuesday. Lines must be drawn. <cough> Ahem. Right. It’s not climate-change denial or global terrorism, but from tiny seeds does a mighty apocalypse grow.)

(None of which explains why I’m writing about it so late. I plead lethargy, sloth, intermittent apathy and mild existential angst. And books. I was tired of writing there for a bit — well, my own, anyway. Glad that’s all over now!)

Okay, and since truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues, and I do aspire to virtuosity of some kind or another, I clarify: I did invite myself to Bernie and Wendy’s living room for the second Gonzaga game in the opening weekend, in case they failed again to make it to the Sweet 16. The Zags did, though CBS had switched to Oklahoma/Dayton, which had very little interest for me even though Dyshawn Pierre is an Ontario kid I liked reading about from China last March, during the Flyers’ stirring run ascent to the Sweet 16, to national jock consciousness and, lest we forget, to millions of new dollars flowing to a previously obscure Ohio school. (Well, obscure from an athletic point of view, that is. To me. I know nothing of its standing in biomedical research or the teaching of the humanities.  And who would care about THAT?)

Yes, and I waited ‘til the actual weekend of the second weekend — also known as The Elite Eight — jimmied the rear door at Wendy and Bernie’s (twice), and lingered like an especially blue-cheesy smell in their otherwise pleasant back kitchen. Here’s what I saw:

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CIS/CSI Toronto: The Birds! (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)

This is a Crime Scene Investigation. Forensics experts are still dusting for box score prints, still freeze-framing the game tape for clues about how the championship match of the Canadian Interuniversity Sports men’s basketball championship could have gone so right for the Ravens, so wrong for the Gee-Gees. Five minutes into the game, it looked like Alfred Hitchcock was directing Carleton’s birds. It looked bad for Ottawa’s horses, in a dance marathon where they suddenly didn’t know the steps, couldn’t endure the exhausting pace, and had to keep dancing long after they felt dead. Five minutes into the third quarter, any doubts were dispelled. CSI Howdy’s first report was here, then came some sort of consolation, the Final Four, and then this Apparently Inevitable Denouement:

Well, that didn’t even make sense.

Even my sports/TV/Movie mashup title is more logical than a result that sees the Ottawa Gee-Gees, the consensus No. 2 team in the country — and which claimed the top ranking for a time after defeating the Carleton Ravens in January — being so thoroughly whipped. 93-46. Ninety-three to forty-six. 46?! UOttawa is the highest scoring team in the country, with one of the nation’s top scorers in “Johnny Basketball” Berhanemeskel and a collection of other gunners.

That's the venerable Mr. McGee, front and centre, with a flock of happy Ravens behind.

That’s the venerable Mr. McGee, front and centre, with a flock of happy Ravens behind. Smart is second-row left, though he often flees the flashbulbs. (photo by Chris Roussakis, GoRavens.ca)

It was an AWESOME performance, a great and dynastic team playing near-perfect basketball for extended periods. It was surgical, clinical, a beating that was almost worse because there was no taunting or showboating or visible glee. The Ravens don’t bother with distractions like that. They’re All Business. This isn’t personal, Ottawa. We’re just doing our jobs. We’ve never seen anything like this. Well, hmm, come to think, except when Carleton did almost exactly the same thing to the Lakehead Thunderwolves in the 2013 final, where they won by 50. “But this wasn’t Lakehead!” exclaimed a wide-eyed basketball man and Ravens admirer. “Them being in the finals was a bit of a fluke, but Ottawa is really good!

Not Sunday. The Gee-Gees were devastated. I couldn’t get the lost look on fifth-year post Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue’s face out of my mind; Johnny B wore a haunting mask of stunned sorrow. (And they had to stand there for soooooo long! Celebration, a zillion photos, interviews, all this before the formal announcements of the Players of the Game, the tournament MVP and All-Stars, before the GGs bowed their heads to receive a silver medal that they won’t appreciate for years, and before they watched the Carleton Ravens, for the second straight year, accept the gold that they seem to win so routinely now. 11 W.P. McGee trophies in 13 years constitutes a habit, and for the rest of the Canadian university basketball hopefuls, it’s become an utterly intimidating one. Don’t forget, they lost narrowly in the national semis in those other two years! Meanwhile, UOttawa has never won gold. And they had to stand at least 15 minutes and watch Those Guys.) They stood there SO LONG.

It’s too much to ask. (Maybe, too, it’s too much to ask of you to keep reading. This thing hits nearly 3000 words — also more photos to come! — but count me fascinated. And you? )

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The Year of the Ram: Nearly, in Toronto

Here I continue in my micro-odyssey: to see all 11 games at the CIS Final 8 men’s basketball championships, to understand anything and everything about them, and to write it all up without losing subscribers or being fined by the Interwebs. (I’ve gotta be getting close to being long overdue. As opposed to just, um, sorta like, ya know, betterlatethanneverrightamIrightImsureImright. You can find Take One and Take Two with the easiest of clicks.

Listen, you may not know yet what happened in the Northern Territories of Hoopdom yesterday. The grand old W.P. McGee Trophy, first awarded in 1963 for the championship of Canadian university men’s basketball, was cradled and pumped toward the grey ceiling of the old Maple Leaf Gardens yesterday at about 5:30 pm. It was an amazing title game, and not incidentally the seasonal rubber match between a pair of Canadian hoops juggernauts and crosstown rivals: the Carleton Ravens and the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

Home of the Rams (and the ghost of Tim Horton).

Home of the Rams (and the ghost of Tim Horton).

However, I know you don’t want to read about that. Not yet, because you haven’t yet read JH.com’s take on Saturday night’s semifinals at the Mattamy Centre. (Am I right? I’m sure I’m right.) So I’ll get to that right quick, but yesterday’s heavyweight hoops slugfest? Sheesh, it was unbelievable, I mean, nobody saw it coming, not really, not like that, but I won’t spoil it for you. (Good thing that there isn’t some mechanism for quickly finding out facts on any given event or idea! Gosh, then you’d have your CIS Final 8 information out of sequence, the context and appreciation of the tournament’s Large Vista would be lost, and so would you be. Dear reader, I won’t stand or sit for it!) Oh, don’t worry, I WILL get to that stunning game – still reeling, I am, to think that they could have won over a team that many considered the favourite for a big chunk of the 2014-15 season, and holy cow! With such a devastating, heart-wrenching conclusion! But first I want to think and write about Saturday night, since: a) I wrote lots of semi-comprehensible notes, and b) the semifinals featured some of the maddest college hoop March-ing you’d ever want to see, and c) because Sir Henk of the Southlands has asked that it be so. (So has King Karl. There may be others. You may be among them. So here!)

The Raptor was in the House That Conn Smythe Built

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If It’s Any Consolation – And It Likely Wasn’t

I’m at the CIS Final 8, the men’s basketball championships. My opening round account, in living black and white, is here, if you want to catch up. (I want to catch up.) The semifinals last night were great, but I’ve stubbornly insisted on writing up the consolation round first. And the title match is coming in 42 minutes and 47 seconds, so let’s get this reading party started!

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Was Anybody Consoled?

As an obsessive consumer of all things Final 8 this weekend in Toronto, I wonder: if they held “consolation” games for first-round tournament losers, and no one was consoled by the experience, did anybody come? The simple answer is ‘no’, since the Mattamy Centre at Ryerson was an echoing bowl containing mostly lacklustre games, a small group of steadfastly cheerful parents, smiled-out volunteers, pouting coaches and whoever the rest of us, maybe 100 not-so-strong, were. As always, the longer answer is more interesting. Why does this tournament have a consolation round?

We usually console after death, or at least some notable loss, and I suppose young athletes with a dream of trophy-hoisting qualify for the latter. The word comes from the Latin consolari, “to offer solace, encourage, comfort, cheer”. If there was comfort, it was chilly; if there was cheer, it was certainly muted, especially for Dalhousie and Bishop’s universities, who got to add a second insulting ‘L’ to their injuries in losing close games to Victoria and Ottawa, respectively. I’m sure, too, that it felt better than a kick in the head for the universities of Saskatchewan and Windsor to win (the Big W) that second day, but Windsor’s coach, Chris Oliver in particular seemed especially uninterested. Of course, the competitive juices kick in for the players, and the second halves of these games are routinely more energetic than the first. That was a slight consolation to my weary eyes.

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Dave Smart (on coaching, culture & talent)

Dave Smart knew early that basketball coaching was what he wanted to do. A fine and funky player — he led the nation in scoring, and has Queen’s University’s all-time leading scoring average — Smart didn’t even use all his years of Canadian Interuniversity Sport eligibility. He’d likely shrug and agree with the fans of his Carleton University’s chief rivals at the University of Ottawa, who’ve been known to chant, Not so Smart! Not so Smart!

He sees the game at a genius level, and never lets his players relax. (Andrew Vaughan photo, CP)

He sees the game at a genius level, and never lets his players relax. (Andrew Vaughan photo, CP)

While he may not have been an academic superstar, the man is brilliant and a relentlessly insistent mentor. You may have heard: his teams at Carleton, never previously a basketball power, were winning national championships by his fourth season after taking the helm in his early 30s, and they’ve never stopped. That first title began streaks of five straight championships, thirteen consecutive national semifinals, and ten titles in the last 12 seasons. If that number sounds familiar, it tied one of the most storied records in the history of sport: John Wooden’s UCLA Bruin teams (Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, etc.) cut down NCAA nets in 10 of the Wizard of Westwood’s last dozen campaigns. The Ravens, with a win tonight, will play for an eleventh title in 13 years tomorrow. (My rundown on the opening round of the tournament, Carleton’s 40-point win, and the only two teams with a real chance to knock them off is here.)

So, yeah. He’s pretty good, and I’ve been studying why. I’m starting to get it.

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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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2014: A Howdy-Do Year in Review

Last January, I didn’t get my 2013 lookback, The Great Eighteen, up until the 20th, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to call this prompt. Efficient. Timely — at least for me! Reflection on accomplishments never comes at a bad time. (Does it? Of course, you ninny! Okay, but — Which doesn’t mean it’s always foolish to look backwards, either. Alright then, so maybe — Just get to it!)

I posted to JH.com 93 times last year, which is as productive as I’ve ever been, and that with December nearly ringing up a doughnut. (That’s jock-talk for nada. Zero. Hole in the JZone layer. Nuttin’, honey. I missed that bizarro perfection by one lonely post, so the rest of the year must’ve been excellent.) Starting with my self-conscious blurts in the middle of 2005, JH.com now has an archive of 637 posts. That seems like quite a few.

So, I consulted a panel of experts. What were the most meaningful, artistically satisfying and world-changing posts of 2014 on JamesHowden.com? No. I didn’t. I trawled through 2014 and asked myself, “Okay, self, what do you still like and think others might, too?” Oh, I did take my readers into account, based on what got read most, or what found life elsewhere on the ‘Net, but mainly this is me Me ME. So here is a quick skate through some of the things I wrote here last year. It gives a reasonable portrait of what gave my head a shake in 2014. It’s a quick read, and you can click on anything that appeals. Here, then, are the

Fabulous Fifteen!

1. Sequel: The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show* Must Go On (Jan. 2)                 (with Chinese Characteristics)

For the last three years in China, my wife and I taught in the School of International Business, a small college within our university in Dalian. Every December, there was a spangly student SHOW. Here, I reviewed this incredible, excessive, odd, passionate, obligatory celebration of something-or-other. Warning: this is only the second half of the extravaganza, and you may not be able to resist dipping back into December 2013 for the full jaw-dropping effect. It was amazing. (And only occasionally depressing.)

2. Lost in Cambodia  (February 5)

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STRICTLY MID-LIFE: Crisis? What Crisis?

Here’s another piece — not that anybody asked for it, as Kurt Vonnegut once muttered in opening a collection of essays called Fates Worse Than Death — that now sees the light after nearly a decade in the electronic cellar. When I wrote it, I was in Ottawa, not yet in my 50s. Five years in China are in the rear-view now; we’re back in the same house, and visiting the same local complex for its library, pool and workout facilities. For reasons mainly organizational, this one never got posted, but despite the years that have passed, it’s nearly as true now as it was when it was fresh. And hey, how are you doing?

“Well, this sure isn’t Monday Night Football,” I thought. It’s been a long while since I was twitching and “ready for some football!” that late on a weeknight, anyway. But on this particular Monday, I was in the St. Laurent recreation centre getting ready to put the ol’ bod through its paces.

Now, I have spent more pigskin hours in front of the Sacred Tube than I care to remember, but Monday nights weren’t always about a football broadcast. They never are, now. Even as a kid, there were hockey practices, and from about age 15 on, the squeak of sneakers and the pounding of basketballs were the soundtrack to any given Monday (Tuesday, Wednesday…). Even in my increasingly clumsy thirties, as the rim somehow felt higher with each jump-shot, I could still be found running around on my wife on a winter evening. Nope, not a romantic betrayal, but another doomed attempt to outrun a bunch of teens and 20-somethings. The dream was dead, but I could still fool myself for minutes at a time.

It seemed, back then, that my competitive fever had finally broken. A successful night had come to mean a few jumpshots, a good sweat, a few laughs and no icepacks. (Well. I tried to define success this way, but I was chronically annoyed with my uncooperative hands and reluctant legs.) But there I was last Monday at St. Laurent,

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