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Ignoring Excellence: Sport At Its Best, Barely Noticed

[8-minute read]

They were coming down the escalator, the whole team and its coaches and support staff, and there must have been a few dozen friends and family members along for the ride, too. I was virtually there thanks to the randomness of the Twitterverse, watching video shot by somebody at the Ottawa airport (#YOW!) as the Carleton Ravens men’s basketball team returned home, victorious again, from the Canadian university championships. I kept waiting for the punchline, the birthday shout of “SURPRISE!!” Confetti, maybe? A brass band? Something.

Ravens at the Ottawa Airport. That’s Marcus with his back turned, Big Eddie left of the banner with a suitcase, gritty Mitch on the other side. (photo by YOW staff)

I was waiting for the welcome, but I wasn’t actually expecting one. I’ve seen this show before. I retweeted the video, added a snide comment – they must have edited out the adoring fans and their roars of appreciation! – but it would have been surprising (and delightful) if there had been a crowd there. After so many championships, such unremitting quality, most Ravens home games are nowhere near sold-out, even though it’s a modest size and every seat is close to the action. Those lunatic student sections we see on American TV? At most Ravens home games, there are fewer students in the crowd than there are cheerleaders. Large swathes of Ottawa residents get right giddy if the local pro hockey millionaires so much as sniff the playoffs; the Senators are routinely mediocre and often appear to be poorly run. But the Ravens? Ottawa is just not that into them.

This is surely a place I go and a thing I write to feel special, in a why doesn’t anybody else GET how GOOD this is? sort of way. I’m not completely alone. There are plenty of others who understand how astounding are the accomplishments of this under-appreciated athletic powerhouse. Even cable giant Sportsnet’s Tim Micallef – once a year, mind you – brings real enthusiasm and knowledge to his praise of U SPORTS¹ basketball in general, and the mighty Ravens in particular. The final games in the tournament had high production values to go along with the fine play. What’s more, back in 2014, the American sportswriter Jordan Ritter Conn obviously *got* it; Conn wrote a comprehensive feature for the lamented Grantland site, subtitled “If a team wins nine out of 11 national championships in Canada, does it make any noise? Meet the Carleton University Ravens.

¹ U SPORTS is the third different moniker for the national university sports body. When I tried out for varsity basketball (cut at *two* different schools, beat that!), it was the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union. The CIAU gave way to CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sports), but that acronym wasn’t bilingual, either, so U SPORTS is now the brand. I still stumble over what to even call this association I pay so much attention to.

At the time, the Ravens under coach Dave Smart were on the verge of matching one of those “unbeatable” sporting legacies: the immortal John Wooden and his string of ten national championships in twelve years at UCLA. They’ve left that hallowed mark far behind now. Last Sunday’s 34-point blitz of the Calgary Dinosaurs in the U SPORTS national final in Halifax marked a FOURTEENTH TITLE IN SEVENTEEN YEARS. The Ravens are always at Nationals, where only the top 8 teams in Canada qualify. In the three years where, major upset alert, Carleton did NOT win the title, they were edged out by good teams playing superb games. But get this: in those 17 years, when the Ravens get to the championship game, they are 14-0. Fourteen times they’ve reached the highest rung along with one other team, and never lost. This can’t be true, but it is.

No, THIS way! Coach Smart. (Getty Images)

More preposterous? The 34-point smackdown of the Dinos this year doesn’t actually stand out that much. The Dave Smart Domination of the Canadian university basketball scene started in 2003, but of the first six championship games, five were decided by six points or fewer. Nearly all Carleton’s players were from Eastern Ontario, many of them developed as kids by Smart himself in his club teams. (Fun fact: four of his nephews played, starred, during his first decade as a coach. “He’ll run out of nephews eventually,” the cynics said. He did, but that didn’t matter.) They did not have overwhelming talent. Since then, though, as the Ravens began to attract players from across Canada, there have been some shocking feats of season-ending domination. 20-point wins in ’11 and ’12 were followed by a 50-point shellacking of Lakehead in 2013 and 2015’s crushing of UOttawa, again more than doubling the score on their crosstown rivals. A 22-point victory over Calgary the following year foreshadowed last Sunday’s extinction of the Dinos.

How does this happen?

He wouldn’t like this answer, but it’s obvious: it’s all Smart. (He credits players who buy in, sustain the expectations from year to year, and allow him to coach them feverishly.) For his career, he’s won well over NINETY PERCENT of league and playoff games. He is a basketball savant, and sees the game with a detail and precision that yours truly (a pretty confident hoops coach) can barely conceive of. He has incredible energy and focus, relentlessly challenging his players to be perfect and then to be better. (I don’t know how he sleeps. Maybe he doesn’t, at least at Nationals.) He is a master motivator. He was an effective recruiter who promised nothing but year-round effort and a coach’s chronic dissatisfaction – well, that plus improvement, success and brotherhood – until his reputation as a teacher of the game and his litany of WINNING did a lot of his recruiting for him. He is notably hard to play for. (I’ll never forget him berating fifth-year star Phil Scrubb for an error with under 2 minutes left, up by, oh, *48* or so, in the 2015 UOttawa massacre. He relentlessly chases perfection. I also remember Scrubb looking right at him, nodding understanding, as his players uniformly do. They all accept, even welcome, his urgent, desperate entreaties to do it right.) His teams practise with a furious intensity that somehow never ends in fisticuffs, and endure an internal level of competition that: A) makes game pressure pretty familiar, and B) somehow produces not antagonism but an amazing level of team cohesion, mutual respect and collective accountability. The Ravens rank with the greatest examples of TEAM play, the strongest rebuttal to the me first mentality, that I’ve ever seen or even heard of. They are the ultimate in unselfishness.

Which brings me to Marcus Anderson.

Anderson is a defensive menace. He’s in his fourth year with Smart, an internationally respected defensive guru. (Ever heard the trope “Defence Wins Championships”? The Ravens have. And they do.) Marcus doesn’t score much, though he can get hot from three-point distance, but he has been guarding the Ravens’ best offensive opponent for three seasons now. For the last two, he’s been selected as U SPORTS Defensive Player of the Year. Naturally, last Sunday, he drew the assignment of guarding Calgary’s do-everything star, Mambi Diawara. (What a great name!) He lured Diawara into an early offensive charge, but also got caught for two 1st-quarter fouls himself, and headed for the bench. His main replacement, a talented transfer named Isaiah Osborne, was clicking offensively and did a more-than-adequate job on Diawara. The team was humming, and unless I’m mistaken, Anderson never got back in the game. He played only six minutes, far below his usual contribution. And yet: there he was, standing at the bench, hollering instruction and encouragement to his mates on the floor. There he wasn’t, pouting or feeling sorry for himself over not contributing more in the Big Game. In the post-game huddle, after the bouncing and yelling and water-pouring exuberance of the Ravens’ celebration, there was Marcus, addressing the team. I don’t know what he said, but I know what his face communicated: I love you guys, we did it, all of us, and every bit of trial and sweat we’ve gone through is worth the world to me. Let’s keep going!

How long can this sort of unprecedented athletic dominance continue? Can the Ravens keep this up?

Short answer: YES. Marcus is back. So are tournament all-stars Munis Tutu and first-team All-Canadian Eddie Ekiyor. So are Yasiin Joseph and TJ Lall, the other starters. The Ravens lose the Mighty Mitches, hard-grinding forwards Wood and Jackson, and role-playing guard Troy Reid-Knight.

(A quick word on Mitch Wood. His whole season was a little like Marcus Anderson’s game. A far-undersized power forward at 6’4”, Wood is one of the toughest men you’ll ever see on a basketball court, and had been a sometime-starter in his previous four years. But with the ascent of Ekiyor as a dominant inside player, and with Smart having gone to a more guard-oriented lineup because of the logjam of talent there, Wood’s role was reduced this year, at least when it came to playing time. Didn’t matter: he was never anything other than a high-effort lynchpin for this team, and a quietly rugged role model. I loved a stretch during the second half of his last university game, when if the Calgary men had any glimpses of hope, Wood snuffed them out with a series of hustle plays in which he nabbed at least four of his game-high 5 offensive rebounds. These are relentless-effort, unyielding-determination plays that sap an opponent’s will, and which had Wood’s teammates standing and roaring their appreciation. They were thrilled by his career-ending contributions, the essence of what makes for a brilliant team culture. These Ravens have that by the truckload.)

Everybody but Troy and the Mitches is back. There is star power in the freshman and sophomore classes that most haven’t really seen yet, since it’s very tough to defend and rebound with the precision and fury that Smart demands.² There were five talented young men who sat out every game this season as redshirts, learning to practise like a Raven does, and aiming to score a game uniform next year. (One of them was on Canada’s U-18 team last summer, for crying out loud.) It’s awful news for the rest of the men’s basketball programs in Canada, and for the NCAA teams that come north to get spanked by the Ravens next summer (as, famously, the Duke Blue Devils refused to schedule Carleton on their Canadian hype-fest last summer; can’t let a defeat gum up the works of an ESPN DukeFest!). Next year’s Carleton Ravens could be A LOT BETTER than this year’s 37-1 championship squad.

² My favourite Raven is Yasiin Joseph, a local Ottawa high school star that I coached a little bit. He played barely at all in his first two seasons as a Raven, and politely cut me off one time when he knew I was about to give him the “hang in there, buddy” speech. “Hey, don’t worry about me. This is awesome. I’m learning so much.” He earned a starting job in his third year after a brilliant performance in leading a comeback win against Alabama and Collin Sexton in the summer of ’17, and was the leading scorer in Sunday’s final. Great hands, great heart.

And still Ottawa yawns. And most Canadian sports fans barely notice, let alone understand the incredible talent, effort and culture-creation that the Carleton Ravens basketball program³ represents. The good news is that I can still easily get last-minute tickets for games, and can take my high school players at great prices – if only I could convince them that it’s worth their time.

Short trip, I know, but it drives me NUTS. March Madness, indeed!

³ AND THERE’S MORE: I’ve written about the Ravens frequently over the years, most recently HERE and HERE and HERE. You KNOW you want to deeper…

 

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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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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Ten for Twelve. Ravens Win! (Well, *I* Felt Something.)

I’ll regret this later in the day, but only with a bleary, weary grin and a bemused shake of the skull. I get a little hoops-deprived here in China, but not in these wee hours. It’s ten to five in the morning, and my adopted hometown team has just done the ridiculous.

To update last week’s Jordan Conn article on Grantland: “If a team wins TEN out of 12 national championships in Canada, does it make any noise? Meet the Carleton University Ravens.” Well, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees (just Google it) did, and fought madly and well, but the dynasty stands as the Ravens rolled on, 79-67. Did it make any noise? Well, just north of 7000 fans in the home of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators – yup, for all you Murricans reading, our national college hoops classic drew over 10,000 empty seats with the two local unis in it – made a fine effort. Sometimes the play-by-play guys were synchronized with the three cameras operating, and for a second-tier pro and a one-weekend-a-year ex-coach colour guy, the SportsNet 360 team did a fine job.

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Of Grantland and Conn and Backwoods Basketball

It’s an early Friday evening, down-home time. If I was in Ottawa, I’d have spent hours by now in a cavernous puck pagoda – named for reasons corporate after Canada’s iconic purveyor of duct tape, snow shovels, lawn mowers and power saws – and I and a few thousand echoing others would know two of the four teams in the only-slightly-mad northern university basketball version of the Final Four. It’s the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s basketball tournament, and you can’t get there from here in Dalian, China.

The expected collision in the Canadian final: Carleton Ravens collide, in the big house, with their crosstown rivals from OttawaU.

The March Madness of the American tournament – featuring 64 teams (once the play-in games are out of the way) to our eight finalists – is yet to come, and I’m only slightly crazed by the distance I feel. Detachment doesn’t come easy, but it comes, friends, it comes, often whether we want it or not. When I’m in Canada, I’m an Ottawa man, have been since 2002. I’m a long-time nutter of a basketball coach, and I knew Carleton University’s Amazing Dave before he was the least-known ruler of Canadian sport, the guy whose teams at a previously mediocre Ottawa school have won nine national championships in the last eleven years. It’s a dynasty such as we don’t see in sports anymore, and even most maple leafs don’t know about him or the furiously good teams he produces, year after decade. The most shocking upset, possibly, of this year’s CIS Final 8 happened before the tourney began, when the neighbouring University of Ottawa Gee-Gees were given the number one seed after a late comeback storm and a buzzer-beater in the (almost meaningless) Ontario final gave them a one-point win over Carleton’s Ravens, their first domestic loss in nearly two years.

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John Wooden (on failure)

“Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

John Wooden (191o-2010) was not only the greatest basketball coach of all time, but a wise teacher for 20th and 21st century America. I quoted his wisdom in a recent article here. He was my hero, perhaps even Number 2 among the greatest men I can imagine, and I can’t believe he’s been gone three years already. He was a writer and an educator, though, and his words live on, as does his example. His advice runs through my mind nearly as often as that of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. In the immediate calm-down after an incredible NBA finals, where I loved the Spurs and admired the heck out of LeBron and the Heatles, I miss basketball and coaching. I miss John Wooden.

A Hall of Fame player, tough and fiery, with a degree in English literature and teaching as a day job.

Humble victor, though he won again and again and again and again. A great man with feet of granite.

Learning Danny Green

Although my teaching schedule has blissfully allowed me to watch every minute of the NBA Finals — the games are on at 9 am here in Dalian, and my classes are mainly in the afternoons — it’s also June: time to make up for past marking sins, time for administrivia and visas and social obligations, time to prepare for a Canadian summer. I haven’t written a thing about the Spurs versus the Heat, and Game 6 is already upon us. Xiaoqiang is here, and the TV is warming up. I’m thinking about Danny Green.

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Happy November

It’s a great day for Catholics to remember and revere their preferred holy souls. It’s great for everybody, I say. All Saints Day (once called “All Hallows” day), was the original churchly stimulus for the dark and tricksy slant to the “All Hallows E(v)en(ing)” preceding it, which has grown into the tooth-rotting cuteness of the North American Hallowe’en. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except when high schoolers exulting in their sexuality and maturity also want to swipe the free candy that should go to small children. And to me.)

Coincidentally, it also was a day for me to repair a rather ragged piece that I had (prematurely) posted to the right in the It’s All About Sports! section. I had never suitably commemorated a passing that I’d been anticipating for years: the death of John Wooden last June. Coach Wooden was the closest thing to a saint that we’re likely to see in the world of sports, a coaching genius and an old-fashioned Christian gentleman and a great and enduring hero of mine since I was 16.

And did you know that National Novel Writing Month started today? It began as a lark by a few friends in San Francisco, California, and now a few hundred thousand people worldwide are going to try to write a 50,000-word novel this month. Tens of thousands will use the month as a carefree, quantity-not-quality way to be able to say: “I wrote a novel!”

John Wooden, In My Dreams

The “Indiana Rubber Band Man” died, aged 99, no longer bounding up from his relentless defending of Hoosier hardwood floors. But this was back in June. He still bounces furiously into my hoop crazy mind, though all recent images and tributes to him call him venerable, gentle, wise, even saintly. I think he was. But I also think he was a burning man with the wit and the training not to blow himself up, to take that rage for perfection and goodness and actually do good with it.

I have been a basketball coach, and I have meant to write about him for months. Then, last night, Johnny Wooden came into my dreams for the first time I can remember, though his example and his words are in heavy rotation in my mental play-by-playlist. If you get anywhere near sports, you probably heard: Legendary Coach Dies; He Was the Best Coach Ever, and a Better Man; We Shall Not See His Like Again. And so on.

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Where Have YOU Been?

No, not “what are you doing right now?”, because who but a twit would want to know that about anybody who isn’t themselves or, at least, someone connected by blood or love or deep belonging? (I know. Millions of people. I laugh, when I don’t curse or sigh.)

I have such a remote and tentative connection with the Powers that make my words available to (random fractions of) the Universe. It has taken me weeks to get my floating head back into the blue heaven. It was a few of my more curious Chinese students pointing out that my site was suspended that informed me, among other things, how rarely I’ve been posting. So thanks, and hello.

And rest in peace, John Robert Wooden. I cannot stop reading about him. Among the things I’m sure of, his hoped-for greeting at the gauzy doors of the next kingdom was surely given, or none of this has sense: Well done, thou good and faithful servant. And apart from those Mighty Messengers Whose missions none of us can possibly be inspired to emulate, Coach Wooden has been my greatest and most abiding hero. And now I can let this go, too, for I’m not getting any closer to that galaxy, non plus…