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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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The One That Got Away

Some people meditate on holy texts, and some people try to clear their minds of language. Some write, some run, some garden or knit or walk, some just sit or doodle or smoke as their way to reflect. Many people, of course, never allow their minds the luxury of slowing down (a little), of reducing the stream of incoming information (for a moment) so they can think. I build contemplation into my life in various ways, writing being one of them, and this week I have spent many hours reflecting on the Super Bowl, the championship game of the National Football League in the United States.  Some of this was intentional.

A monumental event, a cultural festival.

I sat down with friends to watch this game, which is an annual cultural earthquake that rattles every corner of American life. For football fans, including Canadians, it’s an important game,  but it goes 20,000 leagues past a simple sports championship. Some people seriously argue that there should be a week’s holiday surrounding Game Day, or perhaps following it. Consider: the last three Super Bowls (XLV through XLVII, and don’t leave out the Roman numerals!) have been the three most-watched TV events in American history. Nearly 50% of all U.S. households tuned in, 60% in Baltimore, home of the champion Ravens. By the tense conclusion, about 115 million Americans were watching. Every year, the size of the advertising bonanza grows, with companies shelling out nearly four million dollars to CBS, the broadcaster, for each 30-second slot. People all over North America are still chattering about the ads, which have become a spectacle in themselves, attracting excited interest even from those who wouldn’t cross the street to watch the game. Millions of dollars and months of preparation went into the super-diva Beyonce’s half-time show. It’s kind of a big deal.

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Super Bowl Monday

A guided tour of America via televisual sport.

Think of it as cultural introspection. Football for fun and insight. 

Don’t be afraid.

A Tale of Two Harbaughs, Two QBs, & Two Linebackers

9:01 a.m. Monday. This is when you watch Super Bowl XLVII if you’re in China and you live two bus stops from Jimmy D’s place, where this wild-eyed NFL evangelist subscribes to Game Pass. (The game started at 7:30 our time, but we’re not crazy.) While Mad Jim puts the final touches on his breakfast burritos, we wait for the alleged gang to arrive. (Brackets like this, in this tangled story, usually mean that I got thinking more about this stuff once the Super Bowl had settled a bit in my mind. It has taken a few days. There’s a lot to think about. Note: this post gets long. Sit back. Relax.)

9:11 a.m. Bad Jim just burst my bubble. This telecast is likely pre-cut. There’ll be no pre-game, but then I’ve had enough in my ill-spent past of talking heads and pre-game hype, and Grantland’s Bill Barnwell and crew have given me all I need of pre-apocalyptic analysis. (If you promise to come back, I will link you to this great sports and pop culture site. But no pride-of-America national-anthem-as-sacrament? No over-indulgent commercials, no insert-hyphenated-adjective-here  half-time show?!) I wanted the whole experience. I wanted to see what the brightest, most creative minds in the Excited States of America have made to mould and incite our consumer purpose. Bring it to me, TV!!

9:15. Burritos chewing, game on. I’ve read much more – he’s been an introverted flashpoint for pigskin opinionating – about the Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco than I’ve seen, which basically amounts to their AFC championship beating of the New England Bradys, and this opening series. He throws beautiful balls, so fluid, so confidently commanding. Baltimore is off and throwing. It doesn’t look like the constipated, conservative, No Fun League Super Bowls that I got tired of in the 90s and early 2000s. (Our little-brother Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup championship was routinely a better game than the Hyper Bowl. But enough of Canuck chauvinism.) But it’s going to be all football, which I’m adjusting to. I guess I can watch the commercials later if I really want to. Nearly $4 million to buy 30 seconds, I’ve read. What a world.

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CIS Halifax: Day 2

This is stale-dated, unfortunately; I wasn’t able to post directly from Halifax, but here are my notes on Day 2 (Saturday’s semifinal play) of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s basketball championships.

Games 5 & 6 (Consolation Semifinals): The tournament’s top two seeds, Concordia and BC, overcame their first-round disappointments to advance on the Consolation side of the draw. Some consolation. It’s another distinguishing feature of the Canuck national final that there even IS a chance for first-round losers to play again; it is universally win-or-go-home in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, where even the third-place game in the Final Four was done away with 35 years ago. It’s hard for CIS athletes – especially those who genuinely believed that they were in the championship hunt – to commit mentally to the consolation round, but the competitive jones kicks in sooner or later as long as the game doesn’t get away from them early. For the administrators, it is simpler: Look, if we’re travelling all that way, we have to get at least two games. It’s money, but I’m not sure it makes even economic sense to play a game that nobody much wants to play or watch. At development levels, of course there has to be the chance to play the extra games, but with elite athletes? I don’t see the point, really. I must be missing something.

That having been said, top-seed Concordia pulled away from a lethargic Windsor team that was never really in it. Down 20 midway through the first period, the Lancers made a minor comeback in the second but never made it interesting. Yesterday’s doubts were confirmed: Windsor’s Wilson Cup home-court win over Carleton, which had little bearing on seeding for the Final 8, was their national championship, emotionally. The Stingers’ Patrick Perrotte, after a tough game one, was dominant inside against the Lancers. He’s an odd-looking player, a “Mister 5 by 5” who plays the post at a wide-bodied 6’1”. You’d never pick him out of a police lineup as a basketball player – he looks more like the guy who owns (and is the bouncer for) the slightly seedy bar downtown – but he’s powerful, skilled, very intelligent and has remarkably nimble feet for a man of his heft. Perrotte’s running mate, Benjamin Sormonte, also shot the lights out.

In the second consolation game, a casual UBC team allowed an Acadia club, scarlet from their 48-point spanking by Carleton the night before, to recover some pride. It seemed inevitable, though, that the Thunderbirds — maybe the most talented crew in the country — came back from a large early deficit to win fairly comfortably. Casey Archibald was a revelation, seemingly able to dial up a graceful offensive sally whenever it was needed. What a beautiful jumpshot. “How is this guy not on the national team?” was a conversation running through my section; he wouldn’t dunk on international competition as he does here, but he’s a 6’4″ guard who can shoot the long bomb and the pull-up mid-range shot. At this level, he takes over when he feels like it, and notched another 30-point effort. At the same time, the other thread running through the knowledgeable fans in the Carleton section was that he “couldn’t play for us”. Too soft? Not committed to defence? I’m not sure what was meant by that, other than Ravens Pride, but it was great to see him play after all that I’ve read. He’s the real deal, and what a great career, despite the T-Birds’ chronic failures at the Nationals.

Game 7 (Championship Semifinal): Brandon v. Saint Mary’s. After the Huskies upset Concordia in the opener, this game was exhibit B of the competitive advantage that the small Atlantic University Sport conference has had by virtue of hosting the Nationals for the past 24 years. Three times, for example, their conference runner-up has qualified as the 8th-seeded  host school and knocked off the tournament number one in the first round. It’s home cooking, baby, though not of the refereeing variety, at least not directly. But they’ve played at the Metro Centre frequently, which is a very different venue from the campus gyms that nearly all CIS games are played in, and Halifax comes out in force to yell for the Maritime teams. Here, the Huskies were decidedly outmanned against the Bobcats, but Brandon failed to put the finish on their 17-point second-half lead, and the loud crowd helped Saint Mary’s to come within three in a raucous run to the buzzer. When only one Atlantic school gets an automatic bid to Nationals over the next three years — they’re moving to Ottawa after their long Halifax engagement — things will be very different for the east-coast schools. Can AUS teams have anywhere near the success they’ve had during the Halifax years? One thing they won’t have: scoreboard “rally monkeys” bouncing and imploring the crowd to MAKE NOISE for Saint Mary’s. It clearly rattled the Bobcats, and gave renewed energy to a very tired group of Huskies.

Game 8 (Championship Semifinal): Ottawa v. Carleton. Round Four of the “Canal War” between these Capital rivals had the Carleton fans worried. OU gets up for the Ravens as they do for nobody else, and they had won two of the three tense struggles they’d had. I guessed that this would not be the case when it came to the Nationals, and my prediction of a relatively easy 13-point Carleton win suffered only from being too tentative. Carleton ground down a very game Ottawa team, which knew early in the second half that there were no more miracles in their toolkit. The Ravens were nearly as dominant, at times, as they had been in crushing Acadia in the first round. The lead got near 30, and the final spread was a startling 22 points. For those of you counting these things, that made for a 70-point margin of victory in Carleton’s first two games. If people wanted to see them go down, last year was the time to get them, when second team All-Canadian Aaron Doornekamp was out with a broken ankle. Astonishingly, the Ravens won anyway last year, and I can’t see anybody getting them now. They are SO hard to play against.

ODY: 25/365

Only 68/73rds of this experiment in personal re-novelty, this “Old Dog Year” of learning guitar, remain. I like fractions.

After two hours watching a vibrant and feverishly competitive practice of Canada’s best amateur basketball team and wondering if I was wishing to blow that whistle again, I returned to my own subterranean training session. No floor burns, no ankle turns, no sweat. (And don’t forget, coach: no herding sullen teens toward an objective only you can imagine. No making chicken soup out of chicken, um, feathers.)

Didn’t much feel like work, but was surprised to find that the 30 minutes flew. I went back to my dogged progress in figuring out how to play the theme from Bonanza, and I’ve got it, even the almost-intricate part. I’m sure it’s pretty eccentric fingering, and I’m a long way from ease in the saddle, but that was fun. More fun with the blues, too. Almost like playing music.

The Streak Continues

And now it’s 85 in a row for the Ravens. Carleton beat the York University Lions tonight, and their ridiculous romp through all comers is approaching the 88 of the immortal UCLA Bruins teams of Bill Walton, Marques Johnson, Greg Lee and The Coach, John Wooden. (The caveat, which Carleton generally remembers to mention, is that they count (only) regular season and post-season games they’ve won on their way to the last three Canadian University titles. St. Francis Xavier got ‘em in a preseason tourney this year, as the University of British Columbia did last year. And they don’t count their swings against American powers, where this year they played and lost fairly respectably at the legendary Pauley Pavilion of those UCLA Bruins. Glad we got that straight.)

I used to coach at summer camps with Carleton’s head man, Dave Smart, before he embarked on his astounding and still fairly young career. It’s as easy to admire and respect the Ravens as it must be difficult to play for such an unrelenting and insistent coach. He is focused, and so are his teams.