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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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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, 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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Bruins, Badgers Beat Ravens: The Streak Bites

The sun has (barely) risen today, and there are no signs of earthquakes in the Ottawa valley, but a rumble has sounded over the broad horizons of homegrown university basketball…
Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Bytown – mighty Carleton has streaked out.
     (with apologies to Mr. Thayer, Mr. Casey, and his Bat)

Yes, friends and neighbours, The Streak is over, and the Mighty Ravens have lost a game that counted in the standings. They were bushwhacked 69-67 on the road by the Brock Badgers.

(A note on alliterative naming: when you are a young university, with no hoary traditions that require your teams to be called the Fighting Blue Hens or the Banana Slugs – and I’m not making those up – a predisposition to cutesy alliterations like Brock Badgers suggests lousy luck, crazy karma, stilted style and inadequate imagination. Isaac Brock was a British general, people! Couldn’t we come up with something vaguely related to the school’s namesake? Or its history or geography? Are Badgers even native to the Niagara peninsula?! I desist.)

But the Badgers and their Tiny Perfect Pointguard, Brad Rootes, got it done. With Rootes and a dominant big man, Kevin Stienstra, Brock has two elements that this year’s Ravens don’t, which has made the continuance of their 87-game winning streak in regular- and post-season play all the more incredible. It also looks like they’ll lose their hold on first place in the Ontario Universities East conference for the first time since the millennium, or thereabouts.

There’s more than a hardworking Rodent Road-killer at play here, though. There’s no doubt about it: the Ravens’ wings were actually clipped by Walton Gang Karma. Even though a couple of pre-season losses to Canadian and American teams — including the fabled Bruins themselves at Pauley Pavilion this year — had always placed an asterisk beside The Streak, 87 straight counters and three straight national titles make for a potent resumé. Still, the gods of basketball, at the certain behest of Bill Walton, Jamaal Wilkes and Greg Lee and the rest of the early-70s UCLA Bruins, had decreed that the Ravens Must Die. Those John Wooden-coached teams, with their astounding (asterisk-free) run of 88 games, remain on the top of the college basketball heap. Not that the Ravens ever tried to pass themselves off as sharing the same level as UCLA – for all their domestic greatness, they would be at best a marginal NCAA D-1 team that could hang tough only in the weakest of conferences – but a tiny stir of anxiety in the hoops pantheon has been safely squashed.

But listen: the Ravens rock anyhow. They may be relieved, after all, and Coach Dave will surely have their attention now, if focus was missing. (And I doubt that it was.) At least they didn’t lose to the cross-town Ottawa Gee-Gees, who come to the Ravens’ Nest soon. (Gee-Gees. Gee-Gees? But no, no more rants on team names. Not today.) I’m sure some of the joylessness of Bytown hangs over the Ottawa gym, where they thought they’d be the giant-killers. Still, the lead dog in Canadian basketball has stumbled, and the pack is restless. Should be fun to watch from here.

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.