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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Jerry Wainwright (who?) (a whistle-blower’s last request)

Yeah, well, I didn’t know who Jerry Wainwright was, either. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, Jerry Wainwright was the author that I nearly gave credit to for my last “He Said/She Said”, but thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I (think I) got it right in crediting Martina Navratilova, instead. In sourcing the “Wainwright” quote about winning in sport (and life), I learned about the man, which was interesting in the context of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Wainwright was a Division 1 head coach for nearly 20 years.

He had moderate success at two middling schools, occasionally qualifying underdog squads for the “Big Dance” of the national tournament, until his dogged success might have gotten him higher on the basketball coaching ladder than he’d have wanted, in hindsight. He took the headman’s spot at Chicago’s DePaul University, leading a program that had once been something of a national power but which has struggled in recent decades, a weak sister in a strong conference. As it had done with several other hires before him, the position ate Mr. Wainwright, bringing massive stress and even hate – ah, the shining ideal of sport in America! – towards him and his family. The Blue Demons lost more than they won.

I will get to the point, to his quote, after a little more context. (Who doesn’t love context, after all?)

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Martina Navratilova (on winning)

It being March, me being an irredeemable basketball junkie (and hoops purist, which is a difficult double these days), I’m thinking a lot about winning.


Life is hyper-competitive these days, has been for a long while, and most of the favoured paths to success, or happiness, or just plain fame, take the path of least cooperation. Beating that guy, out-performing those rivals, one-upping the neighbours, even defeating those personal demons: everybody’s urged to be competitive, and if you’re going to compete, then it’s usually better if you win. (Though not always.) Even the English language chimes in — being able to do your job, to have useful skills, is to be competent. Cooperation is often framed as secondary, nice for kids, a good refuge for the untalented. This is one of our biggest philosophical/historical misunderstandings, say I, but let’s not go there for now. Let’s say we’re competing,

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Who Is This Man? A Frantic March Meditation

Joy? Outrage? Crucifixion? Palm branches?

And why is he so happy? (Is this happiness or madness?) Why do the people around him love him so much? (They do not know him, not really, but what they do know is good enough, thanks, and shut up, a–hole!)

Let’s say you don’t know who he is. Okay. Where is he? Who are these people? Why the outrageous joy? (Or is it Madness™? See, now I’m giving things away.) It’s a delirious Prodigal-Son-style homecoming, but they’ve never met the guy.

Does he look like a guide for the impressionable young? Did you think, Aha, no doubt! This man is an educator. (Did you really think that?) Well, he is. If the NCAA is full of “student-athletes” – and it is – then this is a teacher-mentor-rabbi-leader-cheerleader-huckster-salesman. He is a college basketball coach, and he is really good at what he does.

His name is Bruce Pearl.

What is he doing?

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Basketball Boy Gets Out With the Ravens

We had shared pizza and ice cream and our favourite examples of good news. It was our Saturday evening antidote to fearful headlines and breathless predictions of imminent disaster, the ones that lead so smoothly, so ridiculously, into pitches for cars and entertainments. And then everybody took off early for a serious dose of music-as-medicine, so I was free to sneak off to a ballgame. Whee! I was a free man in Ottawa / I felt unfettered and alive / There was nobody callin’ me up for favours / And noone’s future to decide. (Apologies to the divine Ms. M.)

Carleton Ravens basketball is a great sports story, grinding toward a fourth straight national championship and building on their crazy run of success. Tonight, against the Waterloo Warriors, their undefeated streak hit EIGHTY-TWO. They’ve lost a couple of early-season exhibitions over the last few years, but in league and playoff matches they haven’t lost in 82 straight contests. They have no dominant post players. (Haven’t had during the whole run.) They are outsized nearly every night, yet they almost never get outrebounded. This year they don’t have a true point guard, and there’s nobody you’d call a scoring machine or a magical passer. And it doesn’t seem to matter a bit. They defend maniacally, they shoot fearlessly, they play together.

And I can get into this stuff, lived it for a long time as a high school coach, but tonight I watched the game as if it was played in an aquarium and I was outside it. I remembered clearly what the fishbowl was like, and what part of it I had once inhabited. I easily recognized all the species swimming inside it, but the experience felt distant. (Or I did.) Hmm. So this is basketball. Right. They take it so seriously. Coach Dave Smart is a drama, all expectation and insistence and disbelief at his players’ failings, even as they dismantle an opponent. The relentless quest for the meaning of performance. It all looks so fun and familiar, but I felt so far away.