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. Most people predict CU’s third straight title, their tenth in twelve years. If I was a betting man, I’d lay that bet.

Or maybe there was another, even greater surprise leading up to this relatively obscure sporting, um, what’s the opposite of extravaganza? (There will be live TV, I think, of the championship game Sunday, but it will be seen on a minor network by an audience smaller than that watching any number of dreary NHL end-of-regular-season matches. You’ll have to check the CIS website for results, ‘cause they won’t be on Sports Centre.) The big Upset?, a hugely popular and basketball-centric American powerhouse of a pop-culture clearinghouse, this week ran a superb feature on Dave Smart’s team, titled “The Canadian College Basketball Dynasty You’ve Never Heard Of” (If a team wins nine out of 11 national championships in Canada, does it make any noise? Meet the Carleton University Ravens). The writer, Jordan Conn, is a young (and annoyingly excellent) writer, who tends towards stories buried far beneath the headlines, and this one fits that bill as well as anything Grantland has run. I’ve been obsessing about this article all week. I’m still dumbfounded that it exists; I thought I was the only writer that knew this team, relatively invisible even on its own campus, was deserving of greater national attention and even international notice.

More amazing, even, than the fact of the piece finding the on-line light of day is how little I objected to in its content. Young Mr. Conn didn’t get everything about the Ravens’ astonishing story, but what he got he got right. Believe me, I was ready for the stereotypes, the howling errors, and the absurd story-friendly compressions and sexifications of the

Local Legend: Ottawa high-schooler Osvaldo Jeanty came to Carleton and told Smart, “I’m here to win five championships”. He did.

facts. (In fact, there was only one disappointment: an out-of-date photo of a team celebration three championships back.) However, Conn – as is characteristic of Grantland pieces – was allowed to be expansive in his portrait: he gets the odd (to American sports fans, and to Canadian outliers like me) lack of attention to pretty much any Canadian sport other than professional or semi-pro hockey; he spent some frigid January days in Ottawa, watching the team in practice, understanding how Actual University Students can devote so much relentless focus to varsity sport when they’re not receiving scholarships for it; and, not only did he have the low-down on the NCAA basketball powerhouses that the Ravens have challenged or defeated in exhibitions, he knows basketball from the inside, the subtleties of the game that are

Smart relentlessly teaches, and stars Phil Scrubb (23, 3-time national POY) and Tyson Hinz don’t stop learning.

necessary to know what it is that Smart is doing “up there”.

I was there first, though, Young Conn. It was a small thrill to have major coverage in an influential sports-centric medium of a story that has captivated me for more than a dozen years. I wrote about the Ravens, to a microscopic audience, here (when they were stopped one short of the legendary 88-game winning streak of John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins), here (March 2006, when they won merely their fourth consecutive title) and here (the Drive for Five succeeds) and several other places. This weekend, I’ll find out what I can about their attempt to match perhaps the most remarkable statistic associated with Wooden’s extended perfect storm at UCLA (with Hazzard and Goodrich and Alcindor and Walton and Johnson and…): 12 seasons, 10 national championships. It was ridiculous then in the NCAA, and it’s ridiculous now, north of the border, where it’s still a hockey country, but one that has quietly begun to engage and startle the basketball world.

As I finished this, my curiosity got the best of me. Carleton fairly routinely dispatched their first-round opponent, my alma mater’s Marauders, 82-64. (In the previous quarterfinal, the winning Alberta Golden Bears coach, incredibly, spoke about looking forward to facing the Ravens before their quarterfinal had even begun.) Meanwhile, Ottawa’s opening-round match was Actually Watchable (except for the play-by-play) via live-streaming. Glory in the Internet morning! 

Comment (1)

  1. Pamela Jarrett

    I don’t know about Sport Centre, but I saw clips and heard results of the quarterfinal matches on the CTV 11 o’clock news!! The Hamilton Spectator has also had articles about the Carleton dynasty, its history and its coach.

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