Really, Kevin? Can’t Beat ‘Em?

(twelve-minute read)
One of the good guys, from what I can tell. Wearing the dark hat (and a bullseye) now: Kevin Durant.

One of the good guys, from what I can tell. Wearing the dark hat (and a bullseye) now: Kevin Durant.

Young sir, may I call you Kevin?

I’m sure They have been calling him lots worse, though I’m not looking under bridges to check. I’m guessing “traitor” and “chickenshit” and “turncoat” and “ungrateful bastard” are making the more printable lists. “Benedict Arnold” might be favoured by those who know a little American history.

So: Basketball Star Kevin Durant Signs Free-Agent Contract With Golden State Warriors. There’s your lede, not going to bury it. This being July 5th, it’s no longer news in the antic spin-dry cycle of what-have-you-hot-taken-from-me-lately entertainment/journalism. But to me it’s still novel, a bit shuddery and uncomfortable, sort of bewildering yet all-too-familiar, a cause of naive dismay and even a spur to misplaced and minor outrage. Hey, wanna come along? 

This is literally unmediated. I haven’t had the chance to filter my jangled thoughts through what must have been a torrential downpour in the Twitterverse sports teacup, a tempest in the chatrooms and sports blogs of the world. (At least in North America, this must have outdone Iceland over England by far, and may have even outstripped Trump and cute animals for an Internet spell.) I spent the very best part of yesterday hanging around in my corner of Ottawa with some of the finest young people you’d ever want to know, and many of them barely know who Kevin Durant is. The day was about selfless service. Voluntarism. Youth leadership by the young. (Hence, I wasn’t much more than a bystander, but an inspired and committed one.) Moral purpose. Community. Educational vision. Societal transformation. All that grassroots jazz. (And walking. Lots of walking.) There was no time for Twitter.

But some of the youngsters do know KD, and their phones are smarter than mine is. As we hunted for idealists in Overbrook on the fourth of July,

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Not Supposed To Be Here: NBA Finals, America & LeBron

According to the mighty Grantland – no, not the iconic Golden Age of Sports-writer Rice but the Wise Guys Guide to Sports and Other Stuff We Watch on Flatscreens – we are 26 days from the opening of another NBA season. ( started counting down over 100 days out for this NFL season, such is the pigskin sickness in the Excited States of America.™ 1 ) In recent days, the countdown has included the following essential bits of news. Chandler Parsons digs fashion and wears trendy glasses and fashionably nerdy

Chandler Parsons, fashion plate. (Can’t be in the weight room *all* the time.) Photo from

hair. Kevin Durant is learning to be angry, while Pau Gasol is an unrepentant nice guy (actually, a surprisingly insightful short piece). The Philadelphia 76ers are the early favourites in the tanking derby to try to select Canada’s Andrew Wiggins in next June’s draft (he’s a Kansas freshman), something Grantland terms “Riggin’ for Wiggins”. Drake hearts the Raptors. The Blake-Griffin-as-Doctor-Dunkenstein days are over, according to Blake Griffin. In other news, JaVale McGee remains JaVale McGee. Some of these I actually read. Any port in a storm.

Mostly, though, I’m still looking backward to the 2013 Finals. I was pulling for the Spurs. I replay, as Tim Duncan will for the rest of his apparently fairly contented days, the easy putback he missed late in Game 7. I still can’t quite believe Ray Allen got both feet outside the three-point line for that game-tying miracle at the end of Game 6.

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Faster ‘n Jack Robinson: Who Carries That Torch Today?

Apparently, it started with Ken Griffey Jr., centre fielder for the Cincinnati Reds, who made a request to change his number for a day. Not big news, except that the number he wanted was 42, and the day was April 15, 2007. On that date in 1947, a black man named Jackie Robinson sprinted out to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was an epic moment in American life, a case where sport was ethically ahead of much of the rest of the society around it.

Why did the Dodgers do it? Enlightened self-interest? Maybe, but even if that’s all it was, that’s not all bad. But it still took courage and resolve for Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey to take the step that his peers were not ready to try, though everyone with a baseball brain knew there were superb black players available. Several Dodgers threatened a boycott if Robinson were brought in. Rickey’s response went something like this: Fine. Sit out as long as you like. Good luck finding other work.

So yesterday, not just Griffey but a large number of players and coaches across Major League Baseball, including the entire squad of the (now) Los Angeles Dodgers, wore number 42. Presumably, no opponents spit on their cleats or urged them to “go back to the cotton fields!” I suppose that their teammates didn’t refuse to eat meals or even play catch with them. There were many shots in today’s news of groups of players, wearing number 42, with their arms around each other’s shoulders, as Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese famously did 60 years ago to quiet the leather-lunged bigots in Cincinnati, where they love the gifted Mr. Griffey now.

Many point out the irony that, sixty years on, the African-American is again becoming an endangered species in baseball. There are lots of reasons for that, many of which have nothing to do with racism. Baseball is no longer The National Pastime – football and basketball have surpassed it not only in attracting black athletes but in appealing to sporting audiences – but it was in 1947. And this story is about so much more than baseball. (For example, there is a great story here about an ordinary day at one of the many Jackie Robinson Memorial parks and stadiums across America. )

Robinson was a rather old rookie, 28. His career was brilliant – Rookie of the Year, six-time All-Star, Most Valuable Player in 1950 – but comparatively short. He entered the Majors – by the way, only a couple of months before another superb man and player, Larry Doby, broke the American League colour bar with the Cleveland Indians – after being a Southern California multi-sport star, serving in the American Army from 1942-44, and dazzling Montreal sports fans while playing for the minor-league Royals after the War. Among other things, he was once court-martialled for refusing — more than 10 years before Rosa Parks did — to go to the back of a military bus in Texas. His “insubordination” charge was overturned, though, and he was discharged from the Army with honour. He also remained prominent in the civil rights movement after his baseball career. With Jackie Robinson, it was always about more than baseball. (Baseball is about more than baseball.)

This is his epitaph: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson is buried beneath, and ever exalted by, this inscription on his gravestone in Brooklyn.

Encore, Nash?

Don’t look now, but is Mr. Nash hunting for his third MVP? Surely the short, tat-free Canadian couldn’t be voted the Association’s best again? How many shoes is that going to sell?

After his first win in 2005, he proceeded to play and fill stat columns even better last season. The NBA hasn’t seen players that improve on MVP years. It was weird. He crosses over and spins past obstacles that other players won’t. And it’s happening again; a few games ago, he posted his career high in “double-doubles” for a season, and that’s not about caffeine and cholesterol, Tim Hortons lovers! He has been in double figures in two major categories – in his case points and assists – more than fifty times this year, higher than in either of his two MVP seasons. He’s shooting the three-pointer for an absurdly high percentage (46%), and shooting in general (53% from the floor overall) among the lead leaders in that category, who are generally big men, dunk machines like the über-athletic receiver of many of Nash’s immaculate deliveries, Amare Stoudemire.

The Suns are in a playoff push, and blew out the Jazz in Utah last night for their fifth straight win. Nash needed to score only 13, but fired 18 assists without a single turnover. (A 2-1 ratio of assists to turnovers is considered good work for an NBA guard.) Sheesh. He’s on everybody’s MVP ballot, and people might be forced to vote for him again, yea though the marketing machine would surely wish for another more poster-friendly young god of the hardwood. And on a weekend for honouring great sporting pioneers, well, Nash is no Longboat or Robinson, but he is a thoughtful and worthy bearer of the mantle of great athlete who is also a fine man.

Class Action, Nash and Klassen.

And a Prairie Woman Shall Lead Them…?

First things first: this is not like baseball star Larry Walker being National League MVP and getting “beat by a car” for the Lou Marsh trophy as Canada’s outstanding athlete (that car, a very fast one that season, was driven by Jacques Villeneuve in Formula 1). Today the TorinoFabulous Cindy Klassen was given the award, and I applaud her heartily. For reasons that the Globe’s Stephen Brunt outlined on Saturday, it was a brilliant year for sweaty Canucks but, like him, I hold out for Steve Nash. (I wrote about him, with appropriate playground bedazzlement, here.)

The Lou Marsh voters, sportwriters all, tend to prefer international athletes, those not getting the usual Canadian buzz for whichever homeboy leads the NHL scoring parade. (Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux combined for 16 Art Ross trophies as scoring champs and 12 NHL MVPs, but “only” five Lou Marsh awards. They were beaten, for example, by Olympians like Gaetan Boucher, Susan Nattrass (target shooting!), Carolyn Waldo (synchro swimming!!), Myriam Bedard (betcha can’t name her sport) and Silken Laumann. Oh, and by a guy called Ben Johnson. Twice. Oops.) Villeneuve was a bit of a departure from this tradition of honouring competitors in sports with a lower profile (and lower salaries), and I won’t start ranting about the dubious athleticism of car jockeys. The choice of Klassen, though, who will continue to be the focus of high-pressure expectation and excitement as the Games come to Vancouver in 2010, is one that honours a great athlete and addresses, in small measure, the usual disregard for female sport. Bravo, say I.

I can’t get much righteous indignation going, though, at the selection of a marvellous Olympian like Klassen. She was a powerhouse at the Torino Winter Games, the most outstanding athlete there and the leader of a superb crew of Canadian women athletes with her five medals, including an individual gold and two silvers. She’s the most decorated Canadian Olympian ever, the 2006 speedskating World Cup champion., and bubbled radiantly with grace and joy at her accomplishments and, wonderfully, at those of her teammates. (I wrote about her with great enthusiasm here last February.)

But I can’t help but say this: how many basketball players are there in the world? Of all those many millions, how many times will a Canadian be judged, for the second straight year, the most valuable to his team at the highest level? Fine. And how many competitive female speedskaters are there on the planet at any given time? Would there be more than ten thousand? I feel like a jerk for pointing out numbers like that, because Cindy Klassen represents much that is most honourable in sport, including the chance for young women to see a wonderfully strong role model and young men to (briefly?) cheer a strong, accomplished and fully-clothed woman. The Olympics are one of the few occasions when female athletes can take centre stage, albeit too often for events with sequins and swimsuits. So it is a sweet thing for this attention to a superb competitor to continue. But the greatest accomplishment by a Canadian athlete, in this or nearly any other year, is that of Mr. Nash.

All the Way With LBJ

Here’s a big question in the Toy Department, professional basketball division: has LeBron James, 21-year-old hoops wizard and savvy Goliath of the sneaker wars, done enough this year to be named MVP of the National Basketball Association? Or will he, as I suspect, need to pay further dues? (And just by the way, by what club are these “dues” being collected? Presumably, it’s the CREWS – the Chronically Resentful and Envious Writers of Sports.)

I wish I was seeing more LeBron Live than Magazine LeBron and King James the Pitchman. Even a jaded old dunks-are-overrated dude like me can get a buzz from some of his highlight reels, but there are several things about James that excite me a whole lot more. One of the first times I saw him play, he tapped a loose ball toward a teammate and hustled out to fill a lane on the fastbreak. The dunk at the end was sweet, but I was blown away by his hustle and speed; I’ve ever seen a big man so fast. And he fills up scoresheets, not just the points column, not to mention that with a Sports Illustrated cover in 11th grade (and another at 20 musing about him being “The Best of All Time” when he hadn’t even made the playoffs yet), James has every reason to be a flaming idiot.

My impression is that he isn’t. He speaks thoughtfully, doesn’t appear to think he’s bigger than the game, and his teammates seem to enjoy playing with him.  Best of all – at least until he becomes a philanthropist and advocate for the disadvantaged – LeBron James loves to pass. For a young guy with hops and scoring ability, he understands the game at a high level. He’s rare. I loved what he said last week, which went something like this: it’s cool to get that ‘Oooh’, but when you make the great pass, you get two ‘Ooohs’, one for the dime and one for the dunk. Not to mention that, suddenly, the game isn’t all about ME anymore. Imagine: brothers in short pants doing their thing together. Unselfishly!

Things are looking good for the Association when its Most Valuable Player is likely to be either King James or the reigning king of delivery, Steve Nash. And looking at the dominance of the Pistons, it looks like Team Ball and “playing the right way” (ah, but Larry Brown, where are you now?) are getting cooler by the quarter. Nice!!