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Of Greatness and the Swiss Missile January 31, 2010

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Right off the bat, I should tell you that this feels a little dirty. Heading into this week, there are an abundance of readily available NBA topics waiting to be covered: All-Star selections, the emergence of the Grizzlies and Hawks as modern-day powerhouses, trade rumours involving every player not named Kobe, and a recent report that Shaquille O’Neal is having an affair with Gilbert Arenas’ fiancé. And yet, I’ve chosen to write about tennis.

For anyone who knows me, this should come as no surprise. Tennis is an amazing sport, one that, for your average Joe the Plumber (remember him?), transcends age and ability. At the professional level, there are two quirks that separate tennis from the rest of the major sports. First, tennis has no off-season. Tournaments are played year-round on a weekly basis, and it is up to the player to decide when he or she will take time off, if at all. Second, and most unique, is that tennis is the only sport where the participants warm up against each other. Think about the significance of this for a second. You will never see this in other sports; it’s akin to Peyton Manning throwing to the Saints’ receiving core before next week’s SuperBowl, or a hockey team taking pre-game shots against the opposing goalie. Fundamentally, the idea borders on ridiculous. However, watching France’s Jo-Wilfred Tsonga warm-up against Roger Federer in this year’s Australian Open semi-final was incredibly revealing.

As the two exchanged a series of half-hearted groundstrokes, their respective demeanours were worlds apart. Before the match had begun, Tsonga was sweating and shifting around nervously, which is understandable, considering his opponent. Roger, for his part, seemed every bit the calm, consistent superstar that he is. Unsurprisingly, Federer rolled past Tsonga in three uncontested sets, displaying the poise and precision that we have become accustomed to. Four days later, Federer dismissed the young Scotsman, Andy Murray, to capture his record 16th grand slam title.
In the six years since Federer won his first Grand Slam, he has witnessed an astounding rise in talent among the professional ranks. Early in his career, Rogers’ foes consisted of the likes of Leyton Hewitt and Tim Henman, guys best described as ‘good, not great’. Today, budding young stars like Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Juan-Martin Del Potro, are undeniably more talented than their most recent predecessors. And you know what? To Roger Federer, none of it matters. The Swiss Missile is only 28 years old, his game seems more complete with each passing tourney, and the only man that can truly threaten his greatness, Rafa Nadal, is succumbing to the physicality of his style of play, having been forced to withdraw from his recent semi-final match due to a nagging knee injury that dates back to last summer. For Federer, his is a story of greatness personified, and to the sport of tennis, for its role in harbouring the finest contemporary athlete, in the words of Sam and Dave, I thank you.


The Art of Prediction January 25, 2010

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…There’s a man who sits and (plays with the control panel), and the guitar turns into a piano, or something. And you may say, ‘Why don’t you just use a piano?’. Because the piano sounds like a guitar”.

– Richard Starkey (aka. Ringo Starr)

In that slapstick, deadpan, Liverpool delivery, Ringo, of all people, managed to somehow put it into perspective: When it comes to the NBA, more often than not, nothing is as it seems. Despite every measurable means of analysis and prediction, there’s just no way to really know what will occur over the course of a game, season, or career. Players and teams alike defy conventional wisdom and find themselves in situations of surprising success (the 2010 Memphis Grizzlies) or abject failure (Adam Morrison). Certainly this wave of unpredictability seems to have transpired over the infancy of the career of Los Angeles Clippers’ rookie forward, Blake Griffin.

Last week it was announced that Griffin, the reigning 1st overall selection, would undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and, like Greg Oden before him, will not play a single game in his rookie year. History suggests that when Griffin returns, he will be a shadow of his college-self. This is devastating, considering that this is a player who, in a March ’09 piece, I referred to as a combination of “Kenyon Martin on the Nets and a young Charles Barkley, mixed with a Komodo dragon”. Having been anointed as the man who will bring relevancy to the Clips, Griffin’s future is now in limbo. That’s the problem with getting overly excited about NBA prospects: we don’t know what will happen. There are simply too many factors (injuries, poor coaching, drugs, etc.) that pre-draft scouting cannot account for.

If we’re being honest, the art of evaluating NBA prospects is little more than a crapshoot. Based on a relatively small sample size of often-misleading game tapes, scouting reports, and anecdotal evidence, we, as fans, are left to determine whether or not a certain player will be successful in the NBA. At some point during this process it becomes clear that a prospect is either going to be a solid contributor, a wildcard (that cute girl walking toward you on the street, only you’re not wearing your glasses, so you aren’t exactly sure that she’s as attractive as you think, and you won’t really know until she passes you…alright, maybe that just happens to me), or a complete dud. Last year, Blake Griffin superseded traditional scouting. He was a natural-born physical specimen with all of the skills and intangibles befitting of a sure-fire superstar. Now, we can’t be so sure. I acknowledge that Griffin is 20 years old (young, even by NBA standards) and that players like Amar’e Stoudemire have returned from similar injuries while maintaining their athleticism, yet I can’t help but be worried that NBA fans will always wonder ‘what could have been?’ But not to fret; I’ve been wrong before, and hopefully this is another in a long history of misreads and overreactions.

The Anatomy of a D-League Call Up January 18, 2010

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In a tiny office, in a non-descript high school just outside of Boise, Idaho, stand half a dozen or so unusually tall men. Individually, they are basketball players with dreams of playing in the NBA. Collectively, they are teammates on the NBA Developmental League’s Idaho Stampede basketball team. The players, some of whose names have NBA relevancy (journeyman Anthony Tolliver, Coby Karl, and rookie Patty Mills, to name three), have been called to a meeting by Stampede coach Robert MacKinnon. The quiet, nervous energy in the room suggests that the players aren’t quite sure why they are there. As they anxiously wait, in walks a short, white man with thinning hair and a bushy moustache who MacKinnon introduces as David Friedman, assistant coach for the Utah Jazz, one of the NBA teams affiliated with the Stampede. Friedman is an incredibly unassuming man who bears an eerie resemblance to Artie Fufkin (Polymer Records), both in appearance and demeanor. It’s hard to imagine that Friedman is going to make a life altering impact on one of these players’ lives, but that’s exactly what transpires. “The Utah Jazz, have the intent to sign Sundiata Gaines to a 10-day contract”, Friedman announces. Any feelings of nervousness are erased immediately, as a collective sigh of relief fills the room. Gaines, a guard from the University of Georgia, unleashes a grin wider than a Buick. “We’ve got you on a 5:45 flight to Salt Lake City”, Friedman tells him. “We have a game tomorrow”. Never one to pass up an opportunity to rile up the troops, MacKinnon raises his voice, and in pitch-perfect CoachSpeak proclaims to his players that “this is what this league is all about, right!? Now Sundiata gets his opportunity. And Sundiata, when you go up (to the NBA), please don’t come back”.

Please don’t come back. That sentence, in essence, tells you everything you need to know about the Developmental League. Established in 2001 in the hopes of becoming a fan-driven league that doubles as a breeding ground for young players, the NBDL has instead become a resting place for former college stars who couldn’t make it in the NBA (Nick Fazekas, James White), guys with extremely cool names (Rusty LaRue, Von Wafer, Latavious Williams), and other basketball vagabonds (Rafer Alston, Jamario Moon). A combination of players selfishly showcasing their own talents in lieu of winning games, and a collection of truly dismal team nicknames (Bakersfield Jam and Iowa Energy? Seriously?) has hurt the league’s popularity, but it has seen some success as a minor league of sorts. Some former D-Leaguer’s like the Rockets’ Chuck Hayes and the Warriors’ Kelenna Azubuike have become established NBA players, but most NBDL stories are of the rags-to-riches- to-rags variety.

Three NBA games, seventeen minutes of on-court experience, and just one official practice later, Sundiata Gaines is playing during the dying minutes of an extremely close home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. EnergySolutions Arena is packed with overly excited Mormons (I hate to generalize, but I defy you to find me one non-Mormon Jazz fan. Like Captain Crunch and Santa, they don’t exist.), witnessing Lebron unleashing his arsenal of power moves and irrational fadeaway threes. Despite Lebron’s 20 points in the 4th quarter, the Jazz have the ball, down 2 points, with 5.6 seconds left. A failed play finds the ball in the hands of Sundiata Gaines, who, as the buzzer sounds, shoots a three with a hand in his face. Swish. Jazz win! Gaines, sporting that same Buick grin, stands in the middle of the court, engulfed by teammates. The next morning, the Jazz sign Gaines to a second 10-day contract extending his NBA life, albeit just barely. If history is any indication, Gaines is more likely to find himself back in the D-League as opposed to lasting with the Jazz, but for one night, at least, Gaines is the hero- the one who defeated the king. If the D-League never realizes its goals of becoming a globally popular, fan-driven minor basketball league, its failures won’t lie in providing these kinds of moments. Gaines’ buzzer-beater may be the biggest moment of his career or merely the first in a series of great moments. Regardless of how it turns out, this is what the D-League is about.

Chris Bosh and the Canadian Shield January 18, 2010

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The NBA is predicated on the star system. Current TNT analyst and former player Charles Barkley preaches that the optimum way to experience NBA basketball as a fan is essentially to identify the best players and follow their every move. David Stern probably feels the same way. Since he became commissioner of the league in 1984, Stern has been publicly forthright with his plan to model the NBA after the Disney Corporation, creating a business model in which the players are the product. Michael Jordan was Mickey, Magic and Bird were Donald Duck and Goofy, Barkley was Tigger…you get the idea. Twenty-Five years and a new cast of characters later, NBA marketing still favours great players over great teams. These days, Kobe and Lebron are Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Dwyane Wade is Simba, Dirk Notwitzki is Hannah Montana, and Shaq is the Genie from Aladin(obviously). Sadly, in this model, the all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks, and FT’s for your Toronto Raptors, Chris Bosh, is perennially overlooked.

We should have realized that Bosh was going to be a great player when, in his tenth NBA game, he carried the Raptors to a double OT win over the Houston Rockets, scoring 25 points that included a key 3-pointer at the buzzer. Bosh was far from a complete product, but he stood out to the point that it was clear he was the future of the basketball in Canada and worthy of Mickey Mouse status. The Raps shipped off Vince Carter accordingly to officially usher in the Chris Bosh Era (revisionist history, I know). In the years that followed, Bosh continued to improve, adding multiple All-Star appearances to his suddenly impressive resume, culminating in what we currently witness on a nightly basis: a consistent superstar who puts up 29 points and 13 rebounds as routinely as Snookie takes it in the face. Further, Bosh is a great ambassador for the NBA, someone who my grandfather describes as seeming “articulate and well-read”. That has to count for something, right?

Well, not really. Despite his on-court brilliance, Bosh won’t be starting the All-Star game for the third straight year because of a lack of fan votes, losing out to established veterans like Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson. Why is Bosh consistently overlooked? Because he plays in Toronto. In a league with teams in 29 cities, only three (Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago) boast a larger media market than Toronto. Yet, the Raptors are almost always an NBA afterthought because they exist in a foreign country. Sad, but true. With an average of zero to two games per season broadcasted on American television, the Raps are amongst the least watched teams. The lack of U.S. exposure might not make any difference on the court, but it speaks to why players like Bosh have historically failed to get the recognition they deserve. Let’s call this phenomenon the Canadian Shield.

While universally known as 8 million squared kilometres of Precambrian rock, from a sporting perspective the Shield refers to athletes or teams in the Canadian sports landscape that slip under the radar outside of the Great White North. How else can you explain Roberto Alomar falling eight votes shy of a spot in baseball’s Hall of Fame? Can you name me a better second baseman? For CB4, it wasn’t until the Beijing Olympics when, upon watching the U.S. men’s basketball team win the gold boasting a ‘best five’ of Bosh, Lebron, ‘Melo, Kobe, and Wade, American fans realized just how good Bosh is. Chris Bosh should be considered the next great Power Forward, taking over from an ageing Tim Duncan, but that’s just not the case. Granted, Boshs’ profile as an elite player has rose this season, fuelled by stellar play and rumours of him playing elsewhere next year and beyond. He may never be an A1 Alpha-dog in the mould of Duncan, or even contemporaries like James or Wade, but the look on Chris Bosh’ face during Raptors game screams of someone who recognizes the presence of the Canadian Shield and decidedly wants out from under it. After all, there’s no Shield in Miami. Or Houston. Or Dallas. Or… you get the point.

Hello world! January 18, 2010

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