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The Great Canadian Hope January 30, 2011

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What must have seemed like a dream run for the world’s 152nd ranked tennis player (and a Canadian, no less) came to an end earlier this week at the Australian Open in Melbourne. After beating the 22nd and 10th seeds and becoming the first qualifier to reach the round of sixteen at a Grand Slam in twelve years, Thornhill, Ontario native Milos Raonic lost in four sets (4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4) to #7 David Ferrer. Had he won, Raonic would have become the first Canadian to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal. Not that Canadian tennis fans are exactly complaining.

Equipped with one of the most powerful serves on tour (ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe called it the strongest he’s ever seen) and a 6’5 frame that lets him cover the court with ease, nineteen year-old Raonic is the most promising player to come out of Canada in years. His confidence steadily grew throughout the week as his Aussie Open performance showed that he has the ability to compete amongst the tennis elite.

“There’s a lot to learn from today and from the whole two-week experience,” said Raonic, who unleashed 15 aces in defeat. “The biggest thing is I’m not that far away from this level on a week-to-week basis. This is a great motivational thing for the work I’ve done.”

Of course, anyone in attendance on the opening night of last summers’ Rogers Cup tournament in Toronto knows what Raonic is capable of against tennis’s top dogs.

On what had already been dubbed “Tennis Canada night” at the sporting organizations newly revamped Rexall Centre on the campus of York University, the Canucks shone bright. In the evening’s first match, local kid Peter Peter Polansky (ranked 200th in the world at the time) upset 15th ranked Austrian Jergin Melzer to the delight of the capacity crowd in attendance. Still, the best was yet to come.

When Raonic and Alberta’s Vasek Pospisil stepped on the court, they looked like they were about to be fed to the lions. And, in a way, they were. Roanic and Pospisil, ranked 217 and 329, respectively, were set to take on the world’s number 1 and 2 ranked players, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokavic, in a highly anticipated first-round doubles match. It marked the first time that the top two players in the world had teamed up since Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe in 1976. Two closely-contested sets and a nail-biting 10-8 tiebreaker later, the Canadian Kids had beaten Nadal and Djokovic in what could only be considered a Tennis Canada Night miracle.

For Roanic, that match was the Big Bang of his career, the instant when everything changed and his game rapidly expanded. He moved to Spain in September to train full-time under Tennis Canada coach Galo Blanco, and has shown steady signs of improvement ever since.

At the Aussie Open this week, Raonic gave a global viewing audience a taste of what he is capable of (in his four matches, he recorded over seventy five aces), and his electrifying skills didn’t go unnoticed. As he left the court after his loss to Ferrer, those in attendance Down Under gave the kid from Canada a rousing ovation. It was their way of letting him know that, in their eyes, he was no fluke, and had been accepted as the real deal. Though he entered the tournament an unknown, the Great Canadian Hope with the big serve is surely one of the most intriguing players to watch as 2011 unfolds.

Dave Zarum

Book Review: The War for Late Night January 16, 2011

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Note: This article is originally published in The Argosy newspaper and as such can not be reprinted without permission from the Editor in Chief (argosy@mta.ca)

The War for Late Night: When Leno went early and television went crazy. Written by Bill Carter. Viking Press, 2010.

Dave Zarum

“Frankly, either NBC is closing its eyes to a situation it does not wish to acknowledge, or they are unaware of the caliber of disaster indicated by a drop to fourth place (behind CBS, ABC, and FOX)… Well, (cue the ragtime music) we’ve got Trouble right here at NBC with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘G’ as in, ‘Gee, we’re screwed!’/Just a few years ago we were sitting on top with Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends. Then those shows bailed and new ones failed and it started a nasty trend/And the guy who passed on Lost was promoted instead of tossed, and now the Peacock is taking it from both ends.”

It was August of 2006 when Conan O’Brien kicked off his performance as host of the 58th annual Emmy Awards with this ominous song-and-dance number. Who would have thought that it would only get worse for NBC, whose already shoddy reputation would be further sullied thanks to a public battle over the future of late night programming between the network and its two biggest stars, O’Brien and Jay Leno? Yet that is precisely what happened, as meticulously chronicled by New York Times national media reporter, Bill Carter, in his latest book, The War for Late Night.

At the time of his Emmy appearance, Conan was preparing to take over the Tonight Show from its longtime and successful (at least as far as ratings and revenue was concerned) host, Jay Leno- a plan that had been in the works since early 2004. But by the time 2009 rolled around (when Conan was contractually promised the Tonight Show gig), Leno was still easily number one in the ratings and, despite nearing sixty years of age, showed no signs of slowing down. So NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker (the man who passed on Lost) and his executive cohorts were left with the unenviable task of supplanting the most-watched late night personality (Leno) with one who was undoubtedly funny, but ultimately an unknown commodity at the 11:35 Tonight Show time slot (Conan).

Of course, we all know what happened: Leno was moved to 10:00, where the Jay Leno Show failed because, well, it wasn’t funny, while The Tonight Show was consistently losing out to The Late Show with David Letterman in the ratings war for the first time since Leno took over from Johnny Carson back in 1992. Zucker and NBC ultimately chose to axe Conan after only six months, handing the reigns back to Leno (and subsequently forking over almost $40 million to Conan as a severance).

In writing War for Late Night, Carter’s biggest challenge was to tell a story that had already been told in newspapers daily and was carried out on TV nightly in your living room for the better part of a year. Yet he does so seamlessly, thanks to a narrative voice that makes it possible for the reader to legitimately lean forward with interest as he discusses the intricacies of advertising revenues and minute-by-minute ratings analysis- which is no small feat. That the book reads like the late night TV version of All the Presidents Men is a further credit to Carter, who does his best Bob Woodward by conducting an anthropologist’s share of primary research and interviews with nearly all players involved, from agents to executives to the hosts themselves.

Any ardent non-fiction reader will enjoy the structure of War for Late Night, as woven in between details of closed-door negotiations between executives from  the Big Three networks (…and FOX) are concise yet thorough biographies of some of the funniest comedians in late night TV including Conan, Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson.

“I knew it was official this morning when NBC dropped off all my CD’s and picked up its lava lamp”, Conan O’Brien told Tonight Show viewers on January 10th, 2010, of the news that Leno would return to host the show, but not before adding that the network insisted, “I must return the Etch-a-Sketch that my contract was written on”.

By then the national media had pitted Jay Leno and his “win at all costs” attitude against Conan’s “it’s just an honour to be here” mentality, which ultimately saw Leno back on top at NBC with O’Brien left to wander late night opportunities on smaller networks, like TBS.

The War for Late Night dismisses that prominent misconception, amongst others, instead offering insight and unparalleled access into the manipulative world of late night television, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Everyone who follows has a theory as to what went wrong during the Tonight Show saga, and after reading War for Late Night, you’ll have your very own, too.

1994: The Death of Baseball and the Rise of the Baseball Movie December 1, 2010

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By Dave Zarum

“Touch ‘em all, Joe!” yelled legendary Toronto Blue Jays radio announcer Tom Cheek, “You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!”

Trailing 6-5 in the bottom of the ninth with Ricky Henderson and Paul Molitor on base, Blue Jays first baseman Joe Carter stepped up to the plate against Philadelphia Phillies closer Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams and blasted the second World Series-winning home run in baseball history. Carter’s shot remains one of the most iconic Canadian sports moments, cementing the second of back-to-back titles for the Blue Jays.

Graphic illustrated by Matt Collett

During spring training of that 1993 season, the seeds of a nasty feud between owners and the MLB Players Association had been sown over issues with a proposed salary cap. Within eight months of Carter’s blast the players went on strike, cancelling the latter part of the 1994 season and the entire post-season, marking the first year without a World Series since 1904.

How were millions of fans going to cope with the indefinite suspension of Major League Baseball?  What could possibly fill the void? In anticipation of the lockout and in the face of these questions, one group went into action: Hollywood producers.

The result? Rookie of the Year, Mr. Baseball, Major League II, The Scout, Angels in the Outfield, The Sandlot, and Little Big League. An avalanche of baseball movies, all released between 1993 and the strike-shortened 1994. Seven flicks, ranging from the fairly forgettable (The Scout, Angels, Mr. Baseball) to the sublime (Major League, Sandlot, Little Big League, Rookie of the Year). A savvy business move on the part of Hollywood’s largest studios, baseball fans responded and hit the theatres in droves: the films earned a combined 171 million dollars at the box office in the United States alone. But was this a reaction to the lockout, or simply an unprecedented collection of genuinely great baseball movies?

In Rookie of the Year, twelve-year old Henry Rowengartner breaks his arm and in the process somehow gains the ability to throw a baseball up to 103 mph. He’s spotted by the Chicago Cubs manager, who promptly offers him a spot on the big league club, despite the fact that he can’t learn Henry’s last name (“Runamaker!”, “Rulenfurter!”). Under the tutelage of Chet ‘Rocket’ Steadman (Gary Busey) and pitching coach Phil Brickma (the hilarious Daniel Stern), Rowengartner leads the Cubs to the pennant. Did I mention he was twelve?

Riding the coattails of ROY, Little Big League sees another twelve-year-old, Billy Heywood, hit the big leagues… as an Owner/manager of the Minnesota Twins. Heywood has to deal with controlling a bunch of grown men and (spoiler alert) ends up earning their respect in the process. Little Big League will best be remembered for perfecting the baseball montage, which takes up roughly sixty per cent of the movie.

Mr. Baseball follows the journey of Tom Selleck and his moustache, as the two play professional baseball in Japan. In The Scout, Albert Brooks plays a scout for the New York Yankees who tries to recruit pitching prodigy Steve Nebraska (Brendan Fraser). Angels in the Outfield is a remake of the 1951 film of the same name, and features Tony Danza as Los Angeles Angels pitcher Mel Clark, and Christopher Lloyd as an angel.

Major League II chronicles another season of the dysfunctional Cleveland Indians, featuring familiar characters like Pedro Serrano, Jake Taylor, Roger Dorn, Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), Isuru Tanaka, and closer Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughan (Charlie Sheen). If there was an All-Star team of movie baseball players, all of these guys would make it.

The gold standard of early nineties baseball movies remains The Sandlot. A lifelong friendship is formed when, in the summer of 1962, the leader of a local backyard baseball team, Benjamin Rodriguez, recruits the awkward new kid in town, Scotty Smalls, to play for his team. When a baseball signed by Babe Ruth goes over the outfield wall and into a backyard patrolled by the slobbering monster known as “The Beast”, the boys must overcome their fears and retrieve it, predictably coming of age in the process.

Major League Baseball resumed play on April 2, 1995, and baseball movies subsequently faded away. There have been a handful released in the years since, but certainly nothing that could compare to what we saw during the cinematic baseball boom of 1993-1994. Except, of course for Ed, the 1996 movie where ‘Joey’ from Friends learns to deal with playing on the same minor league team as Ed, a baseball playing chimpanzee. That movie was awesome.

Truth at Last March 7, 2010

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The results speak for themselves. A 9-1 victory over the defending world champion New York Yankees, a 14-6 trouncing of the reigning NL champion Phillies, and a gritty 9-7 win over the Tigers courtesy of a clutch walk-off homer by catcher-of-the-future  J.P. Arencibia. Major League Baseball, be warned: the Toronto Blue Jays came to play. Sure, we’re only a week into spring training, but I’ve seen enough to be convinced that this year’s edition of Canada’s team will be the one that finally, finally, gets past the AL East and those damned Yankees.

Ok, I’m being facetious. Don’t get me wrong- if this were any of the previous ten or so years I would unquestionably allow a minute sample of Blue Jay spring-training victories work me into an unhealthy fervour, but this year something feels different. This season, you see, there are no dreams of division titles or wild card berths- expectations that had been undeservingly placed on the Jays for the past decade. And yet despite the widespread acknowledgement by Jays fans that this won’t be a season defined by winning, there is a sense of unprecedented clarity that has manifested itself in the form of optimism. The 2010 Blue Jays represent arguably the first true rebuilding effort witnessed since the teams’ early expansion years. Built around a slew of promising, if largely unproven prospects like Arencibia, 21-year old Travis ‘Lunchbox’ Snider, and Marc Rzepczynski, along with young stars like Adam Lind, all-star 2nd baseman Aaron Hill, and pitcher Ricky Romero, the focus has shifted from the familiar adage of ‘this year’ to next season and (well) beyond.

If we’re being honest, the Jays have been in a quasi-rebuilding mode for years. Yet former GM JP Ricciardi never seemed to be able to come to terms with this, acquiring one or two big name veterans every off-season, creating transparent hope year after year. I hate to knock the same guy who brought us Eric Hinske and JFG (John-Ford Griffin, for the uneducated), but the truth will set you free. Or so I’ve heard. This past winter saw no Frank Thomas signings; no hundred million dollar paydays to guys name BJ and AJ; no trades for Corey Koskie (hey, it was a big deal at the time). Instead, new GM Alex Anthopolous acquired young, cheap talent like 1st baseman Brett Wallace, infielder Jaret Hoffpauir, and pitchers Kyle Drabek and Brandon Morrow to complement the existing roster, creating promise and, more importantly, flexibility for the future.

Despite Anthopolous’ best efforts in reshaping the roster, the scars of the 2009 season, the last of the Ricciardi era, still exist. Alex Rios was allowed to go to the White Sox for literally nothing in return, and JP’s refusal to trade Halladay (who, now in Philadelphia, is poised to break Jack Chesbro’s 1901 record of 41 wins) resulted in an eventual haul of uncertainties like Wallace and Drabek. And still, as I mentioned, there is optimism in Blue Jay land. For the first time in years, fans and management alike know what this team is and what it most definitely is not; it’s the kind of clear-minded, rational thinking that the franchise has been void of, and is the lone reason for Jays fans to keep showing up to the ballpark. Clearly for the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays, honesty is truly the best policy.

The Hedo Situation February 7, 2010

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His nickname is the “Turkish Jordan”. It’s a moniker that suggests that he’s, like Michael to the Americans, exponentially better than any of his fellow countrymen. And while Hedo Turkoglu is very likely the best basketball player in all of Turkey, amongst NBA players he is frustratingly average.

Like a kid who’s natural ability allows them to bullshit their way through guitar lessons or algebra class, Turkoglu, to this point, has seemingly floated his way through 10 seasons that saw both individual (Most Improved Player, 2008) and team success (playoff appearances in seven seasons). Through it all, though, his work ethic has repeatedly come into question.  Oddly, when someone exercises such seemingly little effort, as Turkoglu does, while still yielding results, there’s a tendency to just assume they possess some sort of supreme natural talent. The potential to harness this provides an especially attractive “what if” for GM’s league-wide, which made Hedo a valuable commodity during the 2009 free-agent market.

Still, Turkoglu’s carefree demeanour left a lot to be desired and served as a major red flag to any potential suitor, to say nothing of his pregame pizza intake. Unsurprisingly, since signing with the Raptors, a popular pizza chain has immortalized his pizza habit in a memorable advertising campaign. It has proved to be Hedo Turkoglu’s most significant contribution in a Raptors uniform.

Though the team has been winning of late, Hedo’s averages of 12.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4 assists remain uninspiring. Beyond a perceived lack of effort and undefined role within the team, Turks’ greatest obstacle to success is his ego, fuelled by the $53 million owed to him over the next five years. Hedo Turkoglu’s inflated self-perception is, dare I say, Situation-esque. Armed with a contract usually bestowed upon borderline franchise players, Turk honestly believes that he deserves to be the offensive focal point of his team. Don’t take my word for it: when asked in a post game interview to what he would attribute his strong play (26 points, 11 boards, 50% shooting) in a recent win over the Knicks, Turkoglu responded with one word, “Ball”. I may not speak Turkish Neanderthal, but I think the message was clear.

In the last few days, the Hedo situation appears to have worsened, thanks to a recent injury to his right orbital bone. Despite his employers (read: Bryan Colangelo) and doctor’s insistence, Hedo is refusing to wear a standard protective mask, stating bluntly “I appreciate all the concern, but I’m a grown man… and I decide not to wear. Just try to focus on my game, not on my face.” Fair enough.

While normally I would applaud any scenario that combines the comedy of arrogant pro basketball ethics with broken English, the Raptors have too much invested in Hedo for me to just laugh it off. Hedo Turkoglu can be a coveted piece in the Raptors puzzle, barring he accepts his place on the totem pole under players like Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, and maybe even Jarrett Jack. Ulimately, the immediate future of Canada’s lone NBA team lies in the hands of the “Turkish Jordan”, and I couldn’t be more terrified.

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.