Friday, June 14, 2019

My 60 year love affair with Basketball

The Raptors' improbable victory has opened up a lot of memories.  I say improbable only because like many fans I have lived through many disappointments.  What kept me going was that there were many wonderful memories.

Who are we kidding? We are enjoying a vicarious experience  The players came through for us and if we really understand the game we realize coaches, trainers and in the case of the Raptors the manager and president played critical roles.  But behind all that are us fans.  We drove interest when it didn't seem like a sure way to make money.  We have all been disappointed after being teased with the look of stardom from time to time.

My introduction to basketball came before the age of 10 from a Sunday school teacher, John Moffatt, son of the minister who married my parents and brother to another minister who helped bury my mother.  My guess is he loved basketball and thought a group social event would help turn us into good Christians.  Simcoe Street United Church had recently had an addition intended I guess for banquets and meetings, but also included basketball nets.  I don't remember having much awareness before being invited, but it was an enjoyable experience that opened my mind and heart.    No one would describe me as a good Christian, but I did become a basketball fan.

A few years later I entered King Street Public School for grades 7 and 8.  There wasn't much for basketball, but they did have nets on the school wall and very crude mobile nets.  To be honest I didn't play much, but knew several students who became good players.

Oshawa Central Collegiate really perked my interest.  They had three age level teams and they all seemed to win.  Mr McIlveen coached the senior team, but also took time to spend on the youngest team.  I never made any of the three teams, but watched almost all their games and not just the home games.  I walked to school with two players Larry Horne and Charlie Marlowe.   At 5' 7"  I was at a disadvantage but more critically by not having binocular vision which just means one of my eyes didn't function the same as my dominant eye.  Not aware of this lack until one of the tryouts, but in truth neither handicapped me enough to stop me playing and enjoying.

I did play intramural basketball, but more importantly spent a couple of hours almost every school day playing basketball after classes.  On Saturdays they had a league which included many top high school players--mediocre, but actually got one headline which highlighted the one game I scored the most points, but identified me as a defensive player.  More strong points included that I was faster and quicker than many and could out jump a lot of taller players.  While there I attended a referee's clinic and learned to appreciate the game from their perspective.

As I approached the end of grade 11 I was told my family was moving to Haliburton for my next school year.  As I was cut from the junior team the coach, Mr Barkowsky assured me I would do better in Haliburton.  Haliburton did turn out more satisfying.  For two years I was a first stringer and was usually assigned to cover the opposition best guard and was able to block shots and get rebounds against much taller players.  Our team was able to win a few games, but never advanced beyond the regular season.  The school had a rule that grade 13 students were not allowed to play on school teams, but fortunately for me they dropped that rule when I reached grade 13.  The local doctor's son came back (he had been at I think at a private school), Jim Best and he was also able to play as well.  I remember Andy Paul, Les Fotheringham and Jim Hunter, who later died in a hunting accident.  When my father asked someone if I was any good he was told I could jump like a kangaroo.  I was never a big scorer.  One personal memory was seeing that Mr Barkowsky coached one of our opposition teams and I was able to say hello.  More even than winning the occasional game or scoring a few points my most vivid memory was blocking the shot of an athletic player for another team.

At the University of Guelph I knew I was over my head.  I occasionally played intramural and lot of pickup.  Again my best memories involved blocking shots.  I watched all the home games coached by Garney Henley an active all star football player.  They did win a few games, but more often losing,
After I graduated they won a national championship and I was able to interview Garney Henley for a project.  Before that I actually met my wife because I wanted to watch Guelph play on tv and because the set didn't work drove to Guelph and got introduced to my future wife for a blind date.   Read more:  http://www.therealjohndavidson.com/2012/08/how-i-met-my-wife.html

After university and living in southern Ontario I had more access to watching the NBA on tv.  I became a tv hog annoying people when they wanted to watch a hockey game or non sports program.  I developed an attachment to the Chicago Bulls--well before Michael Jordan.  I was conscious of Norm Sloan who went on to coach the Utah Jazz.  One obsession was with a third string center name Dennis Awtrey.  He was not a big scorer or even rebounder, but was often assigned to cover the best  centre player on the opposition team and in his clumsy way he made life miserable.  I could identify with him.  Of course when Michael Jordan came the Bulls became even more popular for me.  I also enjoyed Scottie Pippin and later Toni Kukoc.  I remember watching Steve Kerr scoring a winning basket.

After going through my first job I had moved to the Hamilton area to do a job checking car insurance policies.  One day took me to Fort Erie just after a snow storm and on impulse decided to go to Buffalo so I could check out my first NBA game.  The Buffalo Braves were an expansion team, but after seeing a few other games and following them on tv and radio I got to love their players--my favorite was Randy Smith and later Bob McAdoo. 

I wrote a letter to Bill Ballard, son of Harold Ballard  who was serving time in jail.  Harold did not like basketball seeming to think it a sissy game, but his son was more open.  At this time they were contemplating getting involved with the NBA.  My letter was passed over to Ken Twigg and I ended up selling tickets when the Buffalo Braves decided to play part of their season at Maple Leaf Gardens.  At this time I was working for the Oakville Journal Record in their circulation department and had offered a Buffalo Braves ticket as a sales incentive.  When they did in fact start playing in Toronto I got the whole circulation department to have a sales promotion which went over well.  I was a little critical of the ad campaign and made one suggestion which they did use for in the big Toronto dailies.  I had already designed an ad for the Record.

One of the concerns I ran into aside from basketball being boring, sissy, strange, etc was that it was an American game.  This offended me, but at the time there were barely any Canadian professional players.  On impulse I decided to write a book on Canadian contributions to the game and gained quite an education.   I met several what to me were celebrities including Garney Henley, Bill Robinson, Jack Donohue, Ron Foxcroft, etc., etc.  I received letters from many people and treasure a response from Bill Bradley.  I traveled a bit with the help of a government grant including Montreal, Ottawa and Springfield, Massachusetts.  Another memory was being only one of three whites in a crowded gym of Filipinos cheering on their teams from Toronto and Montreal.

I had hoped the Canadian national team would at least win a medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympic medals, but the ball didn't bounce the right way.  I ended up dealing with two publishers, but the reality was they didn't have enough confidence there would be a market for it and I ended up giving up.  It did result in some articles in a recreation newsletter through Shopper's Drug Mart, a children's story and contributing to a master's thesis.  I learned a lot about basketball and publishing.  Two earlier blogs give more details of my "career" with basketball:  http://www.therealjohndavidson.com/2015/02/my-basketball-projects-part-one.html
and  http://www.therealjohndavidson.com/2015/03/my-basketball-projects-part-two.html

My interest in basketball didn't wane too much, but I did have other interests including being a father to two children.  Finally the Raptors came to Toronto and my interest perked up.  I do remember their first draft choice, Damon Stoudamire was booed which just goes to show that fans are not as knowledgeable as they think.  I attended a few games with my son who now watches live games on tv in New Zealand (at very odd hours).  Vince Carter got a lot of attention and over the years a number of outstanding players have passed through to keep up interest even though there were a steady line of disappointments.  One got the feeling Americans didn't like us as most of the best players avoided Canada (this did in the Vancouver franchise) seeking out the American media

One promising note from just a few years ago was that  Masai Ujiri  had been offered a contract with the Raptors as general manager.  Ujiri had been raised in Nigeria and originally was steered towards soccer, but he became interested in basketball and his family supported him.  He played a bit in the U.S. collegiate system and professionally in Europe.  After finishing playing he moved back to Nigeria and got involved with youth programs.  At summer camps he made contacts with NBA executives and made an impression that led him to be an international scout for the Denver Nuggets.  From there in 2013 he was named NBA Executive of the year.   Obviously it takes a few years to assemble a team.  From there he came to Toronto with one of his first moves trading popular, but disappointing player Andrea Bargnani to New York.  Shortly after they obtained Demar DeRozen and Kyle Lowry and made the playoffs consistently.

After the end of the 2018 season he was involved in some very heavy decisions.  He fired the coach of the Year, Dwane Casey, although most would blame LeBron James for the short playoff run.  The most popular player who stated he wanted to stay in Toronto (not a common sentiment for many other players) DeMar DeRozan, but was the best bargaining tool.  In return for DeRozan and others they got Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and then later Marc Gasol (fora promising popular player, Jonas Valunciunas).  Fans were very upset until the season actually began. All three players became starters.  Kyle Lowry retained his critical starter role, but a backup player, Pascal Siakim, perhaps the league's most improved player stepped up or the fifth spot.  He is from Cameroon with his first language French and is always smiling and looks to be the future.

Researching Masai I learned one interesting fact that he criticized Donald Trump for his reference to "shithole countries."  Trump doesn't seem to realize there are people all over wanting to improve themselves and capable of contributing to America.  There is speculation about whether Trump would invite the Canadian NBA champions to the White House.  I hope they get a chance to reject him.

Unfortunately there is also speculation about the future of not only Kawhi, but also Masai who rumor has it, has been offered more money to work with the Washington Wizards in a town where his wife works.  But now I think the Raptors have helped establish basketball in Canada and I hope to watch Canadian teams and players do well.  I am very pleased that basketball has grown so much in the Canadian conscience and think it is a good thing for the whole country.

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