Friday, June 14, 2019

Toronto Raptors win NBA championship after 24-year struggle


There is a tidal wave of pride reaching across Canada, given the 59 ‘jurassic parks’ that sprang up in cities across the land, with thousands cheering for the victorious Toronto Raptors, winners of the Larry O’Brien trophy as National Basketball Association champions for 2019. Easily affordable as a school yard, even driveway, sport and as an elementary and secondary school sport for young men and women, basketball offers kids the chance to learn specific shooting, passing, dribbling, blocking-out, rebounding, defending individual skills, with the added benefit of razor-sharp decision-making at a high pace, and the gestalt of both organized and drilled offensive and defensive “plays” or strategies played on a relatively constrained court with other team mates.

After 24 years in the NBA, looking back on what seem to be too many examples of ‘coming up short’ in playoffs, and too many departures of players who were stars and became even more famous and successful elsewhere (Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, Tracey McGrady as examples), after multiple coaching changes, even the firing of “Coach-of-the-Year” winner Dwayne Casey last season, the departure of the treasured ten-year veteran DeMar DeRozan in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs for Kawai Leonard last summer, the current roster, this edition of the team finally reached the ‘finish line’. So, the road to the championship has been paved with many set-backs, pot-holes, trashed hopes and dreams and the trend-line of fair-weather band-wagon fans.

Building around the seven-year veteran, Kyle Lowry, graduate of Villanova, and best friend of DeRozan, Team Manager Masai Ujuri, himself from Nigeria and previously from the Denver Nuggets, risked the wrath of Toronto fans in trading DeRozan for Leonard, especially given the risk evident in Leonard’s history from last year’s schedule in which he played only nine games for the Spurs because of injury to his right quad. His dubious relationship with the Spurs provided additional fodder for the sceptics in the Toronto fan base.  Doubt about Leonard’s agreeing to sign with the Raptors and about his physical condition led to a new term in basketball team management, “load management” after he did indeed agreed to sign. Summoned by team trainers, the term points to the agreed need to blend Leonard’s need to practice and play in league games with his generally eroded physical health and strength. At no time during the season did Leonard play in both back-to-back games, providing opportunities for the other team members to find their performance levels in both wins and losses without his “leadership.”

Having been named Most Valuable Player in the 2014 Spurs win over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals, Leonard was, if healthy and in the right frame of mind about coming to Toronto, the potential “final piece” of a complex and evolving chemistry of a team desperate to emerge from the wilderness of failed play-off entries. Bonding Lowry and Leonard as a first and essential step in developing the current version of the team was clearly a prime goal of new coach, Nick Nurse, promoted from assistant following the departure of Dwayne Casey at the end of last season.

 Integrating new-comers Serge Ibaka, born in Republic of Congo, from the Orlando Magic after stints with Oklahoma Thunder and before that the Spanish national team, Danny Green, also from the Spurs in the Leonard trade, and Cameroon native, Pascal Siakim who played for New Mexico State, with Fred VanVleet from Whichita State, Marc Gasol, born in Spain and  newly arrived from the Memphis Grizzlies in mid-season, Normal Powell, formerly a UCLA Bruin and OGAnunoby previously of the Indiana Hoosiers. Also added late in the season was veteran Jeremy Lin, a member of the 2012 New York Knicks championship team and graduate of Harvard.

Basketball watchers find special magnetism among the plethora of statistical numbers that accompany each player’s performance in each game , each quarter, and each time-out…so rapid and accurate is the new software in both collection and storage, and then in obvious comparisons. Stats around the percentage of 3-point shots attempted and made, the percentage of free throws attempted and made, the percentage of field goals attempted and made, the number of turn-overs, fouls, rebounds, blocked shots, technical fouls read like a report card for each player, and for the team generally, especially in comparison to the same stats for their specific opponent.

The social demographics of those hundreds of thousands of “spectators” both inside Scotiaplace Arena in Toronto, and in those dozens of “jurrasic parks” indicate a broad range of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and racial groups. In short, basketball, much like soccer (European ‘football’), is embraced by people around the world, although it has only a single footprint at the professional level in Canada. Invented by a Canadian, James Naismith in 1891, basketball has become a long-standing Olympic sport. Naismith also wrote the original basketball rule book and founded the University of Kansas basketball program. So, there is a kind of “complete circle” in the historic moment of this 2019 NBA championship’s victory by a Canadian-based team for the first time.

Canada is the “home” of hockey, a very different game and culture from that of basketball. Played on ponds by Canadian kids from every hamlet and village, hockey’s required skating skills, hand-eye co-ordination to manipulate the round  hard rubber puck at the end of a stick and tolerance of the extreme temperatures in Canadian winters (at least for the better part of the last century), hockey embraces  a much more physical even somewhat brutal pursuit of the puck. Body-checks, both in open ice and against the surrounding boards, the occasional fist-fight (although far reduced in number in the last decade), faces cut by rising sticks, eyes grazed by flying pucks (more recently somewhat protected by visors) and serious bruising injuries from stopping 100-mph shots on parts of the body not protected by equipment are all considered normal in hockey. Also rising up the corporate (National Hockey League) and player association (NHLPA) agenda is the issue of player concussions resulting from the impact of hard shoulder pads in collision with the crania of opponents, some accidental and some deliberate.

On the other hand, basketball, played without body protection excepting stable and non-slip athletic shoes and mouth guards plus the occasional face mask following an injury to nose or jaw or cheekbone, witnesses turned ankles, torn Achilles tendons, and torn muscles of various kinds. Physical body-checks, as celebrated in hockey, are virtually precluded by the rules of basketball, although a skilled “block” of a driving dribbler, or a “charge” by a driving dribbler (depending on the timing and positioning of the encounter) can provide considerable excitement both on and off the court. Ball control, however, very different from the bouncing of a frozen chunk of vulcanized rubber, is much more in the hands and in the hand-eye co-ordination of the players. Without players assigned specifically to “guard” the basket, all basketball players have both an offensive and defensive role, whereas in hockey the “goalie” is the last line of defence, heavily padded and conscripted to a crease immediately in front of a net, framed by iron posts and cross-bar.

The development of the two sports in North America seems to be a mirror image of each other: hockey was more popular and played by more kids in Canada historically, while basketball experienced the reverse numbers in the United States. And the irony continues in the two championship teams in this year’s finals in both the NHL and the NBA. The St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup, emblematic of NHL supremacy, while the Raptors won the O’Brien trophy. Thirteen Canadian men are members of the Blues, a much higher number than the number of Canadians on their opponent, the Boston Bruins. In the NBA, however, a slowly growing number of Canadians, this year 14, are being recruited both by U.S. colleges and universities, the primary training ground for NBA aspirants. We all know that it will be some time before the Canadian National Basketball team will challenge the U.S. national team at the Olympics, given the dominance of American-born players on the American team, all of them members of professional NBA teams.

Nevertheless, for those of us Canadians who have harboured a passionate commitment to the “hoops” for most of our lives, there is a high level of both pride and national satisfaction that we are watching a significant growth curve of participation among Canadian boys and girls. And this latest win will only inject cultural and societal steroids into that wave. Who knows, some day the Raptors may have a majority of Canadian players on another NBA championship team. And then, doubtless, the American contingent of NHL teams will aspire to a full complement of U.S. born players, and a Stanley Cup win for their side.

It is not only that $2 billion in grade crosses the 49th parallel of latitude every day between our two countries. We also have a lively and contested relationship in our professional sports teams, whether their respective rosters have a preponderance of players from either country. And the fan interest, the advertiser sponsorship, the player salaries will continue to compete and to mirror each other, as the tax schemes and dollar values continue to vacillate making the work of attorneys and accountants and player agents only grow more technical, more complex and more costly.

And given that two tickets for the last game of the Stanley Cup finals in St. Louis cost $6000, and the cheapest ticket for the last home Raptor game came in at $1600, those prices will continue to price out the vast majority of fans and spectators. Hence the derivative of the “outdoor” parties, with the monster TV screen and the suds sales.
Inside is morphing into outside, and outside into inside, as American and Canadian are each morphing into the “other” whether we really like and appreciate that shift or not.

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