Sunday, May 08, 2005

A day for Canadian Basketball fans everywhere

The sport of basketball was invented by a Canadian (James Naismith) but it took an American (Jack Donohue) to bring the sport to Canada. Naismith and Donohue are likely together today enjoy the greatest moment in Canadian basketball history, Steve Nash being named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
Donohue arrived in Canada shortly before the 1976 Montreal Olympics, stunning the basketball world with a fourth place finish. Donohue duplicated that feat at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and retired following coaching Canada to a sixth place finish at the Seoul Olympics. Before today, Canada’s greatest basketball moment took place at the 1983 World Student Games when a Donohue coached Canadian team won the gold media. Charles Barkley and Karl Malone were members of the American team the Canadian team beat in the semi-finals. Donohue, who coached at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at New York’s Power Memorial High School, passed away two years ago.
A Canadian being selected as the best player in the NBA is as likely as an American being chosen as the world’s best soccer player, not something anyone associated with basketball in Canada would have ever believed would have been possible a few short years ago. In offering full disclosure it should be noted that your publisher and the writer of this piece worked at Basketball Canada from 1988 to 1992. I’ve also worked with basketball programs at the high school and college level for many years and I’m currently the voice of Canada’s three time defending national university champions, the Carleton University Ravens.
Sometime in July 1990 I was in a car heading from a Canadian National Team game at St. Catherine’s Brock University to Toronto. I was with Ken Shields who replaced Donohue following Coach Donohue’s retirement. As Shields was getting Canada ready to compete in they 1990 World Championships (being held in Argentina that summer) he was lamenting Canada didn’t seem to have developed any point guards of note. Shields mentioned a young high school player from British Columbia (Shields lives in British Columbia) but didn’t know much about the young player (Steve Nash) and Shields needed a point guard that summer. Nash joined the Canadian national team several years later, starring for Canada at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Just how underappreciated a sport was basketball in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s? At a meeting with then TSN (Canada’s version of ESPN) then general manager Rick Brace, Brace suggested to tractor pulling and darts drew better ratings then basketball. The seeds first planted by Donohue, then nourished by Shields and finally propelled when Canada hosted the 1994 World Championships (which led to the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies joining the NBA a year later) today see the sport of the crisp of unlimited potential.
If timing is everything, then a Canadian being selected as the NBA’s MVP a spring when basketball doesn’t have to compete with the Stanley Cup playoffs for attention, offers basketball the opportunity it has always needed. Ratings have improved (at least through the first week of the NBA playoffs). According to the Globe and Mail’s William Houston’ “television audiences were up substantially. Rogers Sportsnet's viewer ship increased 78 per cent over the same period last year.
TSN's audiences jumped 73 per cent. At The Score, the numbers were up 23 per cent.
Overall, the growth is 63 per cent, to an average of 86,000 viewers a game from 53,000 in 2004.
Even with the increase, 86,000 is not a large audience. Still, it topped advertisers' expectations, and the numbers seem to show the NBA arrow pointing up.
John Shannon, the head of broadcasting for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which controls NBA TV rights in Canada, told the Globe and Mail’s Houston he believes the audiences have increased mainly because of strong first-round match-ups.
Shannon categorizes last year's average of 53,000 as the NBA's hardcore base. Additional viewers are tuning in to see the stars, such as Shaquille O'Neal and Canadian-born Steve Nash, but also because the NHL playoffs have been cancelled.
Sportsnet drew the largest audience so far, 137,000 viewers, on April 27, for Game 2 of Memphis Grizzlies against Nash and the Phoenix Suns.
"We've always believed that hockey and basketball produce different audiences," Shannon said in the Globe and Mail report.
"But sports fans are looking for something to watch this time of year. So a little of the growth has to do with the absence of hockey playoffs."
The audiences also are skewing well demographically. The 18-to-49 age group showed a 66-per-cent increase from last year. For the 25-to-54 demo, the numbers were up 79 per cent.” (that again for the Globe and Mail’s William Houston)
A modest Nash told the Associated Press Saturday night "I would probably vote for Shaquille [O'Neal]," Nash said. "He's one of the greatest ever to play the game. I look up to him. He's a huge part of this game's history already. He's one of the very best personalities and players in the game's history."
Reaction within the Canadian basketball community has been not surprisingly, excited for Nash but understanding what this can mean to the sports growth in Canada.
"For every kid in Canada who believes he has to be seven foot and be able to swing off the rim to even have a chance to play in the NBA, they only have to take a look at Steve," said Leo Rautins, who was a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983 in a Globe and Mail report. "He is a testimony to hard work, perseverance and the don't let anybody say you can't do it mentality." Rautins stands to benefit more then most, he was hired to coach Canada’s National Team in March.
"If it happens, if he wins, I honestly think it would be greater than Mike Weir at Augusta," says former Canadian national team coach Jay Triano, commenting on various US. media reports that Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, a native of Victoria, will be named the league's MVP today in a Calgary Herald report.
"Don't be me wrong, I'm a big fan of Mike's. What he did was amazing. But this, if it does happen, would be being the best player in the best league in the world over a whole season, 82 games. That's phenomenal."
"Doesn't matter whether it's a game of cards, of h-o-r-s-e after practice, or darts, or whatever, he has to win. We hold a boccie tournament in the backyard of my assistant coach in Richmond (B.C.) every year, and he's got to win there," said Triano in The Calgary Herald report.
"Here's another example: We held a golf tournament before heading over to the Sydney Olympics with the national team at an executive course," recalled Triano. "A lot of our guys didn't play a lot of golf, but (it was) a decent course. And Steve won, one-over-par. I told him: 'That's great, Steve! One-over. You've gotta be happy. When's the last time you played?' He kind of shrugged and said: 'A year and a half ago.' How many guys you know could shoot a one-over-par on an executive course with rented clubs after not playing for a year and a half?
"And he channels his competitiveness in the right way. Steve is someone who really does put the group before himself. If he has to sacrifice himself for the good of the team, he's willing. And that's pretty rare in any professional sport these days.''
There are those who are going to suggest if the Toronto Raptors had signed Nash last summer when Nash was a free agent the Raptors may have made the NBA playoffs and would be in a better position then they currently are. When asked about signing Nash the Raptors have suggested they couldn’t work the economics of Nash’s contract into the NBA’s salary cap. A basketball season later, a Canadian (Nash) has been selected as the NBA’s MVP, the Raptors didn’t make the playoffs, and the Raptors have an uncertain future in Canada.
Sometimes in business you have to invest in your businesses future and if that future includes paying a luxury tax to sign the greatest Canadian to ever play basketball, you’re the NBA’s only remaining franchise, sometimes you have to spend money to make money. If (more then likely when) the Toronto Raptors leave Canada, they’ll rue the day they could have made a serious attempt to sign a player they could have built their franchise and their brand around.
Just how committed to Canada is Steve Nash. The Toronto Sun reported in Saturday’s edition “the finishing touches are being applied to the creation of the Steve Nash Foundation Celebrity Classic. The inaugural charity all-star game tentatively is scheduled to take place on Friday, July 29, at the Air Canada Centre.
Proceeds will go to the Steve Nash Foundation, although there are rumors some of the funds raised from the game will be earmarked specifically for a youth basketball centre in Toronto.” Ironically the event will replace the annual Vince Carter game.
In another move driven largely the Raptors claimed by the business of the NBA, the Raptors traded Carter to New Jersey (the Nets made the playoffs) for among others Alonzo Mourning (he made the playoffs with the Miami Heat), and the Raptors paid Mourning $10 million to play for the Heat. Whatever business the Toronto Raptors may be in, paying Alonzo Mourning $10 million to play for another team and not investing in their future with Steve Nash….well we’ll leave that logic to Toronto sports fans. Would it not have made more sense to have invested the $10 million they wasted on Alonzo Mourning to help pay for Nash’s contract? It doesn’t make one wonder if the Toronto Raptors are capable of taking any advantage of the opportunity Nash’s MVP affords them.
If the Raptors can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to how valuable a player Steve Nash would have been for their team, the Canadian National team may not have the opportunity to enjoy that opportunity. Nash made it clear after Canada failed to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games he might not play for the National Team again; certainly Canada Basketball needs to work with Steve Nash on helping to create more awareness for the sport in Canada.
Steve Nash’s selection as the NBA’s MVP stands as a testament not only to the great Nash (and a year the Phoenix Suns are having) but as a tribute to those who helped the game grow in Canada. From James Naismith, to Jack Donohue, to Ken Shields, to all those who have ever cared about basketball in Canada, today is a day in some small way each and everyone who cared can share with Steve Nash, on this the greatest day in Canadian basketball history.
For this is Howard Bloom. Sources used in this report: The Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald and Toronto Sun.