Wherein your loyal scribe touches the elephant but finds it without clothes
By TONY SEED
TORONTO (18 December 2005) – Even in the rarefied raptor den the name and reputation of Shunpiking can produce a media pass.
“Are you covering the game, or you just want to take in a game,” asked director of media relations Jim LaBumbard over the phone. Mr LaBumbard, an American with a background in Indiana basketball, didn’t seem to know where Nova Scotia was.
I briefly explained that Shunpiking, the magazine, does not sanction contributing writers getting press passes as perks or freebies, but confessed that I didn’t know what my focus would be until I attended the game. To touch the elephant? Our team had taken in the Raptor’s very first preseason game at the Halifax Metro Centre back on 14 October 1995, Bob Semple had photographed Damon Stoudamire’s first basket, his son had tape recorded a never-published interview with the loquacious John Salley in the locker room, but a decade had passed without us having seen another game. The occasion was the anniversary of our first decade, I suggested.
Perhaps they had our name still on file?
Mr LaBumbard explained the protocol for picking up a media pass but warned that I shouldn’t expect a courtside seat. And so I had arrived early in my first visit to the zoo known as the Air Canada Centre (ACC), hardly a place on anyone’s shunpiking route.
Opened in February 1999, it squats close by Union Station on land acquired for a song during the mid-1990s through the old boy network from the Chrétien Liberals and Canada Post. This was the period when the federal government was slashing the annual budget for Canadian amateur sport by $50 million and at the same time telling the national sport governing bodies to survive by giving themselves over to the marketing demands of the corporate jungle, something called neo-liberalism.
Together with Bob Rae’s Skydome folly, it brought the wealthiest city in Canada over night into the big league of American sports, entertainment and tourist destinations, lyrically celebrated by sports and business writers alike as part of old Anglo-Canadian colonial Hogtown’s coming of age.
Every year the media keeps the illusion that the latest edition of the team is ready to compete for the playoffs and protracts a love affair with its stars. They assume that the local teams and their readers share the same goal: winning games. The name of the game: selling hope. They only demand that the newest stars like Toronto and openly express their thanks for the opportunity Canadian big capital is about to give them. Like the nervous suitor who has suffered too much rejection from players who’d rather ply their trade and earn American TV exposure and endorsements “down south”, they ask every incoming athlete time and time again: “And so what do you think of Toronto and our fans?” No such concern is expressed about the athletes after they’re left. Extrapolating from data on the NBA, an estimated 120 or more, sixty per cent, of the 200 plus players employed over the past decade by the Raptors, one of the most profitable franchises in one of the most profitable leagues, were ruined and broke just five years after retirement.
Those that question any aspect, such as Antonio Davis, concerned about the education of his American-raised children and their ability to cope with the metric system, seem to be just as quickly shipped back to the USA.
They anointed its most celebrated player, Vince Carter from North Carolina, “Air Canada,” for his prodigious athleticism and dunks and just as quickly got rid of the one independent-minded coach, Butch Carter, a Christian African-American who, on the cusp of the Raptor’s first playoff appearance, took out a $5 million lawsuit to shut down the badmouthing of an opponent, Marcus Camby, a former Raptor, then with the New York Knicks. Carter had the temerity to publicly suggest there was a conspiracy in the NBA to retrieve Vince Carter for a US franchise. He later spoke openly in his book Born To Believe (Full Wits Publishing) of the racism of one of the icons of US basketball, Bobby Knight, then coach of the University of Indiana. Carter was quickly fired by then-General Manager Glenn Grunwald, his former team-mate at Indiana years before. Grunwald was in the dressing room the night when the Knight incident took place but had since learned the price of corporate loyalty: silence, instead of verifying the accusation, and more silence even when he too in turn was done like toast. CBC described the move as characteristic of “the image conscious Raptors.”
Indeed, there is not a single former Toronto star that in his first game back in Toronto is not greeted by booing orchestrated by the media.
By 2009 the billion-dollar financial capitalist machine called Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (MSLE) – owned by BCE/Bell Globemedia, the Ontario Teachers Plan and the Tannenbaum family, powerful Zionists – will have twinned the ACC to what the Raptor’s glossy media guide zealously describes as the “long anticipated” Maple Leaf Square, as if it is a response to popular demand; a $400-million “sport, entertainment and residential complex” adjacent to the ACC, “creating a larger significant stage that will attract major sports and world events to Toronto.” The off-court, off-ice success of MLSE is routinely portrayed as “wins” for the home city, the home team and its fans – even when the “success” comes in the form of major subsidies plundered from tax dollars and social product, and increased profit margins. But then the pay checks of some of the capital-centric sports media assigned to cover the team are being signed by the same corporate enterprise, as with the case of Bell Globemedia and the Globe and Mail. In the general vicinity of the ACC lie the headquarters of both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, all set to benefit together from the driving up of real estate value in the once desolate waterfront land.
Another block or so south lays the equally desolate, filled-in waterfront land fronting Lake Ontario. It now bears one gleaming luxury residential condo tower after another, spatially separated from the pulse of the city by the elevated Gardiner Expressway. It’s here that most of the players and coaching staff, all but one foreigners imported to win in the name of Toronto, none of them raised and bred in Canada with the notable exception of assistant coach Jay Triano, winter. They live in a hermetically sealed and unstable capital-centred environment, not a human-centred social environment. They travel to and fro throughout North America in specially chartered aircraft, to and fro from the airport in special air-conditioned buses, and have little, if any contact, with the community apart from the obligatory community appearance, a school here, a gym there. If they have a college degree to pick up on the day of a playoff game, the corporate jet is put at their disposal. Like most people in professional sports in Toronto, they come from elsewhere; unlike the heterogeneous masses in the self-styled “City of Nations,” they return home to the US or Europe once the season ends, if they have not been traded away first, like merchandise which has outlived its usefulness. Few ever stay, though Butch Carter, after a $6 million buyout, did. In fact, it even seems that those who definitely expressed a desire to stay, who were glad to be in Toronto, or even Mr Grunwald, another American who had taken out Canadian citizenship and married a Toronto Sun reporter, are the first to be traded or fired, almost as punishment for their sentiment. (Mr Grunwald also chooses to stay in Toronto, though undoubtedly in a different neighbourhood than Mr Carter.)
* * *
A MEMBER of the PR staff had promised to give me a guided tour but either failed to show up or couldn’t find me, so there I was wandering around like the proverbial bump on a log, taking in the pre-game work-out from the corner sidelines, as security guards and members of the Raptors NBA TV broadcast crew flitted to and fro.
A good friend of mine, Cynthia Martin, who five years ago published Born to Believe, the afore-mentioned autobiography of brothers Butch and Chris Carter of NBA and NFL fame respectively and a beautifully-designed book, had once in disgust explained to me the incestuous relationship between the well-heeled corporate franchise and the sports media. It was, she pointed out, epitomized by lavish free pre-game dinners that the MLSE provides the basketball beat reporters in what the media guide calls “a suitable work environment” – the Bell Canada Media Centre. The Maple Leaf’s Conn Smythe used to brag that he could get “any story I wanted in the paper for $50 or less,” because “sportswriters were very low paid and always had their hands out.”
With another hour to kill before tip-off, I decided I had to check out that media centre and the arrangement Cynthia had told me of. I had already eaten. Sure enough, along the corridor I almost bumped into Chuck Sawirsky, yet another American who calls Raptor’s games on Raptors TV, TSN and the CBC. He’s a lot shorter than you would think from TV but then that was perhaps he was bowed under with an armload of corporate Christmas gifts. His salary is directly paid by the Raptors, something never mentioned on the television broadcasts.
It’s a small out-of-sight cafeteria, combining dining and workstations with jacks for portable computers and digital transmission. To test the parameters I picked up a tray, asking one of the white-coated servers, “just how does this work?”
He politely pointed out dinner was $12 Cdn or $10 American. Times had changed, I observed. “I heard back in Halifax that the food was free.”
“No, that was in the old days,” he replied, looking at me quizzically, “but the pizza and coffee (Tim Horton’s – it must be a Leaf thing) are still free.”
The pizza was in a warming tray – five different varieties no less. I was not going to take any anyway but decided to push the limits: “that pizza must be rather dry?”
“Yes,” he added, “but the steaks are rather awesome.” He proudly lifted a lid on one of the stainless steel serving trays. Slabs of steak, definitely sirloin, very thick, and six to eight inches long.
No hot Italian veal sandwiches, Greek souvlaki, or masala dosai in a still decidedly monocultural cuisine. The media crew travelling with the Raptor’s opponents that night, the Golden State Warriors from, of all places, California, must have felt right at home.
“A steak like this in Toronto must run for $20-25 and up!,” I asked querously.
The waiter gave me a look either of sympathy – or disdain.
So it was a perk. The rest of the “media centre” had been commercialized too. The drive to maintain the rising rate of profit of MLSE had led to the monopoly charging its reporters $25 per game for instant wireless access, which is about what I pay for a month’s service in the Maritimes.
I took that free coffee and sat down at a solitary table midst an aloof crowd of 20-30 somethings with a feeling akin to one’s first day in school, or prison. They were all engrossed in each other, with the sole female reporter, Lori Ewing of Canadian Press, sitting by herself working on a laptop. Apart from the odd furtive glance at the new guy in town, only one man, a lean figure and the only one in a tie and jacket, looked me in the eye as he left with a slight smile, nodding courteously. I was to meet Oscar later.
I found my assigned seat in a media section, an upholstered swivel seat at a work table, about a third of the way up the stands in one of the corners. Each desk is outfitted with a sleek grey computer monitor where game stats are uploaded constantly throughout the game. Thankfully, the non-arrival of another journo had kept me out of the nosebleeds. The sight lines were terrific. I circled the seat and went back out to the concourse.
Hundreds of thousands of people attend Raptors’ games each year. Some come to enjoy basketball, especially youth, many dressed in jerseys of their favourite player or team. Others come simply to enjoy themselves and consume. For this second class of spectators MLSE provides special amenities.
Along one direction, the bar section was hopping in artificial energy, packed with twenty-to-thirty something young men, a section of which enveloped a group of semi-naked cheerleaders called the Raptors Dance Pak who looked to be all of fifteen-years-old. Was it a condition of their employment? The drinks seemed to be flowing like the Red River during spring thaw and no-one had basketball on their mind.
In the opposite direction, a gleaming black Sports Utility Vehicle stood on a pedestal in front of a window facing onto York Street, bathed in soft light, list price $42,000.
I thought I would see windows filled with basketball gear and historical memorabilia. Alas, disappointment awaited. Not once did I see a single basketball amongst the many tons of merchandise.
With some time still to kill, I started a conversation with an elderly usher. He looked so glum. I asked him why.
Well, the elderly usher replied, basketball just wasn’t hockey, and he missed the Maple Leaf Gardens and the aristocracy of entitlement. “That place was hockey. You could smell the tradition,” he sighed. “You got to know the regulars. Then their children, who you used to see, would inherit their seats and become regulars. You didn’t mind if they never won anything. But this place has gone downhill.”
His floor did remind me of a zoo.
“Yeah,” he sighed, “but you should have seen it a few years ago. Then it was jumping. We’re 3,000 under reported attendance,” he told me. That night it was about 15,000 for a game with Golden State.
One explanation might be the outrageous price charged for tickets: courtside seats in the glitter palace are $600 each. It is the rich corporate big wigs, with taxpayer-subsidized expense accounts, who populate the Platinum Seats and the Private Boxes at the ACC.
I remembered that, in the mid-1980s, well before Bob Rae and the Ontario NDP government handed corporate sport their Skydome at a cost of some $600 million give or take, you could catch a Blue Jays baseball game down at the old Exhibition Stadium from a good seat in the bleachers for $4.00.
The Dance Pak and the requisite reptilian mascot were now twirling around the court with their “electrifying energy” and “unique basketball theatrics.” Suddenly the arena was enveloped in darkness. We were hit by a massive blast of pulsating strobe lights and Technicolor son et lumiere, as the players ran out of the far corner tunnel through jets of smoke into the arena, leaping in the air to bump each other, chest to chest in some elaborate Roman pantomime, not the Rome of Spartacus but that of Nero. The entertainment din of modern-era major league games at the Skydome and the ACC, saturated with giant video screens, ear-shattering rock music, sense-surround advertising attack messages digitally swirling around and around the arena, and shopping mall stadium bars does express, as the forlorn usher pointed out, a retrogression for sport and might gives rise to a sublimal and nostalgic longing for those venues where the focus was on nothing more than the players and the on-field, on-court, on-ice action – even if sports were banned on Sunday.
The Raptors may have only made the playoffs twice in their ten-year history but this does not prevent the management and the Toronto fans in the lower deck from the unbelievable, the uncouth, and the dishonourable. Moments into the game, action stopped as an opposing player prepared to take the game’s first foul shot. The scoreboard ordered the fans to “make noise” – a euphemism for jeering and brazen hostility. As if on cue, those seated behind the backboard frantically waved objects to distract the player. Here was a sports event where sportsmanship has been put into its place. The management cynically prepared the conditions. It seemed like only seconds later that the crowd started booing a Raptors’ starting player, 6-11 Rafael Araújo, a native of Brazil, after he missed his first shot. He missed his second and then his third. Having played only five minutes, he was benched until the second half. He started the second half, again missed a tentative shot, was again roundly booed, and was mercifully taken off the court by head coach Sam Mitchell.
I had seen the second-year player work out before the game, staying behind to take extra reps in practicing post-up moves, and was impressed with his work ethic.
“Why does this happen? Has the media built a public opinion against this man?” I asked my seatmate.
Oscar Paratore is a reporter from Correo Canadiense, a tri-weekly Spanish-language paper and, of all people, the chap who had nodded to me down in the media centre. His paper had been started by Toronto’s Italian daily newspaper Corriere Canadese, the flagship of a multilingual media empire, Multimedia. A kindred spirit, Oscar hailed from Argentina, a country with a distinguished national tradition in basketball, and covers the game for the multicultural media conglomerate for free just so he can watch the sport he loves. When I mentioned I was from Halifax, he immediately started talking knowledgeably about the FIBA Under 21 Tournament of the Americas held at the Metro Centre in July 2004 and hosted in turn by Argentina in 2005. He pointed out that Charlie Villaneuva, whose draft by Toronto was openly mocked on US TV by the NBA draft day experts, had competed in Halifax for the USA.
Referring to Mr Arrujo, he pointed out, “He’s done everything they asked of him.” The player had worked hard on the floor. “But he was a high draft pick,” Oscar stressed, having been selected eighth overall in the NBA 2004 draft.
I recalled Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons, NBA defensive player of the year, who had taken several years to develop after being drafted. He had played here, there, everywhere.
“But was that Rafael’s fault?” I asked rhetorically of a franchise that had drafted the long-gone 7’3″ Serb, Aleksandar Radojevic, 12th in the 1999 NBA draft out of Barton Junior College in Kansas. Hailed as “the next big man,” he had played all of three games in 18 months.
My new friend explained that, in booing the player, the fans were actually booing general manager Mike Babcock for not having drafted an instant star in Rafael’s place.
Ah, the power of osmosis.
Babcock, a quiet, self-effacing American, had been hired just a few short weeks before that draft in a fire sale well-orchestrated through the Globe and Mail accompanied with the requisite “leaks” from the boardroom about locker-room “dissension”; MLSE ignominiously turfed his predecessor, Mr Grunwald, together with then coach, Kevin O’Neil. But Babcock had also signed the intelligent José Calderon, captain of the Spanish national team, out of Europe, perhaps the most unselfish player I have ever seen wear a Toronto uniform. And he had also been forced by the MLSE board to make the Vince Carter trade wherein the Raptor malcontent was shipped to New Jersey for less than nothing, in which Alonzo Mourning, who refused to report to Toronto, was unbelievably paid an additional $9-10 million to buy out his contract. Morning immediately suited up for Miami for a song. But then who remembers that the Toronto management had passed over Paul Pierce and had traded up in the draft to get Carter. The entire ten-year history of this capitalist enterprise reminds one of Brownian motion, in which the sole consistent and unifying thread is buying and selling accompanied by nonstop hype and soap operas of the commercial media.
As the game wound down to the last thirty seconds, with the Raptors well behind Golden State and the game out of reach, the fans again started booing raucously, louder and emptier than ever. But the team was still hustling up and down the court. Their derision couldn’t have been directed against them for not putting out.
“Is this common?” I asked my seatmate. Mr Arrujo was still languishing on the bench. Mr Babcock was nowhere to be seen.
It seems, Oscar again explained knowledgeably, that the Raptors were four points short of a 100-point game, leaving the 15,000 seemingly well-fed spectators short of a guaranteed, free slice of pizza!
I remembered the self-explanatory slogans “Hot & Fresh.” All ticket holders are eligible to receive one slice of pizza the following day.
Would they have gotten to choose from five varieties?
Perhaps Pizza Pizza had their own deal on the side with Golden State.
Such is the respect, pride and love for their athletes and the prestige of sport.
* * *
OVERALL the team, which had lost the first 18 games of the season, played surprisingly well, I thought. They run the court, attack the basket, and had a definite spirit, despite their negative record being the butt of a lot of jokes. They had fought and worked hard until the end of the game. Basketball can be played at a swift and fast pace, demanding a high level of stamina, That’s a credit to the coaching staff and the condition of the players, especially the younger ones, three of whom were rookies and two sophomores. Their up-tempo offense seems to have been the Raptor’s principle strength to date; despite Chris Bosh, the very young “franchise player” just out of a Texas high school who was anointed to take Carter’s place, they lack interior play and motion. The players’ tactical development and direction strategy have their failings. Passivity on offence against a zone defence is pronounced. Excessive movement in the regular line-up caused by the buying and selling of players probably hasn’t helped. It’s one thing to move the bank and give play to the regulars and reserves, so that everyone maintains their form, but not to present a different line-up every day. The Achilles heel, including that of Mr Bosh, is defence, especially against penetration, and blocking out on rebounds. Apart from the splendid Mo Peterson (also the best clutch 3-point shooter in the NBA in the last two minutes at 57.1 per cent), they can’t seem to stop anyone. Taking all the regulars into account, they seem to be essentially a senior NCAA college team that, at the same time, hasn’t played together for four years nor has the old college try. Like every edition of the Raptors, they lack the inner cohesion, determination and collective drive to raise their level and excel, to compete until the final buzzer, that seems to be the characteristic of too many professional teams, and not just in Toronto.
That night Golden State set a franchise record for 3-pointers, the fruit of an offense set up by drives to the basket by its guards such as Speedy Claxton. They would blow by the Toronto defender with one of three results: either (1) laying it up; (2) dumping off the ball to an open team-mate cutting to the basket, as they drew a second defender to them; or (3) kicking it back out to the three point line to a wide open Jason Richardson or Derek Fisher whose shooting was very precise.
My new friend kindly took me down for the ritualistic post game, postmortem media session, pausing to chat with visiting family members of Mr Calderon, the newly recruited point guard. As we left the court an announcer was thanking the fans for attending and asking “those who have had too much to drink” to get someone else to drive home which is akin to asking an alcoholic if he’d rather have a glass of apple juice. For $600 you’d think they’d give you all the pizza you can eat, a drink or two, and drive you home too.
The “media centre” was a euphemism for a small interview room with a podium and Raptors décor displayed for television. Some twenty or so journos were lounging back in chairs, or standing around gossiping. All the seats were already taken so I stood apart by the door. Within a few moments, leaning back against the wall, I accidentally brushed one of the light switches, plunging the room into partial darkness. I vainly tried to meld into the wall, the country hick from the Maritimes, the man in the shadows.
“Been there, done that,” one reporter said to me sympathetically.
Finally the head coach Sam Mitchell, a tall lean man, and the now grim-faced Mr LaBumbard swept in to meet the assembled horde. I must say that my respect for these coaches increased, especially Mr Mitchell who can be hilarious, after seeing first person what they must endure before, and after, every game.
The horde literally rose out of its collective seat and lunged forward as one. It’s an unsettling scene you see often but only partially on sports cable TV, the media scrum, with a bank of microphones stuck under the seer’s mouth. It’s here, as with the parliamentary scrum in the House of Commons, that the day’s “story lines” are worked out by the media. That’s why we see variants of the same stock story usually appearing in the press, radio and TV on the same day as if written by one individual. There’s evidently some sort of pre-nuptial polyarchy akin to a White House press conference: microphones first, Doug Smith the elder (of the Toronto Star), seemingly having the right of first question. What one doesn’t see, as the cameras are fixed on the podium, is that there is a second, even a third row of journalists, all hunkered forward like football linebackers hulking over the front four down in their crouch, ready to ferociously clog the lane, stuff the halfback, and blitz the quarterback. Basketball is a non-contact sport, so a narrow podium just in front of the wall decorated with Raptor’s logos separates the two. Dropping back is not an option.
That night the gaggle was obsessed by Raptor’s Folly, the trey, and shifting gears into their favourite mode: second-guessing. They badgered Mr Mitchell about that rain of treys, which had descended on the Raptors all night from California, costing fifteen thousand, well-to-do Torontonians their free slice of pizza.
Their presumption seemed to be that the rain of golden state treys simply fell one-sidedly from the sky, from another dimension, outside of oneself. Philosophically, it’s rather like the devil theory of change, development and motion. The Devil emerges full-blown, falls from the sky, and devours the Raptor. How can this be? Everything reduced to a matter of understanding, interpretation and definition: had the players not gotten the predactyl menu? Did they not “understand”?
Mr Mitchell gave his favourite cable TV analogy. “Anyone who watches Cable TV has watched the Lakers, and saw that Derrick Fisher’s role was to come in and shoot the three.”
Did the coaches even send out a weather report?
Mr Mitchell – he must be kidding – replied: “Yes, we posted a list.”
How could the Raptors not understand the imminent trey? And again: “Yes, at Thursday’s practice, we did a complete run-through.”
This was not all. Then came the kicker. “But Coach, what you said that at Thursday’s practice, do they have trouble processing the information?”
I started to laugh out loud. I couldn’t help myself. It was hilarious.
It was not only the peculiar presumption of the question but its absolute narrowness. Such is the wild-west greed and savagery of the NBA owners that the growing calendar of the NBA season allows very few days for practice, preparation and rest, imposing extraordinary demands on the athletes and their stamina. It would have made a useful topic for discussion, but instead overweight journalists were questioning the players for their failure to “process the information.”
The Coach paused, seemingly steeling himself. ‘Migawd, what on earth am I being asked?’
The silence was pregnant in Multi-Purpose Room B. I broke out laughing again, sympathetically, at the inanity of it all.
The Coach, all 6’10” or whatever of him, looked over at me. ‘Who’s this guy,’ I could hear him thinking, as I modestly faded deeper into the wall. We Canadians do not like to stand out. He smiled briefly.
Coach turned back to the earnest young journo.
“No,” Coach replied evenly, holding his cool, “it’s not a lack of information processing.”
I laughed again. Coach turned slightly, and again smiled.
Next day, the common thread in the stories in the Toronto sports pages was the rain of treys and the “lack of information processing.” There was no information or assessment of the technical and tactical level of play, let alone the effort of the athletes. They were all fraudulent.
I doubt I’ll be back in the coming decade.
I had touched the elephant.
I may be blind but it seems to me that this monster has no clothes.
* * *
IS there a connection between ten years of the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies and the state of the game and sport in Canada?
Someone or some force has taken a simple game, says my friend Curtis Coward in our The Kids’ Baseball Book, corrupted it, and made it into something else.
The real spirit of the sport is to be found in the gym in the ‘hood. The action is infinitely more interesting than the average NBA tilt and the seats do not cost a single dime. There you will find the mini, midget, bantam and masters’ players, the genuine brotherhood of the game, and even chivalry. The purest spirit, the amateur spirit, is found spontaneously amongst the very young who play tirelessly with boundless energy and are eager to learn. This is the more so when there are sufficient and qualified coaches to instruct them; unscarred by mercenary motives, they are innocent and still oblivious to the destruction of amateur sport and its infrastructure by powerful vested interests and the state. Despite the abundance of resources in such a wealthy and developed country, governments at all levels are closing down their gyms and community centres, letting them fall into ruins, or invoking user-pay fees. There is not a single regional or national amateur let alone professional basketball league in Canada. The national team is a disgrace. Sport and physical education, a universal activity and a science, and the dignity and honour of those who play it or make it their livelihood, has been forgotten as have health and well being and education of the people. Just imagine what Canadian youth could do if everyone had access to the extraordinary possibilities, prerogatives and privileges now enjoyed by only a few!