Raptors win! Raptors win!

… yet another press conference

By TONY SEED

(11 March 2006) – THE ONE GAME that the mistake by the lake excels at winning is the press conference. They sure can sell hope.

How can you miss winning? The game is played on your court. You own some of the best players on the other team. Rather like playing the Washington Generals, giving new meaning to “full court press” as an offensive strategy.

There were smiles and optimism all around, preceded by an almost one month diet of virtually daily news articles in the four Toronto newspapers and the three national all-sports-cable TV networks, generating immediate celebrity status. Basketball “experts” gave their views on Him, as did those in the US sports markets and even certain players. The well-tanned, well-dressed man was personally welcomed to the Air Canada Centre by the Moloch’s enriched from exploitation who constitute the board of the $1.4-billion Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE) – breathlessly described as “collectively some of the leading minds in Canadian business”  (in the words of the Globe & Mail). Yet another born-again “Moses” (in the words of the National Post) had arrived from the United States to deliver Toronto to the Promised Land – this time from the Arizona desert. Bryan Colangelo is to be paid the ridiculous amount of $20 million over the next five years to be president and general manager of the MLSE subsidiary, the Toronto Raptors Basketball Club.

He happily explained his main mission, speaking “glowingly of building ‘enterprise value,’ which is probably what made the MLSE suits smile.” [1]

The hiring of Mr Colangelo as the franchise’s new president and general manager is celebrated as the latest example of the triumph of synergism. For obvious reasons as it turns out.

The modus operandi of implementing synergism began with the surreptitious news leak from inside sources – “as first reported on globeandmail.com” – and then built up to the media version of the full court press and the Pentagon’s Total Information Dominance. B-ball fans were reportedly breathless as the news assault built frenziedly up to the final release.

How can one not be dazed?

The dazzling series of events, including surreptious meetings at the NBA All-Star Game, an overnight flight from the Arizona desert to Toronto in the private jet of chairman of the board Lawrence M. Tannnbaum, an endorsement by fellow Zionist and NBA president David Stern, all leading to the final corporate coup, accompanied by the now-daily leak to the sports pages, is a fruit of synergy – the ‘benefits’ of the concentration of the ownership of BellGlobeMedia, together with MLSE which, you guessed it, owns the lucrative Toronto Raptors NBA franchise, a team that has made the playoffs once in its eleven-year history. Once again an embarrassing Toronto team had collapsed early in a US sports league.

BellGlobeMedia owns CTV, the Globe & Mail newspaper, 15 specialty stations including TSN, 40 per cent of Workopolis.com and 15 per cent of MLSE, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and the Air Canada Centre (ACC), not to overlook two television channels (Leafs TV, Raptors NBA TV), the Toronto Marlies American Hockey League franchise, a franchise in the soccer league (which becomes Toronto FC) and a niche soccer stadium underwritten by Toronto’s tax dollars, and a sports and entertainment complex in Oshawa. All rolled into one giant, revenue-suckling package. The attendance base of the Raptors has dwindled by some 3,000 seats this year and corporate profits are fuelled more by the rising Canadian dollar, huge TV revenues, merchandising and the forthcoming Maple Leaf Square, the $400-million sport, entertainment and residential complex adjacent to the ACC, with a plethora of sports-themed bars, sports TV studios, and retail space anchored by a 9,000 square foot store selling sports merchandise. According to the Toronto Sun, “for several years, this franchise has been teetering on the edge, both with its own fans and on a league-wide basis.”

The sports media delivers the MLSE’s gospel chapter and verse, and even personify the team as the president and general manager – “What Bran Colangelo is trying to do here is get a quick basket and call a timeout.” In the professional game, this approach to broadcasting seems to make a sad kind of sense to some people – the executives are the constants, the lords and masters of the game.

But big money talks. The Globe and Mail was dutifully rapturous: “And for the reported sum of $20-million (U.S.) over five years, the Raptors got Colangelo – a 40-year-old with peerless pedigree, long and varied experience in the job at hand and a sharp dresser to boot – to leave Phoenix for Toronto.” [2]

Talk about rooting for the home team.

With a note to the bottom line, the Toronto Sun concluded a five-article section: “Yesterday was all about stopping the bleeding, once and for all, with a tourniquet called credibility.” [3]

Former Raptors coach Butch Carter explains in his book Born to Believe that he would emphasize the social environment of Canada as an attractive means to recruit players from “Down South” to come and play in Toronto.

In an interview exploring the American-Italian pedigree, the Toronto Sun opined that Toronto’s Little Italy, all 500,000, would provide the cosmopolitan Mr Colangelo who, together with his Italian-born wife, maintains a summer home in Italy, with an attractive environment to recruit those elusive players from “Down South.” A new urban legend is born.

“Rather than see the city as some burg with different money and the metric system, Colangelo saw a perfect destination for the increasing flow of European players … ‘If I’m an international player, I would feel a lot more comfortable coming here than some NBA cities,’ Colangelo said.”

Multiculturalism, the intangible corporate edge, sells. I’ve heard that before: we’re supposed to be quiet, servile citizens in the Maritimes because, after all, we have “quality of life.”

“Old country meets new; Colangelo’s love of his Italian heritage makes Toronto a ‘benefit’ …” [4]

But in terms of the all-important quest to import US athletes to compete for the rising Canadian dollar, the National Post went south:

“ALL those questions about players wanting to come to Canada will vanish if these guys have money to spend, and if they start to win.” [5]

In contrast, no concern is exhibited for Canadian athletes; neither the Raptors nor the Vancouver Grizzlies have ever drafted a Canadian. The organization is seen to resist changes to their recruiting practices, creating what can be called the b-ball version of a tale of two countries and the not-so-old adage of hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Here is the mercenary system where athletes, though some sportsmen may be very richly rewarded, are bought and sold like merchandise. The much-hyped reason for Toronto’s failure is held to be the inability to lure the big US stars to Canada, or to keep them once they’ve landed or “developed.” The sports media and the MLSE are one in demanding top professionals at the Air Canada Centre because sports are today all about TV ratings and merchandising, and thus also all about appearances by celebrity athletes with audience-drawing name recognition. Each year, this or that nascent star is anointed “the franchise” and revered, not the team.

The media is quite clear that this franchise offers nothing of value for Canada, its athletes and its sport except a still largely-untapped market up for exploitation, especially outside the 905 golden zone in Ontario.

The flourish in the monopoly media over the appointment of Mr Colangelo attempts to negate the direct experience of basketball fans from the last decade to the present, and encourage them to keep the faith in the narcosis of corporate sport in the sports-saturated entertainment capital of Canada. The sports media and officials generate excitement over Colangelo’s selection, as something positive for sport and for Toronto, as a leadership they should rally behind and accept as their own. It is selling hope but here is something deeper: the ongoing pressure to divert sports fans away from the real problem; the anti-national, annexation of sport by the United States and their Canadian allies, the growing diminution of actual sport at the base of society, and the neo-liberal competition of corporate sport against the efforts of amateur sport to sustain its own base and events.

The raving of the sports media brings to mind Teflon, the no-stick-substance that’s used to coat frying pans and pots so that your food doesn’t stick to them in the heat.

An identical scenario unfolded scarcely two years ago in April, 2004, when the firing of rookie head coach Kevin O’Neill, one year into a two-year, $3.4-million US contract, followed the sacking of general manager Glen Grunwald (who at least had the courtesy to take out Canadian citizenship) on 1 April. The change at the helm was orchestrated through “leaks” from the boardroom and the locker room in the sports pages of the Globe and Mail in a hometown version of “regime change.” Two years before that, Lennie Wilkens was presented as the winningest coach in NBA history, replacing on 21 June 2000 Mr Carter as head coach who was forced out with a $6 million buyout. Mr Carter could coach, but was fried in turn by the obsequious media for his revelations of US basketball icon Bobby Knight as a closet racist. When Mr Wilkens was fired 296 games later on 17 April 2003, it was emphasized that he was now, after all, the losingest coach in NBA history. One thing the brave Toronto sports media seems to be very good at: getting you when you’re down and gone.

Now we have the NBA executive of the year, imported from the Phoenix Suns, which recorded the third greatest turnaround in NBA history in the 2004-05 season. And, sure enough TSN (synergy!) tantalized the viewers with the speculation from an ESPN TV expert “down South” that the presence of Mr Colangelo might be enough so that Canadian and Phoenix All Star Steve Nash could conceivably end his career in his beloved homeland as a Toronto Raptor.

Which brings us to the missing lines in Mr Colangelo’s resume.

After six years in Phoenix, he was the president of a franchise that had won just 29 games in the 2003-04 season with a $67 million payroll. During that time the Suns were changing coaches in midseason every two years – Frank Johnson, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Danny Ainge, Scott Skiles. When Johnson was fired and replaced in December 2003 with assistant coach Mike d’Antoni, his roster included the likes of Amaré Stoudemire, and All-Stars Stephen Marbury (on a +$100 million contract) and Shawn Marion. Mr Colangelo is credited with trading away Marbury to give the Suns the cap room to lure Steve Nash from the Dallas Mavericks, but Colangelo had also traded away All Star Jason Kidd, a point guard, which is not mentioned.

His father, Jerry Colangelo, who sold the franchise in 2004, remaining chairman and CEO until the sale is to be completed after the 2006-07 season, owned the corporation at the time. Bryan Colangelo also had a reportedly “minor ownership stake.”

The media does not talk about the fierce inter-capitalist conflicts in Phoenix that forced the elder Colangelo out of the ownership group of the Arizona Diamondbacks of baseball’s National League and the Phoenix Suns. Nor does it report the side deals around the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes in which private monopolists used massive state and city subsidies from the public treasury for a new arena by peddling the known illusion that jobs, economic spin-offs, and tax revenues would follow in its wake. All these lavish facilities for corporate sport came at the expense of that community and society. One can only wonder at the role that so much carpet bagging played in the decision of Mr Colangelo Junior to get out of Dodge in the middle of the night.

Furthermore, the “peerless pedigree” raises intriguing questions about the role and motivations of the main players in this corporate synergy at the level of international competition and national development, as well as an appearance of conflict of interest.

Jerry Conangelo heads up Team USA for the forthcoming basketball World Championships until the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. A Toronto player, Chris Bosh, has been named to Team USA, a three-year commitment dictated by a new “team” approach to address the embarrassing, second-rate performance of the NBA Dream Team at the Athens Olympics, a woeful showing for the home of pro ball’s premier league and cradle to so many unmatched pro stars. The US discovered it had vainly over-inflated its own importance and under-estimated the pride, chemistry and skills of the national team approach.

Through the NBA, Colangelo the elder has organized NBA scouts to forward to Team USA scouting reports of international players and teams as part of preparation for Beijing. According to EPSN.com:

“Colangelo plans to utilize a select group of NBA scouts who are either based overseas or travel extensively in foreign countries in their global search for NBA talent. Each of these NBA personnel experts will be asked to spend an extended period of time scouting the opposition and preparing a detailed report that will far exceed the kind of information that (Coach Mike) Krzyzewski’s predecessors received prior to international tournaments. ‘We’ll assign two or three countries per scout,’ said Colangelo. ‘Trust me, we’ll have it down.’” [6]

Would that also involve the five scouts from the Toronto Raptors, and Mr Colangelo Junior, with his known interest in European basketball? Would that involve a conflict of interest?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. No one asked.

NBA ownership (Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks) expressly kept Steve Nash, the catalyst for the Canadian national team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, from representing his own country in the 2002 FIBA Men’s World Basketball Championship.

Cuban also decreed that Dirk Nowitski could not play for his native Germany.

Toronto native Jamal Magloire, immediately following his draft by the Charlotte Hornet, was pressured not to compete for Canada that summer under various pretexts.

The home of basketball’s inventor has never won a medal at the world championships, finishing as high as sixth in 1978 and 1982. In Sydney, Canada finished 5-2, the second-best record after the US but seventh overall, defeating Russia in double overtime, though it won its pool with a 4-1 record before going one and out in the quarter-finals.

The NBA Raptors have become one of the main forces propping up Basketball Canada. This organization has become so inbred with the US pro game that it is hard to see where one finishes and the other starts. Its national team barely exists except on an ad hoc basis. It has no programme to speak of to develop the sport amongst the youth at the grassroots basis, apart from the allure of the NBA and the Toronto Raptors that it has taken to calling “Canada’s team.” Promising Canadian high school youth are encouraged to go “down South” to learn the game in NCAA schools.

In 2004 the governing sport body fired Canadian Jay Triano as coach of the Canadian Senior Men’s’ National Team which he had guided since 1998, allegedly because he would not give up his position as an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors and take the job on a full-time basis. The treatment of this experienced coach is said to be one of the factors (though, to be fair, not the only one) that led Mr Nash, who apart from winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in May 2005, Canada’s athlete of the year award in 2005, and being an odds-on favourite to win the MVP award for a second successive year this season is an exemplary sportsman, to retire from playing for Canada.

Yet Basketball Canada then hired on 11 February 2005 as Mr Triano’s replacement former national team player Leo Rautins, who hadn’t coached a day in his life, and is now in his 10th season as an analyst for Raptors NBA TV and Rogers Sportsnet – as well as for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN regional and Syracuse University – for his potential to market the game in Canada.

The Canadian government in its pursuit of neo-liberalism has forced such national amateur sports bodies to either become the willing tool of private monopoly interest, to humiliate their elite athletes by forcing them to beg for funds needed for training and competing, or to whither on the vine and die. Since no one has had the courage to take a stand for an independent course, that means recruiting corporate sponsors for a capital- and tournament-centred organization which has become an open advocate of annexation: Canadian youth must emigrate “down south” to NCAA colleges as the road to success. Mr Rautins’ son Andy is already at his alma mater, Syracuse University, one of the elite basketball programs. Perhaps Basketball Canada aims to collect Leo’s frequent flyer miles from his TV contracts to scout Canadian players in the USA.

Through this and other means, the NBA has assumed spiritual and de facto if not actual leadership of Basketball Canada.

Conversely, the related question arises as to whether or not the Toronto Raptors would keep an international player from joining his national team for international competition.

When one examines the roster of management, coaches and players of the Toronto Raptors, what stands out is that everyone virtually winters in condos and hotels on the Toronto waterfront in a hermetic universe centred on the Air Canada Centre. No one lives here. That used to be called carpet bagging. Is it fair to ask where Mr Colangelo will be heading after his three-year-contract is up?

I have an alternative solution. Bring our athletes home. Start a genuinely national basketball league, and demand the government assist it by subsidizing travel.

Or take the Canadian National Team and put them in the Air Canada Centre. One thing is sure: they will play as a team and they will play their hearts out. You might be surprised at the level of support, especially from the youth.

Endnotes

1. Bruce Arthur, “And Moses spoke of the promised land; Board of directors like what Colangelo is preaching as GM,” National Post, Wednesday, March 1, 2006

2. Michael Grange, Toronto hands reins to Colangelo; New general manager gets enthusiastic welcome from Raptors’ ownership,” Globe and Mail, March 1, 2006

3. Ken Fidlin, “Colangelo equals credibility; New president/GM changes everything,” Toronto Sun, March 1, 2006

http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Basketball/NBA/Toronto/2006/03/01/1467998-sun.html

4. Toronto Sun, March 1, 2006 – http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Basketball/NBA/Toronto/2006/03/01/1467994-sun.html

5. Bruce Arthur, “And Moses spoke of the promised land; Board of directors like what Colangelo is preaching as GM,” National Post, March 1, 2006.

6. “Team USA delves deeper into NBA pool”, EPSN.com, November 3, 2005

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