Monday, 15 June 2015

The Greatest of our Generation

You’ve got to understand that I’ve grown up in an era when Toronto sports teams have seemingly been allergic to success. I resent the fact that superstar basketball and baseball players don’t want to come to Toronto because Canada is perceived as some sort of alien colony where down is up and French is incomprehensively a national language. They’d rather have the spotlight of American media where their professional interests would be better served, in terms of sponsorships and earning-potential. I resent the fact that homegrown players of Canada’s national pastime – hockey – don’t want to play for Toronto because, ironically enough, they prefer the anonymity of the United States hockey media to the circus that is provided by Sportsnet and TSN.

So when specific teams in specific cities start to encounter consistent and sustained success, it’s frustrating and a punch to the stomach. I, like I’m sure many of you would admit, try to convince myself that I have an inherent endearment to the underdog; I like to believe that I love seeing David trump Goliath, over and over. To an extent, this is true. I love how the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays have been able to slay the money wielding beasts of New York and Boston (even if it has been at the expense of my beloved Toronto Blue Jays). That makes for compelling sports.

But if I really did cheer for the underdog, I would be rooting extremely hard for this year’s NBA Cinderella, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Now, they aren’t a Cinderella squad in the traditional sense. Anybody with the slightest basketball acumen would have at the very least pegged them to reach the Eastern Conference finals, and those with a fundamental understanding of the game would have rightly predicted their assent to the cream of the Eastern Conference crap – er – crop. They have LeBron James, and that is enough to get through a lousy Eastern Conference relatively unscathed (they lost a total of 2 games out of the 14 they played).

No, they are a Cinderella squad because they have been able to keep up with the, excuse the pun, gold standard in the Association, the Golden State Warriors. At full strength, I think any reasonable basketball savant would have suggested the Cavaliers were capable of putting up a good fight against the Dubs, some even suggesting they would win, which would only have been a mild upset (after all, it can’t be too crazy to believe that King James would will his team to victory).

But this?! This is absolute insanity. I don’t think you’re supposed to MAKE the playoffs when you start and give significant playoff minutes to the likes of Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, and Timofey Mozgov. They’re decent role players, but having them play 40 minutes a night – against a prolific basketball machine like Golden State no less – should be a recipe for demolition.

And yet, here we are, because of the “best basketball player in the world”, LeBron James. He’s absolutely phenomenal, and because of the circus show that was his recruitment to the Miami Heat, a lot of us (myself included) have not been able to really appreciate his greatness. The narratives of his last 5 years in the association have unfortunately been The Decision, his perceived lack of drive to take a final shot, his inability to secure a title on his own, and his team’s struggle during his return as Cleveland’s prodigal son. I’ve fallen victim to the ultimate, delicious narrative of LeBron James being this super villain, which is why I have been deliberately cheering for the favourite in this series.

Once I make my mind up about a team I’m supporting, I am sure you can appreciate that it’s difficult to flip the script. It’s possible, though. For reasons I can only attribute to Toronto’s perpetual mediocrity, I was jealous of and always cheered against the San Antonio Spurs, until I began to understand the extent of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s excellence.

The same thing is happening with The King. He is brilliant. He is fantastic. I think he comes across a little lackadaisical, which is the furthest thing from what he is, because of how easy he makes everything look. The best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages in the history of the NBA Finals show how much of a force he is. He reminds me of Juggernaut when he drives to the hoop. He has laser-like precision when he zips a cross court pass to an open teammate. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, players that are more likely to stick those open looks, this series could have realistically been the capped off by a King’s Procession and solidification as the Greatest of our Generation (and in the argument for the GOAT).  

So, this is my formal apology to The King. I am sorry I let the narrative influence me so much that I still sort of hope Wardell Curry and the Golden State Warriors trump you on Tuesday.  You deserved better from the Injury Gods. You deserved better from your whacky cast of teammates that, were they a collection of action figures, would belong on the Island of Misfit Toys.

You deserved better from me. I’ll be cheering for your success in 2016.

Long live The King.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

A Reflection on the State of Toronto Sports

Remember when Alvin WIlliams hit the biggest shot in Raptors history during the first and only playoff series victory against the New York Knicks?

I barely do. I sure as hell remember the Vince Carter miss in Game 7 against the 76ers, Jose Calderon's errant pass that failed to reach Chris Bosh during Game 6 of the 2007 playoffs against the New Jersey Nets, and Paul Pierce rejecting the heck out of Kyle Lowry during Game 7 of the 2014 NBA playoffs. 

Remember the last time the Blue Jays were in the playoffs, and Joe Carter hit arguably the biggest homerun in MLB history at the then-Sky Dome? 

I wouldn't, if it wasn't for a team and an ownership group that (probably rightly) doesn't want us to forget about that moment any time soon. I had just turned two, so baseball wasn't exactly a priority in my life then - I was too busy talking to the hunnies in the sand box (yeah, right). 

Remember when the Leafs won... anything?

With all due respect to the Toronto Rock and Toronto Argonauts, this city has been starving for a winner. You want to know the reason why a bunch of teenagers and young adults not unlike myself packed Jurassic Park to the brim the Raptors' last two playoff runs, runs that only lasted ONE playoff series each? Because my generation of Torontonians has yet to experience a modicum of success cheering for our favourite sports teams. 

The worst part is us fans keep supporting these teams and lining the pockets of their owners. When was the last time the Maple Leafs didn't sell out the ACC for a regular season game? When was the last time the Raptors were in the bottom half of NBA league attendance? THEY WERE TOP TEN WHEN THEY WERE BARELY WINNING 25 GAMES/YEAR!

Even the Jays, for all of their attendance woes, still average 500 000 viewers per game on television. 

The fans have done their parts. The real reason for the ineptitude is ownership's shortsightedness and inability to recognize the evolution of the sports these teams play. 

How were John Ferguson Jr, Rob Babcock, and JP Richardi allowed to operate their clubs for so many years? 

How did the Maple Leags put up with Brian Burke's ridiculous insistence on truculence (which got the Maple Leafs a defenceman whose game is decent but whose paycheque really hampers their cap situation for the next several years)? 

How does Rogers allow the Blue Jays to spend money and prospects hijacking the Marlins and Mets, and handcuff them for the remainder of Alex Anthopoulos' tenure as GM (which, make no mistake, will be over should the Jays miss the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season)? 

How do the Raptors, one of the richest franchises in the NBA, NOT have a D-League affiliate?

It is difficult to comprehend one city's ineptitude when cities like Chicago, with the Blackhawks, the Bulls, the Whitesox of 2005, have banners upon banners in their arenas. Or, when cities like San Fransisco keep churning out champions in baseball, and may have another one in the NBA with Steph Curry and the Golden State warriors. Or, when our city is consistently pitted against the envy of all sports cities, Boston, whose NFL team is annoyingly spectacular, whose Redsox keep crushing and retooling, whose Boston Celtics initiated the Big Three era and have a championship for their troubles, and whose Bruins are the bane of a Maple Leaf fan's existence. 

Being a Toronto fan is hard. At least, with Brendan Shanahan and his troupes, with Masai Ujiri and his henchmen, and with (hopefully) Alex Antholopoulos and his lietenants, our Toronto sports teams are in decent hands. 

And if they aren't, at least we have the Rock and the Argos. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Opening Day Jitters

The first day of school. The first day at a new job. The first day in a new career. The first time. The first day of the rest of your life. For a normal person, these are the events that inspire the most anxiety, excitement, anticipation, thrill, passion.

A normal person wouldn't be sitting in the middle of their University's library dressed from head to toe in Toronto Raptors attire. 

And so, here I am, counting down the hours, minutes, and seconds until tip off.

It's been a LONG time since that fateful Sunday at the beginning of May. Falling behind. The relentless climb back into fold. Foul trouble. Wonky ankles. Kyle Lowry's determination. Terrence Ross showing he was a 22 year old NBA sophomore in his first NBA Playoffs, let alone his first NBA game 7. Amir Johnson fouling out. More relentless determination. More chipping away at the (*uck) Brooklyn Nets' lead. A turnover. Another turnover. Being down 1 point. A Ross inbound miracle! And, finally, a Lowry drive. 

You know the rest. 

Fast forward to today, where the Raptors embark on their most anticipated season since Vince Carter was around to electrify the Air Canada Centre crowd. The most potent backcourt in the Association, DeMar DeRozan and Lowry, are back, both potential All Stars. Amir Johnson is coming off an offseason filled with relaxation and treatment of those aforementioned wonky ankles. Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, now third year NBAers, enter the fray with a boatload of playoff experience (and mild success, in Valanciunas' case). The bench, led by Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, looks stronger than it has ever been during the history of the Drakes.  

One of the most overreported aspects of the 2014/15 Toronto Raptors is the team's continuity. The top-7 in the Drakes' rotation are all back. The bench got a lot deeper with Lou WIlliams the once-exiled James Johnson back in the fold to stabilize the Raptors when the Joe Johnsons of the NBA world begin to dominate. 

One of the most underreported aspects of this Toronto Drakes season is the continuity of the coaching staff. Dwane Casey has been re-upped for three more years, and officially will become the 2nd longest serving Raptors coach in its history. When you look around the league, you can see the most successful teams of the past decade usually have a stable presence at the forefront of their coaching staffs: Popovich in San Antonio, Carlisle in Dallas, Thibideau in Chicago, Spoelstra in Miami, to name a few. The Raptors have never had that consistent message delivered to them in their existence. 

Hours before tip-off, I can't help but feel excited. Last year, a confluence of factors had to break right for the Raptors to win the Atlantic Division title and the 3rd seed in the weak Eastern Conference. 

This year, after many, they are finally built for success.There are legitimate expectations.  

Raptor tag on my hat. Number 10 on my back. First day jitters abound. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Shout The Homie Steve Nash

I remember walking into the Sport Chek at the Scarborough Town Centre when I was 10 or 11 years old, excited about my birthday. My cousin (who is more brother to me than cousin) wanted to get me something special for my birthday. Anything I wanted, pretty much. He's a generous dude. 

Basketball jerseys were in. Everyone had a Kobe jersey (was he still #8 at that time?), or an AI, or a Shaq. My cousin, being a Dallas Mavericks fan, had a Nowitzki jersey, among others. Everyone had one, it seemed, except me. 

Naturally, I gravitated towards the basketball jerseys in the Sport Chek. Man, every shape, size, colour I could think of were there. The Portland Trail Blazer red, white, and black pattern caught my attention (so much so that it became the second NBA jersey I owned). I knew I didn't like the Lakers. I knew I disliked every team that got in the Raptors' way of success, like the Knickerbockers or the 76ers. Frankly, having a Raptors jersey wasn't cool. 

I finally stumbled upon a home, Dallas Mavericks jersey, size small. The colours, white with blue trim, were fabulous, but not the reason it caught my eye. The Mavericks logo came and went into my field of view. Before I could even check the name on the back, it was the number on the front that grabbed my attention: 13. 

My soccer number! Probably my favourite number as a young adult. I gotta have this jersey, I thought. Who did it belong to, though?


Hmm. Don't know him, but a jersey with my favourite number and colour that is a perfect fit seemed too good to pass up. Cousin, I found what I wanted! Who's Nash, though?

Oh man, what a loaded question. 

One of the slickest passers this basketball universe has ever produced? The most unselfish player in the history of the game? The purest shooter? 

That's Steve Nash. 

The nooks and crannies he sees on the court, a regular player cannot. In his prime, he saw the court like Neo sees the Matrix. He could get the ball in the hoop seemingly at will. No one has been able to shoot the ball better since he burst onto the scene. 

And he can attack you in so many different ways. Pick and roll, pick and pop, drive and kick, no look passes to big men who are just as shocked as the rest of the players on the court to have the ball reach them perfectly in their hands. 

And he's Canadian to boot?

He's my favourite basketball player. He's retiring a legend. He awoke JAYSRAP from its hiatus. 

And he's one of the main reasons why I fell in love with the NBA. 

Shout the homie Steve Nash. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Blue Jays Can't Contend With J.A. Happ In Their Opening Day Rotation

I should be studying for a midterm that I have in precisely 6 hours and 21 minutes, but something has been eating away at me and I can’t hold it in any longer.

It has been a pretty strong narrative throughout the course of the offseason for the Toronto Blue Jays. It leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth every single time it is brought up.

No, it isn’t that lack of activity that I am getting at (though, duh, sign someone!), but the insistence on the part of the Jays that there be only ONE spot in the starting rotation up for grabs.

Yes, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow each have earned a spot in the rotation based on performance (not to mention their paycheques). That would still leave two spots open for which the likes of Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchinson and Kyle Drabek can compete.

My beef is this: how is J.A. Happ being guaranteed a spot in the big league rotation? How do the Blue Jays expect to compete with a guy who has never pitched more than 170 innings in his career, who has had a rWAR over 1.0 ONCE, and who couldn’t strike out a guy to save his life last season?

Now, I will say that J.A. Happ does in fact have more upside than I initially recognized, having pitched to a 2.93 ERA in 166 innings in 2009. I have a couple of issues with this stat, namely that he hasn’t touched that level of productivity in a year with a similar workload since, and that those numbers came against a weaker NL East.

In a year and a half with the Blue Jays, Happ has put up a WAR of 0.4 and an ERA of 4.60 and a 1.414 WHIP. I will concede that injuries have hampered Happ’s production and ability to perform. What I don’t understand is how the Blue Jays can guarantee him a spot in the starting rotation with replacement-level numbers.

If the Blue Jays want to contend, they need to have pitchers with upside in their rotation. Marcus Stroman may be short, but has a sweet fastball that consistently sits 93-95 in his starts. Add to that a devastating slider, a slick cutter and a developing changeup, he has the makings of an above average starter, at least.

Drew Hutchinson has already shown he has the ability to perform at the big-league level with good command of all his pitches. He pitched very well on his way back from Tommy John surgery, and is ready to take on a bigger load on the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays.

Kyle Drabek is the biggest wildcard of all because he has some nasty, nasty stuff. Devastating fastball, curveball, slider with crazy life, he has it all. What he doesn’t have is command. If he finds a way to limit walks at the big league level, he can be a lethal component to a future Jays rotation.

Happ has the upside of exactly none of these guys. Yet, he’s given an automatic slot in the starting rotation. And the Blue Jays really expect the fans to buy that they’re serious about contending? Cut it out, please.

I’ll know the Blue Jays are serious about 2014 when J.A. Happ is the ace of the Buffalo Bisons.
Or when they actually get off their bums and sign somebody.

Not holding my breath for the former or the latter, though. Now back to studying.

Anybody have a calculator I can borrow?