Posted Aug 19, 2013 10:31 AM
Editor's note from David Aldridge: Many thanks to Steve Kerr for his excellent Guest Tip last week. I'm still on vacation for a few more weeks, so we'll continue the Guest Tipper series today with our annual Fan Tip.
I received dozens of submissions from basketball fans all over the globe, and I appreciate all who took the time to write about the impact that basketball has had on your lives. But I had to pick one, and I did -- Larry Kelly, of Revelstoke, British Columbia. As ever, there's no set criteria, no rules when it comes to picking a winner -- I just select the essay that reached me in some special way. Larry's story was the one that did the trick this year. He didn't go on to become a great player or reach the NBA -- at 5-foot-5 with few hops, as Larry notes, a pro career was not in the cards.
And, yet, that's the point. You don't have to have dreams of an NBA career to fall in love with the game, the emphasis on teamwork, and of improvement, and the lessons learned from both winning and losing. I love true believers in the orange leather, and Larry is a true believer. I hope you enjoy his story and his passion as much as I did.
By Larry Kelly, for NBA.com
On paper, there's not much reason for me to be a basketball player or fan. I'm 5-foot-5, 150 pounds soaking wet, and so white as to be translucent. But playing and watching the game of basketball has enriched and taught me innumerable lessons throughout my life.
I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where my Dad taught me to shoot, dribble and to watch the pro game. (We saw Bird steal it from Isiah.) When I was 11, my Dad and I were playing 2-on-2 with my friends. Dad went up for a rebound and stumbled backward, tripping over my buddy, who was trying desperately to avoid the toppling, 6-foot, 220-pound ogre. Dad fell on his face so hard his shades cut his nose and he was left with a scar right between the eyes, separating his unibrow.
Dad was pretty angry. He never let my buddy forget that "trip". David and Goliath had new meaning. So did grudges, and mismatches.
I went to a small Catholic school downtown. There were lots of immigrants from places like Chile, Burundi, the Philippines, Lebanon and the West Indies. Our school did not have money for hockey or football teams, so the meshing of cultures often occurred on a soccer pitch or basketball court. After summers of honing my skills, my first tryout came in grade 7. Coach had us do some drills, then he lined us up and told one kid to play D, and handed me the ball at the top of the key. "Try to score" he said.
I used my whole 5-foot, 90-pound frame to heave the rock towards the rim, and ... buckets. He laughed so hard, both at my form and because he wanted to see us put it on the floor. I made the team though. And I learned about clear instructions.
I got cut when I jumped to high school, a crushing blow. So I worked on my game and made the team the next year. Our coach, new to the school, was a rarity in 1991. A fiery redhead, Tracey "Red" McPherson was a woman. A great coach, phys ed teacher and former university player, Red had a tough first year. Midseason we were in a tight game, and one of the starters put up a few bad shots, and Red called for a sub. He took exception to getting told to sit down, at least in part because she was a woman. He headed to the end of the bench, but called her something first.
Red wheeled, and they got into it. He pushed Red, and there was a meltdown. The game stopped, our bench separated the two of them and we forfeited the game. The player was suspended from school and booted from the team. The next day, none of us was sure we would finish the season when we met with Red and the principal, Sister Mary. I wasn't the best player on the team by a longshot, but I was one of the most vocal at that meeting. Several of us implored Red to keep coaching us, and affirmed that we respected her. The incident had shaken her, but she agreed to continue to coach. I learned about consequences, leadership and mending fences.
That year I played with Shawn, a wiry 6-foot-3 forward with a temper. A push to his back meant an elbow to your ribs, as many bigger guys found out. Shawn taught me about how to survive, in a big brother way. We knew we would be friends when he saw the life-sized poster of Bird in my room under my Nerf hoop.
The next year I met my nemesis, my motivator, Kevin, with whom I battled for playing time. We made the final in our division (smaller, poorer schools). With 30 seconds left in a tight game, without any prompting from the bench, Kevin "Webbered" us the year before Webber did it. He called a timeout we didn't have and we lost on the ensuing tech and possession.
My last year of high school, we went to a preseason tourney to play some better teams. We got destroyed by 50, 60 points, a few times. I got dunked on, hard, on a 2-on-1. We learned. My parents couldn't make it to many games, and when you mainly ride the bench there's not much to see. But my Mom came out once for an away game, and Red put me in. The gym was still as a library when I let a 3 fly, and while it was in the air I heard Kevin on the bench say "No way." Swish. Then I let fly from the other side, and again from Kevin "Not a chance." Bam. I hit a right-leaning floater, a pair of free throws and had my best game of the season in front of Mom, 10 points. I learned about pride, and motivation.
Our best player, Samuel, was my size, a guard, from South America. One day after practice I saw a picture in his locker of a little girl. I asked if it was his sister or niece, he said no, was his daughter. While I worried about my hairstyle or what school I wanted to attend next, he went home every night to his 2-year old. Samuel won several games single-handedly for us. I learned about focus.
The second-to-last game of the season, we played in a gym where the end walls were really close. In the second quarter I went full speed to save a ball from going out of bounds. I looked up too late to see the wall coming, but got my right hand up. I iced my wrist on the bench, and then caught the ball at midcourt to start the second half. I crumpled to the floor. X-rays revealed the break. I was heartbroken, six weeks in a cast with only four weeks left in the season.
I watched the team finish the season undefeated. My cast came off a week before the final. The doc said if I could bear the pain ... I told Red I was good to go. I taped the wrist, and the first pass I took in warm-ups was from Kevin, a no-mercy can-you-really-play bullet. I gritted my teeth and drove for a layup. The game was close, and then we broke it open and I played the best garbage time of my career. I learned what it means to overcome. For me, for Lefty, Samuel, Shawn, Red, all of us. We won as a team.
I went to a university, but I was a poor student. I partied instead of studying, and I played ball instead of going to classes. But my game got much better. That year we went to my first live NBA game, and watched Michael pour 38 on the Raptors and dominate with 15 in the fourth quarter. That combination of skill and will is something I will never forget.
One day after pickup ball, the women's university team took the court with eight players and a coach. They needed a 10th to scrimmage. I volunteered, since I wasn't going to class. I scored a bunch. Spin move in the lane, on the break, jumper. Second scrimmage I got a steal at half court, by the sideline. I looked left to see the coach hustling back on D. I might be a Canadian Smurf, but back then I could touch the rim and I was going to the rack. Before I could drop in a smooth finger roll, I got body-slammed from behind as the ball bounced harmlessly out of bounds. The coach glared at me on the ground, and turned to her team, "No easy baskets." I learned something about pride and toughness.
Shawn and I went to Daytona for Spring Break. (Canadian spring break happens a few weeks before the U.S. version. A much tamer group of pasty-looking Canucks wander around in 65-degree weather with their shirts off while locals wear coats.) We found a court on the beach full of locals. A big guy, 6-foot-4, 240, came into the game wearing gold chains with shorts and collared baggy shirt, beige and green checks on both of them (hey, it was the '90s). There was lots of trash talk to go around, but Shawn and I were going toe-to-toe with the locals, when the big guy nailed a three in my face and asked, "You scared now, white boy?!"
I replied, "How could I be scared of anybody dressed like you?" And everybody stopped. You could hear the ocean. Not a sneaker squeaked. Shawn thought we would be killed, Miami Vice style. The dude burst out laughing, "I like you, Canada!" I learned something about trash talk, and intuition.
After university I moved west to the mountains. Shawn stayed in Ottawa where he became an accountant. I became entranced by the natural, vertical world, by skiing and climbing. Every town has ballers though, and I always played, both league and pickup. And I followed the great Spurs runs, Detroit's upset, and the Lakers' mini-dynasty after Michael.
The highlight of my NBA fandom (until this week?) came in 2008, when I went to Game 2 of the NBA Finals in Boston, for free. Shawn called me up, flew me out on points he'd amassed on his credit card, and his other buddy Mike got us the hotel room the same way. The money for my nosebleed ticket came from my parents in a roundabout way; Shawn did their taxes and the bill was exactly what my seat cost. I never could have afforded that trip otherwise. We watched the night of Leon Powe's life, clutch free-throw shooting, and a big step toward banner number 17.
These days I'm not in contact with Red or most of my former teammates, but I still cheer for the Celtics no matter what their record, and I see Shawn every year when I go back home. We talk ball, and life. I cheer for the underdogs, the guys hoping to get off the bench. I go out and shoot on a basket near my house against invisible defenders, like my Dad, and envision teaching my son the game.
Just like in life, sometimes it's off the back of the rim, and sometimes ... bam, swish!
Steve Kerr was right in last week's Morning Tip; mediocrity is not in the fans' best interest, and neither is futility. While Mr. Kerr is correct that a fairer draft would have an impact on distributing the league's talent, I submit that the draft is just a part of the equation; free agency is a big part of it, too, and management's ability to make trades and blend everything together. A franchise's ability to retain and attract top tier free agents is of utmost importance. The draft alone, even with high picks, is no guarantee of a bright future; just ask the Toronto Raptors.
As a Canadian NBA fan I'm often asked why I don't cheer for the Raps. First off, I was a Celtics fan long before any dinosaur took the court. Secondly, they opted for a terrible team name based on a movie fad. I mean, pants have evolved since then right?
Finally, and most importantly, the Raptors have not made me a fan through their play, because they can't keep their own drafted talent or attract new talent.
The Chris Bosh era brought the club to some relevance, but he never had the team around him to be a true contender, and it can be argued he was not the right player to carry a team. One trip to the second round does not a dynasty make. Before becoming a Super Friend, Bosh was one of several high draft picks by the Raptors. In their 18 seasons of existence the Raps have had 12 picks in the top 10, and half of those were in the top 5:
1996 Marcus Camby (4),
1998 Antawn Jamison (4, traded for Vince Carter, the fifth pick),
1999 Jonathan Bender (5, traded for Antonio Davis),
2003 Chris Bosh (4),
2006 Andrea Bargnani (the club's only top pick), and
2011 Jonas Valunciunas (5, still on his rookie contract).
So drafting can't alone be to blame for the team's success, or lack thereof, can it? True, a weighted draft might have helped the team's positioning. The Raptors certainly have done their best to get the odds in their favor the old-fashioned way. With a .406 winning percentage, only three teams are worse all-time. The other three: the Clips, the definitive franchise for losing and poor drafting (although Doc is totally going to find Blake's jump shot and DeAndre Jordan's skyhook); the Wolves, whose fortunes seem to be looking up but still also play in a frozen hinterland; and the Grizzlies, only because they were once in Vancouver. (And seriously, there are no grizzlies in Tennessee, so how about a name change for these guys, too?).
Furthermore, the draft is a tougher proposition than it was 25 years ago. More players come from overseas and are not evaluated playing against many other draftees. With so many "one and done" players not wishing to risk an injury as an amateur, more development now takes place at the pro level and much less occurs at the collegiate level. This longer term forecasting requires a proverbial crystal ball.
The real problem that can be dealt with is free agency, and the types of players Toronto is able to sign. Rarely has a star signed a second contract with the team, and the team's best players, from Damon Stoudamire to Tracy McGrady to Vince Carter have eventually forced a trade. Marcus Camby's recent nixing of a second stint with the team is only one in a long line of players openly refusing to go to Toronto, beginning with BJ Armstrong after the expansion draft, and continuing with Kenny Anderson after the Stoudamire trade. Bryan Colangelo's much-heralded arrival produced the Raptors' lone Atlantic Division title, but did little to elevate the appeal of playing in Toronto. Masai Ujiri's executive of the year award from last year will do as much for him as Colangelo's if he can't get the most out of Valanciunas, a Colangelo legacy, and surround him with a reasonable supporting cast. Toronto has rarely sniffed the playoffs, yet attendance is solid in Toronto because it is the country's only team in a sports mad city of 6 million people.
So how does Toronto draw reasonable free agents? Better cartoons? Drafting aside, shouldn't the new CBA rules benefit a team like the Raptors? In theory, yes, unless players think getting traded there is akin to being sent to Siberia. Ujiri's first task will be to alter the perception and counter the negative stereotypes associated with playing in Toronto. You don't have to tell me about snow or cold, so I see the appeal of South Beach. But surely it can't be worse than Detroit, Philly or Chicago in February! And it's not like they play outdoors. Toronto is a clean city with below average crime, good health care, a melting pot of ethnicity, and a drinking age of 19. How can any of that be so bad?
Taxes, you say? Not true, with proper financial planning, current legislation for US workers in Canada should make a player's tax burden minimal. Even the currency exchange rate is no longer an issue. (Ironically, the one guy who really wanted to stay in Toronto is gone. But Dallas, you can have Jose Calderon. Although he is a true professional, he is also a matador at the point.)
Better talent evaIuation is needed too, as several free agent and contract-extension signings have been disasters. In recent years the front office has shown a preponderance to sign streaky, overpaid, no-D Euros (see Linas Kleiza at four years $20 million, mercifully amnestied; Andrea Bargnani for five years and $50 million, now a Knicks problem; and Hedo Turkgolu for five years and $53 million, presumably used for clubbing), while overpaying for role players (Amir Johnson, five years, $34 million; DeMar DeRozan, four years and $38 million). Unfortunately, overpaying for middle-of-the-road talent handcuffs even the best GM.
For the first time ever, a Canadian was the top pick in this year's NBA draft and another might be next year. As the Raptors near the end of their second decade of operation, a golden time in Canadian basketball could be on the horizon.
That is if players from around the league are willing to seek that gold in the snow banks of Toronto.
Larry Kelly lives in the Selkirk Mountains, in Revelstoke, British Columbia, at the epicenter of snow and avalanche study in Canada. He works for Revelstoke Mountain Resort as a professional Ski Patroller and Avalanche Technician, and for Selkirk Tangiers Helicopter Skiing.
He still plays pickup games at the school gym every week. Since March 30, he and his wife Christine DePauli have been occupying their time with the newest member of their family, son Cian (rhymes with "Skiin'"). Larry reports that Cian winced when Manu missed that free throw in the NBA Finals (though Larry admits that might have been gas).
"I have high hopes for him," Larry says, "firstly that he will somehow overcome genetics and ignore the elfin stature of his parents to become a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, hopefully with a full ride to somewhere warm and pleasant to visit. Failing that, I just hope he's not a Lakers fan, and that he likes sliding on snow as much as his Mom and Dad."
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