COLUMN

Local boys and foreign flags

BOB LEVIN August 22 1994
COLUMN

Local boys and foreign flags

BOB LEVIN August 22 1994

Local boys and foreign flags

BOB LEVIN

There were the Greeks, hugging tearfully at midcourt, players who had competed and won with passion and who now saluted the crowd that had cheered them on with equal passion, that continued to chant, “Hellas, Hellas” and wave their blue-and-white flags. Feet stomped. Whistles blew. It was a lovely scene, unless of course the onlooker was a fan of the losing side, which happened to be Canada, and unless that fan got to wondering why Canadian boys there in sweaty Maple Leaf Gardens should feel like strangers in a strange land.

And wonder they did. “It’s tough for Canadian kids, playing in their home country to get booed in their home court,” said Ken Shields, who coached the Canadian squad at the World Championship of Basketball tournament in Toronto and Hamilton last week.

Yes, there were a few boos from the Greek supporters—a few. But then the real noise started. Don Cherry, the hockey commentator who cares nothing about basketball but slamdunks any perceived affront to Canada, told radio listeners that, while the older GreekCanadians cheering their native land over Canada didn’t bother him that much, the younger ones certainly did. “If you like it so much over there,” boomed Cherry, “go back—here’s 10 bucks and take two with you.” There were more measured voices, as well, calling radio shows to say that multiculturalism had run amok, while learned professors weighed in on the dangers of excessive flag-waving of any kind. In fact, in the midst of an 11-day tournament that was hoops heaven for basketball junkies and an education for the uninitiated, there were any number of people who seemed to forget that sports are supposed to be fun, that rooting is an affair of the heart, like love and religion, and that loyalty— especially in athletics—is a relative term.

First of all, yes: the divided Gardens crowd was no doubt unsettling to the Canadian team in crushing losses to Greece and Croatia, whose local fans also turned out in force. In

Bob Levin is a Maclean’s Assistant Managing Editor.

the Greece game, on Aug. 8, there were more than 11,000 spectators in all, and the majority came from Toronto’s huge Greek community, and they out-shouted the home-side fans. It was all very Canadian—a Multicultural Moment. And it wasn’t easy on the GreekCanadians, either. “I’m not celebrating,” said Simon Leptokaridis, watching the delirium from courtside. "This is your second home, you can’t celebrate the way you would if you beat Germany. The feelings are too mixed.” Leptokaridis, 39, who emigrated a decade ago and now writes for a Greek weekly newspaper in Toronto, said his advice to the community had been to “take one Canadian flag, one Greek.” (Some did.) The truth was, he said, the pro-Greece crowd would have been much larger, but many people, ambivalent and even fearing a possible clash with pro-Canada fans, stayed home.

Leptokaridis said something else: “I was disappointed because I don’t think a lot of Canadian fans came.” Exactly. Why blame the

Greek faithful for supporting their side too well? Why not blame Canadian fans for not filling more seats up in the greys? Face it: this wasn’t hockey, it was basketball, and in 1994— the year before the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies take to the hardwood— Canadians in large numbers do not fret over the fate of a bunch of tall men in short pants, maple leaves on their jerseys or not.

And who is Rick Fox anyway? Fox, the biggest name on the Canadian team, spent his first two years in Canada and that’s it—he was raised in the Bahamas, educated in Indiana and North Carolina and now plays professionally in Boston. And suddenly Canadians are supposed to cheer him wildly? GreekCanadians? No one doubts Fox when he says that it meant a lot to him to play for Canada, but that’s not the point. Shifting loyalties are a fact of international sport, a world where passports or a parent’s birthplace can transform one country’s also-ran into another’s star. Think of the Winter Olympics, all those Italian and French and German hockey players who grew up skating on ponds in Quebec and Saskatchewan. Does competing under a foreign flag make them athletic turncoats? No, it just makes them not good enough to play for Canada but eager for an Olympic experience nonetheless.

And it’s not just the international arena. Every fan of professional sports is an expert on the subject of changing loyalties. In Quebec City, where citizens were once fired by a near-nationalistic fervor over the Montreal Canadiens, not everyone was so quick back in 1979 to switch allegiances to the new home-town Nordiques, creating a divided crowd when the Habs came to town. And who hasn’t had trouble making mental adjustments when players change teams? Last year, did true Blue Jay fans choke on their cheers for Rickey Henderson, the hated Oaklander who briefly masqueraded in blue before reverting to green and yellow this season? Can CFL fans actually remember which quarterback they’re backing this week?

The point is, fans are free to make their own choices, and neither place of residence nor even windy commentators are going to change that. Sure, sport and nationalism can be an uneasy mix. A strutting Hitler at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the El Salvador-Honduras soccer war of 1969—the examples go on and on. But there was also the Croatian basketball team last week, playing proudly—and very well—under the flag of their newly independent nation. And there are those moments, those teams, that transcend nationality. As the American Dream Teamers entered the Gardens last week, amid flashing cameras and halter-topped girls shouting “Shaq! Reggie!” it was clear that the tournament’s headliners were only incidentally Americans, only incidentally basketball players: they are rock stars, and they belong to the ad-hyped, MTV world.

So, to all those relentless hand-wringers, lighten up. Canada hosted the globe’s top hoopsters and things went just fine. The players played. The fans cheered. A good time was had by most.