SPORTS/ESSAY

‘Hoops’ as a second language

NBA basketball fast-breaks into Toronto and Vancouver, determined to win hearts in hockey country

BOB LEVIN November 6 1995
SPORTS/ESSAY

‘Hoops’ as a second language

NBA basketball fast-breaks into Toronto and Vancouver, determined to win hearts in hockey country

BOB LEVIN November 6 1995

‘Hoops’ as a second language

SPORTS/ESSAY

NBA basketball fast-breaks into Toronto and Vancouver, determined to win hearts in hockey country

BOB LEVIN

The ball is 30 inches around, smooth but nubby, with a rich leathery smell that’s ambrosia to gym rats. It bounces behind the back, between the legs, returns to the fingers like a yo-yo, soars towards the hoop with exquisite backspin—and then, in the best of times, tickles the twine (as one announcer used to put it). There is a feel to basketball, as there is to all sports, an indefinable blend of sounds and smells and sights that nostalgiaaddled writers, long past their playing days, conjure up with a few stock phrases, letting readers’ own memories do the rest. Hockey has its frozen ponds and bone-rattling body checks. Baseball—the world champion at inspiring gooey tributes—has its smell of the grass, its crack of the bat. Basketball has sweaty gyms, squeaky sneakers and more. But it is not timeless. Its essence—perhaps more than other sports’—has evolved, becoming quicker, quirkier, more in-your-face and above-the-rim. Its rhythms owe something to jazz, rock and rap (not to mention ballet and modern dance), and its attitude is a cocky self-assurance—playgroundmade and National Basketball Association-marketed—that it’s simply the hippest game going.

This is not just a new pro sport coming to Canada this week, it’s a whole new culture. No, not new: the NBA game has long had a certain cable following here, enough to persuade Canadians to snap up $135 million worth of team jackets, shirts and other licensed goodies last year. And kids are shooting hoops on playgrounds and at high schools and universities from sea to sea.

But the arrival of the expansion Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies brings basketball home to a segment of the sports-watching population that has dismissed it as the frenetic and foreign rite of tall men in short pants. Will these fans catch “NBA fever,” in the league’s overheated phrase? Will people who grew up speaking hockey take hoops as a second language, deciphering double dribbles, pick-and-rolls and alley-oops?

That’s certainly the league’s bet, and not just because the young man who invented basketball happened to be Canadian.

James Naismith, of Almonte, Ont., was a 30-year-old phys ed instructor at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass.,

when, one December day in 1891, his boss asked him to find some indoor game to fill the dreary winter months. Out came a soccer ball and up went the now-famous peach baskets, hung from a balcony 10 feet high (still the height of a regulation hoop). Naismith’s boys managed to make only one shot the entire first game—the janitor climbed a ladder to get the ball down—but the students were hooked. “The game spread through the YMCAs,” says Wayne Patterson, research specialist at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. “There were 18 members of that gym class on the day he invented basketball. A lot of them earned degrees to go work at other YMCAs. And they took the game with them.”

Fast as basketball spread, by the Second World War it

was played professionally, mostly in small blue-collar centres in the Midwest (the Fort Wayne Zöllner Pistons, the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets). That’s when a bunch of hockey guys stepped in. These men, who owned big-city arenas and the National and American hockey league teams that skated in them, wanted other ways to fill open dates besides ice shows and circuses. Thus was born the Basketball Association of America, whose first game—on Nov. 1, 1946—was played at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the hometown Huskies succumbing to the New York Knicks,

68-66. The Huskies folded the next year and the league merged with another to form the National Basketball Association in 1949.

Over the years, players have not only gotten bigger, stronger and faster, they have developed different styles. Call it a tale of two movies. Hoosiers (1986) is the story of a band of hardworking, straight-shooting, small-town Indiana boys who defy the odds to win the state championship. That’s one basketball tradition—country white. But even in Indiana, where hoops is a religion and Bobby Knight, the irascible coach at the university in Bloomington, is a hardwood

demigod, the no-fancy-stuff ethic of yore has been transformed by the free-flowing, sky-walking style of city blacks displayed in the documentary Hoop Dreams (1994).

“The guys in the Midwest developed as great shooters,” says Jack Donohue, a native New Yorker who coached the Canadian national team for 17 years. “Kids there didn’t have a lot of other people to play with, except for formal practice. They’d have the basket whacked up against the barn and they shot the ball millions and millions of times.” In the inner cities, says Donohue, “there were so many games played, it was so repetitious, that now you wanted to stand out as an individual. Everybody shot the ball but you shot it differently, you shot it better—it had to have style. And certainly when you drove to the basket those were the big plays that brought crowds to their feet.”

How potent is playground magic? Consider this reminiscence, from someone who watched the legendary Connie Hawkins (later a pro star) strut his stuff on the asphalt of New York: “He did things on the court that no one had even thought of doing before. He was one of the first with huge hands who could glide and swoop and dunk and stuff all kinds of ways. He’d tantalize you. I watched his moves, his bursts of inspired improvisation, and received revelations about the game.” The observer was a kid Donohue coached in high school, one Lew Alcindor, who later became a revelation himself under his new name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In a league that promotes itself through the star power of its latest luminaries, Abdul-Jabbar is now a name from the past. He has joined recent headliners like Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and earlier greats like George Mikan, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. The current crop—Shaq, Michael, Sir Charles (you shouldn’t have to ask)—will be coming soon to Vancouver’s state-of-the-art GM Place and Toronto’s ill-suited SkyDome, which, for basketball, is about as cozy as the West Edmonton Mall.

All this will take some getting used to. No one, for instance, should congratulate the Canadian franchises for “stickhandling” their way through the bidding process, as one radio announcer did two years ago. And buzzers do not sound “in favor of the Hawks,” as a tin-eared press report recently had it. But Donohue, at least, thinks big-time basketball has a good shot at taking root in Canada. “Because in North America we’re used to scoring—this isn’t soccer, there are going to be a hundred baskets scored each game. Secondly, the players are easily recognizable, unlike football and hockey. You really see them. You can say, ‘Gee, I like that guy, he smiles a lot, it looks like he’s really enjoying himself.’ ”

Why wouldn’t he be? He’s getting paid to play one of the greatest games around. □