Friday, March 6, 2015

My Basketball Projects Part Two

Basketball was such a big part of my life that I have had to split my memories of it so that it wouldn't be too much for one post.

Wanting to sell more basketball tickets and for Maple Leaf Gardens to make a more permanent arrangement with an NBA team one obstacle seemed to be ignorance.  Canadians were so tied to hockey they looked down on many other sports dismissing their importance.  A book could at least give some ammunition to existing basketball fans and gradually win over non fans.

The focus of my early book research was to find out as many Canadian connections to basketball. as possible.  Not only was it invented in 1892  by a Canadian, James Naismith, most of the first participants were Canadians studying at the YMCA school in Springfield Massachusetts.  The game spread across Canada through the YMCA, railways, military regiments and churches.

Women crept into the game. Naismith originally invited women to watch the men in the early stages, but before too long he encouraged them to play the game amongst themselves.  Basketball for women  was adapted for women who supposedly were the gentler sex, but over time evolved into the game played by men's rules.  Many Canadian men took the attitude that as a women's game it was too sissy for them and it took quite a long time to bury that notion.  In Canada, one of the greatest teams was the Edmonton Grads.  Today Canadian women compete for American basketball scholarships and play professionally.  Just like to add that women's hockey took quite awhile to evolve as competitive sport, but we are better off for the results.

Originally as an indoor game basketball was more common in cities.  In rural areas ice hockey and curling were outdoors.  As it happened I played basketball in a small town, Haliburton and decided to research it a bit.  Basketball came to Haliburton in the 1950's when a new high school was built to cover a large area.  Part of that research took me to Fenelon Falls and a rival coach who mentioned the importance of cable tv.   My last two years of high school restricted me and my family to one tv station with limited schedule that included little if any basketball.  Urbanization is not as critical as it once was for the popularity of basketball as cable television made basketball more accessible to greater parts of the country.

Canadians helped to spread the game to other countries. T. Duncan Patton, a participant in the original game introduced the game to India in 1894.  Lyman Archibald brought the game to St Stephen, New Brunswick which was the site of the first international game on Canadian soil against a neighboring team from Calais, Maine in 1892.  On  a sales trip several years ago I went out of my way to visit St Stephen. and learned many friendships crossed the border and the two towns even shared fire protection.  In 1893 Archibald brought basketball to Hamilton, Ontario my new home town.

Canada won a Silver medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the first to accept basketball as an official sport.  The first NBA game was in Toronto in 1946.  Another pro team was started in Vancouver in 1947 and lasted two years nurturing Norm Baker who went on to play professionally in the United States.,

I was able to get the attention of publisher Bob Nielsen who opened a lot of doors for me.  At one point he asked me to write a short story for his Canadian Children's Annual  and I was able to get a drawing by Lorne Miller, an artist friend from university.  At a reception at Hamilton City Hall I was approached by Victor Copps, the mayor who directed me to the  organizer of the Olympic qualifying tournament at McMaster University.

The Pre Olympic tournament at McMaster was a new experience for me--I watched several games and took part in a number of press meetings.  I remember talking with players/coaches from Bulgaria, Iceland, Yugoslavia, Israel and elsewhere.  At McMaster I once watched Canada play Yugoslavia but was surprised to see the visitors were very definitely treated as the home team.  This apparently was not uncommon that the ethnic communities supported their teams whilst Canadians mostly ignored our national team

Bob got me a government grant and suggested I travel to Springfield, Mass. to visit the Basketball Hall of Fame.  I decided we could turn it into a vacation and added on Cape Cod and a short drive through Boston.  A few years later my family tree took up a lot of my time and I learned that one branch of my mother's family had lived in the Springfield area for a few generations. Unfortunately I could find no connection between my ancestors and basketball.  I also traveled to Montreal and Ottawa to talk to basketball officials.  The rest of my driving was within two hours of my home.

After 1936 Canadians were overshadowed by other countries in basketball, but one area we did well was refereeing.  I was able to talk to Kitch McPherson who told me about Al Rae.  They had both done prominent international games.  At the time, Ron Foxcroft had followed in their footsteps and not only did big international matches, but also major American College basketball and later some NBA games.  During one of his international games his whistle failed him in a riotous atmosphere.  He set about inventing a more reliable whistle which came to be known as the Fox40 and was adapted for many sports.  More on Ron later.

Ethnic connections did turn out to be critical for basketball as Canada was multi national.  I was vaguely aware of the Baltic countries, but became more aware of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians that helped produce Leo Rautins and prominent Canadian university players.  I learned Japanese played in British Columbia and after their internment many came to Toronto and organized teams.  For me one of the most interesting experiences was when I was invited to a match between Montreal and Toronto in the Filipino community.  I was one of only three white people in a packed gym and the other two were referees.  I was introduced to one key Montreal player and learned he had left the Philippines to avoid gamblers.

Other important ethnic groups who helped develop basketball were the Mormons, Hungarians, Chinese and natives.  Basketball as an economical game was popular in other countries and when they came to Canada was something they were familiar with.  A Sioux Indian tribe in South Dakota had been introduced to basketball in 1892 and helped to spread the sport amongst fellow natives and in particular to Canada's west coast.

Another thrill was talking to people I considered celebrities.  Garney Henley was a very famous football player (Bob Nielsen had written a book about him) and a basketball coach at my alma mater. University of Guelph  He coached a team that won a CIAU championship.  I met Jack Donohue numerous times plus several team members, Jamie Russell,  Bill Robinson.  Norm Vickery, the women's coach had dinner in my little apartment.  Gus MaFarlane, a Member of Parliament.  Lew Hayman, who helped organize the first NBA team in Toronto and also involved with the Toronto Argonauts.

A note from Bill Bradley of the New York Knicks and later the United States Senate was a thrill.

Professional football players, mostly American gave a little prestige to the game.  Bobby Simpson, Vince Mazza, Garney Henley and Canadian Russ Jackson were good examples of famous athletes who played basketball while in Canada to keep in shape, but also because they loved the game.    Wally Gabler played basketball in one of my recreational games.  Sal Maglie, a famous baseball pitcher helped win a Canadian basketball championship.

One of the strangest events was a wedding on a basketball court.  Richie Spears had been a successful coach at Dawson College in Montreal and organized basketball clinics and festivals.  He met Norma Dudgeon at a basketball clinic, learned their basketball philosophies were compatible and found even more commonalities.  They agreed to get married at the basketball gymnasium at Dawson College with "Sweet Georgia Brown" replacing the traditional wedding march.  After the ceremony Richie coached his team to clinch league title and a week later coached the Quebec women's team at the Canada Winter Games.

As a short person I was always conscious that basketball gave a lot of advantages to taller people.  Other people were aware of this limitation and sought solutions.  One response came from the wheelchair community who had discovered basketball a relatively cheap, healthy activity that helped boost morale.  The problem was that people were handicapped to different degrees.  They worked out a system grading each player by their disability and then requiring each team to balance the grades so that there was a reasonable competitive equality.  For a short time there was a league that tried to make a team have a total height requirement.  This meant that if you had one exceptionally tall player he would be balanced with shorter players.  Speed played a role.  Ron Foxcroft bought into this and brought the Hamilton Skyhawks to Copps Coliseum where I was able to enjoy a few games before the league folded with the owners all losing money to fraud by the organizers..

Coaches and managers and organizers make all the difference  Niagara Falls produced a number of successful coaches--Paul Thomas at University of Windsor and Jay Triano with both the national team and the Raptors.  Another coach who sparked some hotspots in Alberni (where Bill Robinson came from) and Victoria (home of Steve Nash) was Geroge Andrews who had played with the Vancouver Hornets.  Marvin Pearl organized basketball tournaments in Toronto that attracted top teams from the United States.  Ruby Richman who had played in the Olympics campaigned for NBA basketball against a lot of obstacles, but planted the seed that resulted in the Raptors.  We don't always realize the difference an individual can make.  This insight, although far from original opened my eyes to its truth in all fields.  Without a spark many possibilities lie dormant.

One semi original idea I had was to do a map of basketball.  People joke or brag about some places being the unofficial capital of some endeavour and there is some truth to it.  I wanted to include a national capital, provincial capital, historical sites.  Some of the choices may not be household names:  Almonte, Tillsonburg, Port Alberni,  St. Stephen all played important roles in the history of basketball in Canada.

At one time I was assigned an editor to work with me, but I admit I found it frustrating; as I wanted to add more stuff in and she wanted to streamline it.  Another publisher expressed interest, but apparently had their own financial stresses.  The truth is there wasn't enough confidence in the topic at that time (or perhaps in my writing).  Although I had devoted countless hours to the project I had other things to worry about, like a job and a family.  I often wonder what would have happened if I had stuck it out.

My manuscript ended up being used for a Masters thesis, part made it to a Shopper's Drug Mart serial and there was a children's story that actually led to writing a basketball story and then a book review for a local newspaper.  Although it was never accepted in the form I wanted, looking back it served me well.  I learned lots of interesting things, met lots of interesting people, but perhaps the greatest benefit was understanding the process.  As Bob Nielsen explained, lots of people think they can write a book, but I at least learned there is much more to it than outsiders realize.  I respect writers and understand there are a lot of hoops to jump through.  I should also add that I enjoyed myself most of the time.

What do I love about basketball?   As a marginal writer one can respect his betters as a marginal athlete I can also respect the skills involved.  As a spectator basketball can be dramatic.   At one time a jump ball after every score tended towards lopsided action, but alternating possession has a tendency to keep scores close. Basketball is noted for having many exciting last second finishes.  The NBA well behind hockey, even in some American cities adopted the strategy of making a game an entertainment spectacle that would appeal to many non fans.  Definitely a part of success of the Toronto franchise where the Maple Leafs rely on the game itself.

A few years later the NBA became very popular in Canada  and I am glad if my efforts helped in any small way.  American colleges realized Canadian high schools could provide talent and many Canadians saw American scholarships as an opportunity to get an education.  Canadians are doing better than ever and more youngsters are finding an outlet for their energy and talent.  A few Leaf fans have discovered winning is a nice feeling that is more often provided by the Raptors.  And the NBA does provide entertainment for all ages.

Nowadays I don't watch as many sports, but have enjoyed the Raptors on tv, radio and in person.  When my son visits we both enjoy a visit to the Rogers Centre.  May watch the Pan American basketball. March Madness gets my attention and am pleased to see more Canadian content.

If you missed part 1 here it is:  http://bit.ly/1Ad9uGu

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