It was a far cry from years in the future when Canada embarked on a highly financed campaign to win a bevy of gold at the Vancouver Winter Olympics with their Own the Podium program.
In 1964, the basketball players on Team Canada paid their own way to Tokyo to compete in a qualifying tournament that took place a week prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics. If Canada played well enough to finish within the top four in the 16-team tournament to qualify for the Olympic tournament, then the 15 players would be reimbursed for the S1,044 round-trip economy airfare from Toronto to Tokyo, according to a Yomiuri article from October 5, 1964.
On October 2, Canada got by The Philippines 68-64, which set up a match against Cuba. And on October 4 in Yokohama, Canada defeated Cuba 72-63. As the article describes, “Canada’s Olympic basketball team members are in the money, and far from keeping it quiet, they’re yelling their heads off jubilantly.”
Then there’s the adage “be careful what you wish for.”
After the opening ceremonies, and the commencement of the Olympics basketball tournament in the beautiful National Gymnasium Annex in Yoyogi, Team Canada quickly realized they had entered a slaughterhouse. Team Canada proceeded to lose seven games in a row.
To the delight of the hometown fans, Canada lost handily to a much shorter Team Japan 58-37, in what was considered at that time an upset. Japan in fact won 4 games in the tournament. Team Canada’s only consolation was in the consolation round, when they somehow defeated Peru 62-61, before falling to Hungary, and landing in 14th place out of 16.
What’s the highest grossing film about basketball in history? Ivan Reitman’s 1996 film, Space Jam, featuring the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan.
Where were the greatest pick-up basketball games of all time played? On the set of Space Jam in 1995, on a custom-made indoor-basketball court built on the location of the studio where Space Jam was shot.
Starring in the movie with 1992 Olympic gold medalist, Jordan, were his teammates on that Barcelona Dream Team, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley. Jordan had come out of retirement in 1995, but fell just short of taking his Chicago Bulls to the NBA Finals, which lost to the Orlando Magic in six games.
According to this great ESPN article, Jordan wanted to make sure he was able to train hard and gear up for the following NBA season while filming Space Jam, so he asked for and got the construction of the indoor basketball court, dubbed the Jordan Dome. Jordan put out the word that he was looking for people to play in pick-up games, and the stars made a beeline for LA. In addition to co-stars Ewing and Barkley, all stars like Grant Hill, Rod Strickland, Glen Rice, Dennis Rodman, Juwan Howard, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson and Reggie Miller came to play some of the most intense shirt-skins matches ever.
Tracy Murray, who played in these games, said “it was like an NBA all-star game every day.”
Michael Jordan, a man not satisfied with semi-final finishes, was determined to make sure these pick-up matches got him razor-sharp ready for the NBA season. According to the ESPN article, Don MacLean, a power forward for the Washington Bullets at the time, was being guarded by Jordan. MacLean got hot and scored the majority of his team’s points to help his team to victory one evening. MacLean had to leave town after that match, and Jordan came up to him and said, “Thanks for coming, make sure you come back.” MacLean thought that was cool of Jordan to say that, so he looked forward to coming back a couple of weeks later. Here’s how ESPN explained Jordan’s revenge.
When MacLean did show up a couple of weeks later, he played in the first game of the night. “[Jordan] walks on the court, says, ‘I got MacLean,’ and did not let me touch the ball for the entire game,” MacLean said. “And I was trying. And he was not letting me touch the ball. “Right then and there, I was like, ‘My God.’ For a pickup game in the summer that means nothing, two weeks later, he remembers that. I couldn’t believe it.”
No one was more competitive, or more skilled than Michael Jordan in his prime. And therefore, no was better.
Fidel Castro has passed away. But his legacy for the love of sport continues.
Cuba has the 65th largest GDP in the world today. It has the 78th largest population in the world at 11.2 million people. And yet, in the Americas, only America and Canada have garnered more total Olympic medals than the small island nation of Cuba. Incredibly, in the period from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Cuba finished in the top 11 medal count. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, only the United Team (the former Soviet bloc), the United States, Germany and China got more than Cuba’s 31 total medals.
Clearly, this Caribbean nation has punched way above its weight class, and not just in boxing where Cuba is most famous. In 20 Olympic Games, Cuba has won 79 gold medals, 67 silver medals and 70 bronze medals in judo, athletics, wrestling and of course baseball. By comparison, India, which has a population over a hundred times larger, and the fifth largest GDP in the world, has competed in four more Olympics than Cuba, and yet has totaled only 28 medals.
And according to articles after President Castro passed away on November 25, 2016, Castro had a hand in turning Cuba into a sports power – and it doesn’t appear to be via state-sponsored doping systems. According to this article, sports became a social phenomenon due to state-sponsored institutions.
After Castro entered Havana on Jan. 1, 1959, the revolutionary government approved and implemented a nationwide plan to improve the nation’s sports practice, resulting in free and universal access to sports schools for every citizen.
In 1961, Cuba created the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation which was placed in charge of promoting sports for children, adults and even the elderly on the island. The state-run program was also charged with improving the quality of service in its sports facilities, manufacturing its own equipment and conducting research in sports science.
But Cuba’s biggest sports cheerleader was, according to the New York Times, was el presidente himself.
“I think Fidel Castro legitimately liked sports,” said David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “One got the sense with East Germany, for example, that it really was a question of propaganda and that government officials didn’t have that obsession with sport itself that Fidel Castro did.” Whatever hardships they endured, Cubans could take pride in their sports stars.
But of course, during Cuba’s hey day in the 1970s and 1980s, in the heat of the cold war, Castro could not help but use Cuba’s great sporting achievements as a tool in the battle for geo-political mindshare. Of course, as the Times points out, propaganda is often just propaganda, a smokescreen behind which you hide the uglier shades of truth.
Yet it was primarily baseball, along with boxing and other Olympic sports, that came to symbolize both the strength and vulnerability of Cuban socialism. Successes in those sports allowed Mr. Castro to taunt and defy the United States on the diamond and in the ring and to infuse Cuban citizens with a sense of national pride. At the same time, international isolation and difficult financial realities led to the rampant defection of top baseball stars, the decrepit condition of stadiums and a shortage of equipment.
So for every great sporting star who remained in Cuba, like three-time Olympic heavyweight champion,Teófilo Stevenson, or Javier Sotomayor, still the world record holder in the high jump, there have been many who defected, often to their neighbor to the north, the United States.
What does the future bring? Will the recent thawing of relations initiated by presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama continue to allow greater travel and expanded opportunities for cross-border business and cultural exchange? Or will President-elect Donald Trump reverse the thaw? Will that have any impact on sports in Cuba?
Carmelo Anthony is a New Yorker, now playing for my hometown team, the New York Knicks. I’m proud that he is a Knick, but as I grew up a St Johns Redmen fan, and he led Big East rival Syracuse to an NCAA championship, I wasn’t an immediate fan.
When Anthony joined the Knicks after essentially demanding a trade from Denver, I looked on the deal with tremendous skepticism. The Knicks have floundered in the Carmelo years, although that floundering began way before he arrived. Skepticism has turned to apathy, and my expectations for my Knicks have dropped.
But my respect for Anthony has continued to climb. He has been a proud Olympian, representing the US men’s basketball team a record four times, helping the US to three gold medal championships in the past three Olympics. More importantly, Melo has been willing to speak out on social matters important to him, an uncommon trait for well-paid athletes.
During the Rio Olympics, a day after Ryan Lochte told the world that he and fellow swimming teammates were held up at gunpoint at a Rio gas station, Carmelo Anthony was visiting one of the more notorious favela in Rio, Santa Marta. Favela are where the poorest of the inner city in Brazil live, their lives influenced by the vice of the drug trafficking economy.
Anthony, with a few friends, went with cameras, and without security to hang out with citizens of Santa Marta. It was a couple of days after the USA defeated France by a unexpectedly slim margin, and a day before their opening match in the knockout round with Argentina. The US team’s mission was far from complete, but my guess is that Anthony worked this out with the coach so that he could fulfill a dream to visit a favela. He admitted that he had seen the film, City of God, dozens of times, and as a child of the inner city growing up in Baltimore, he wanted to see what life was like in Santa Marta.
“This was on my bucket list, to be honest with you; specifically to go to the favelas — forever,” said Anthony, staying on a nearby cruise ship with his teammates. “I just always wanted to see and experience that. Growing up in Baltimore, and knowing what that was like, in my own favela, you know what I mean? So I wanted to go and experience that for myself. I wanted to touch that.”
One of the more powerful images in social media during the Rio Olympics was Carmelo Anthony sitting in a plastic chair in the middle of the favela, his blaring red clothes and cap in contrast to the multi-colored canvas of the favela apartments behind him. What he wrote below his Instagram picture was a statement of empathy and ease, one that I’m sure enamored him with many in Brazil.
“I discovered that what most people call creepy, scary, and spooky, I call comfy, cozy, and home.”
This image and statement was in direct contrast to the image painted by Lochte, who reinforced the perception that Rio was a scary, violent place. You can see how people quickly picked up on the contrast between Lochte and Anthony here.
Anthony walked around, played basketball with the neighborhood kids, and brought smiles to people in the favela. I think that when stars combine acts of unexpected kindness with a consistent articulation of their values, you get a more authentic view of them as people. So now I’m glad and proud that Melo is a member of the New York Knicks. There’s more to life than winning championships. (But I wouldn’t mind if he does.)
With the ouster of the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, two years ago, and the more visible acts of support for causes like Black Lives Matter, the NBA appears to have more of an activist bent than most North American sports leagues. Thus, the reaction by NBA players and coaches to the election of Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States has been more predictable.
Gregg Popovich, one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, had this to say: “Right now I’m just trying to formulate thoughts. It’s too early. I’m just sick to my stomach. Not basically because the Republicans won or anything, but the disgusting tenure and tone and all of the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic.”
… all of a sudden you’re faced with the reality that the man who’s gonna lead you has routinely used racist, misogynist, insulting words. That’s a tough one. That’s a tough one. I wish him well. I hope he’s a good president. I have no idea what kind of president he’ll be because he hasn’t said anything about what he’s going to do. We don’t know. But it’s tough when you want there to be some respect and dignity, and there hasn’t been any. And then you walk into a room with your daughter and your wife who have basically been insulted by his comments and they’re distraught. Then you walk in and see the faces of your players, most of them who have been insulted directly as minorities, it’s very shocking. It really is.
Coach Kerr openly stated the million dollar question in team sports – how does a coach coach a team of whites, blacks and hispanics who are united by team purpose, but possibly divided by national purpose?
The NFL has a similar ratio of black players to the NBA. But the press has reported more comments from coaches in support of President-Elect Trump, compared to the NFL. Certainly, the most famous case is the coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, who tends to be tightlipped about anything he believes not relevant to his football team, and play on the field. And yet, Trump quoted a letter from Belichick to Trump on the eve of the presidential election, clearly seeing an opportunity to get more votes in the New England states.
My guess is Belichick would have preferred to keep the contents of his letter quiet, but when confronted, he did explain his relationship with Trump at a news conference. “Our friendship goes back many years. Anybody who spends more than five minutes with me knows I’m not a political person. My comments are not politically motivated. I have a friendship with Donald.”
The New England Patriots’ organization is famous for the strict control it imposes on its players in regards to talking with the press, and very little has been heard from the players, except for their star quarterback, Tom Brady, who is also known as a long-time personal friend of Donald Trump.
In terms of football, the words of Belichick and Brady are the most important on the team. But when your coach, your star quarterback and even the owner of the team are friends of Trump, what impact will this have on the team fabric, likely made up of a number of players who view Trump as a racist?
The Buffalo Bills are not the New England Patriots. The Bill’s head coach, Rex Ryan, has openly supported Trump, even giving speeches for Trump at rallies in Buffalo.
“There’s so many things I admire about Mr. Trump, but one thing I really admire about him is—you know what—he’ll say what’s on his mind,” Ryan said in this Bleacher Report article. “And so many times, you’ll see people—a lot of people—want to say the same thing. But there’s a big difference: They don’t have the courage to say it. They all think it, but they don’t have the courage to say it. And Donald Trump certainly has the courage to say it.”
When Ryan was the coach of the New York Jets, my hometown team, it was clear that Ryan was seen as a player’s coach, the kind of guy you would run through the wall for. But supporting Trump may have an impact on team dynamics. In that same Bleacher Report article, a couple of Bills’ players were quoted anonymously that their coach’s comments did not sit well with them.
“Rex is such an open-minded guy, a really good person,” said the player, who asked not to be identified, fearing repercussions from the Bills. “But the fact he could back someone as closed-minded as Trump genuinely shocked me.” The player, who is black, emphasized that teammates’ frustration with their coach’s public endorsement was not universal. But in private discussions, he said, “Some of the African-American players on the team weren’t happy about Rex doing that.”
Indeed, said another black player on the Bills who requested anonymity to speak freely about tensions swirling with a combination of protests led by Colin Kaepernick and a combustible candidate: “I see Trump as someone who is hostile to people of color, and the fact that Rex supports him made me look at him completely differently, and not in a positive way.”
What’s interesting, although predictable perhaps, was the reaction of a particular player on the team, Richie Incognito. “I think that he can help this nation get back to a world superpower,” Incognito told B/R’s Tyler Dunne. “Where I think he could help is putting us first again and having that—it’s my mentality, too—having that tough attitude where you put America first and everyone’s thinking we’re the greatest nation in the world. Don’t mess with America. That toughness is where I identify with him.”
Incognito, a Caucasian, was suspended from his former team, the Miami Dolphins, after being identified as one of three harassers of a black teammate, Jonathan Martin, who asked to leave the team. It appears that Incognito’s bullying of Martin was incessant and racist, and included members of Martin’s family.
In the end, those who oppose Trump have had to come to grips with reality.
Listen, Donald Trump is going to be fine, all right, as president. That’s something I never thought I’d have to say, honestly. But at the end of the day he will be because I just believe America overall works. There’s a Congress and a Senate and it’s gonna work out. But if you don’t like it, you have two years from now to change it. Not (to change the) president, but you can change the Congress and you can change the Senate. So if you don’t like it, change it. And you change it by either running for office or voting… Don’t get mad — go do something.
Twenty-six sports were recommended as new additions to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As many of you now know, Tokyo2020 and the IOC selected five new competitions: baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing.
But there were others recommended that I was either surprised about or unfamiliar with. I’ve created a list below of all the “sports” that were considered officially by Tokyo2020 for the next Summer Games. I took the liberty to make sense of them by organizing them into four categories, which you could most certainly dispute.
The Olympics are, in a way, an endorsement of the international relevance of an organized sport or gaming activity. This year, there was a conscious emphasis to increase the youth following, so skateboarding (roller sports), sports climbing and surfing were added.
Baseball and softball were actually Olympic competitions from 1992 to 2008, so it probably was not a difficult decision with the Olympics returning to Asia, where baseball is very popular. However, tug of war, which was an Olympic competition from 1900 to 1920, did not make the cut.
I was faintly familiar with Netball, which is popular in Singapore where I lived a couple of years. It is a derivative of basketball, played mainly by women. But I was not familiar with Korfball, which originated in the Netherlands and is similar to basketball, but certainly not the same. First, the teams are composed of both 4 men and 4 women. Second, you can score from all angles around the basket. Third, there is no dribbling, and fourth, you can’t shoot the ball if someone is defending you. Watch this primer for details.
Orienteering is new to me, but then again, I was never in the Boy Scouts. Orienteering is a category of events that require the use of navigational skills, primarily with the use of a map and compass. Most are on foot, but some are under water, or in cars or boats. Think The Amazing Race, without all the cameras. The video gives you an idea of what this activity is like.
DanceSport is essentially competitive ballroom dancing, which is popular in Japan. The 2004 movie “Shall We Dance” with Richard Gere and Jeffifer Lopex is a re-make of the 1996 Japanese film of the same name. A film that you may know that focuses on the competitive side of dance (with a smattering of American football) is “Silver Linings Playbook” with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro.
And then there’s Bridge and Chess, what most people refer to as games as opposed to sports. I used to play chess a lot, since I grew up in the days of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. And while I won second place in a chess tournament when I was 13, I would never experience the mentally and physically draining levels of tension that world-class chess masters go through. Still, is it a sport?
Yao Ming was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame on September 9, 2016. Only 8 years in the league, the 7 foot 6 inch center from the People’s Republic of China was one of the most influential players in international basketball, cementing China’s popular hold on basketball. When the 8-time NBA All Star played in his third Olympics at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was one of the tallest athletes in the Olympic Village, and most certainly one of the most popular people in the world.
In a recent article penned by Yao Ming in The Players’ Tribune, he wrote about how the Olympics is so much bigger than one person, even bigger than the biggest person in the Olympics. He wrote about his first Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games, and how he saw a wide-shot picture of the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies, when all of the nations’ athletes were standing in their national colors. He said he stared at the picture in frustration.
I was somewhere in that photo, way down there, but as hard as I looked I couldn’t find myself. I tried to locate our team. I knew we were somewhere on the track, walking around the stadium. But I couldn’t figure out where we were. I stared and stared at the picture. The more I looked, the more blurry the photo became. I was the tallest person in the stadium but it was like I was lost.
But what he later realized about the Olympics is that no one person, not even the great Yao Ming, is what makes the Olympics great. What makes the Olympics great is an entire country coming together to show the world how welcome, appreciated and respected they are. After his team played hard and well against the vaunted US team in basketball, Yao Ming remembers one of the US players coming up to him to thank him for making them all feel so welcome.
In the moment, I remember feeling that when he said “you” he meant more than just me as an individual. I felt like he was talking — through me — to the entire nation. We’d lost the game, but I felt that we’d earned the respect of our opponent.
Yao Ming finally understood that athletic competition in its greatest form, particularly at the level of the Olympic Games, is about respect, about respecting your opponent enough to do your very best against them and emerge victorious, or to push the other to their limits.
I believe an athlete’s value comes from his opponent. What I mean is, our value will only be its highest when our opponents play their best. That is where respect comes in. It comes not when you fear or dislike your opponent, but when you find the best in yourself.
There is a commercial from that wonderful series called “Celebrate Humanity”, created when the IOC realized it needed to take control of the Olympic brand after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and re-frame the Five Rings in terms of the Olympic values. This film is a reflection of Yao Ming’s values. It is called “Adversary”.
You are my adversary, but you are not my enemy.
For your resistance gives me strength,
Your will gives me courage,
Your spirit ennobles me.
And though I aim to defeat you, should I succeed, I will not humiliate you.