Friday, 27 August 2010

Summer Update

It has been pretty quiet on the sports front – as far as I am concerned – since the end of the FIFA World Cup. This – along with my moving to a new city and focussing on finding the right job – is the reason there has been no posts of late.

Things are due to kick off again soon though, with the Australian Boomers getting ready to start their FIBA 2010 World Championship campaign in a few days, with the women’s team, the Opals, starting their World Championship defence in just a few weeks.

Since my last post I’ve been to just two live sporting events. The first was great, the second was, well, fun for something different.

Shortly after leaving Vancouver I arrived in Seattle with my main aim to watch Lauren Jackson and Tully Bevilaqua compete for the Seattle Storm and Indiana Fever respectively, in the WNBA. This was my first experience watching the WNBA live, and it was a good one.

Tully and LJ share a moment before the game

Everything about the game was entertaining. The game itself, featuring two of the better teams in the league was of course top notch, but I was also very impressed with the game nigh presentation and the enthusiasm of the crowd. Women’s basketball cops of a lot of criticism throughout the world, but this was far from a second tier event.

Lauren Jackson was of course, the star of the show, while Tully also played some great basketball, and overall I left the game very happy with what I saw.

The other live sporting event I witnessed recently was once I got to Ottawa. With the AFL getting close to finals back home, I was craving a bit of Aussie Rules Football action, so after finding a local team, the Ottawa Swans of the Ontatio AFL, I convinced my friends to come along and watch. It wasn’t exactly highly skilled action, but it was kinda fun to see a bunch of fellow expats running around chasing the leather.

On a personal note, a recent transaction by the Toronto Raptors makes me even more eager to see the coming season, as they acquired Australian Boomers big man, David Andersen via trade.  Having a player from my own country (and my city) represent the team I support will make it extra exciting when I make the trip down to Toronto this season.

The best part of the sporting year is approaching soon. The NHL, NFL and NBA are all getting ready for their coming seasons, while the AFL and MLB are getting to the business end of theirs. In no time we’ll be back to wall to wall sports coverage, and I cant wait.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Aussie Pride

For the past two weeks I – like much of the world – have been glued to my couch in front of the TV watching the World Cup from South Africa. And it hasn’t disappointed.

Some of the top ranked nations in the game, including Italy, France & Spain have all failed to live up to their expectations, while North Korea, South Africa and New Zealand have supplied some of the best moments of the tournament so far.

In amongst all this, Australia too has struggled. A 4-0 drubbing to Germany in their opening game had many people in the media questioning the commitment and resolve, while many Australian fans felt the Socceroos got a rough deal from the ref.

Australia’s second game, against Ghana, answered at least one of these criticisms, with nobody able to question the resolve of the team, after yet again going a man down, but still playing aggressively and hanging on for a 1-1 draw to keep their chances alive.

One group who never doubted the Australian’s though, was their horde of around 10,000 fans in South Africa cheering them on and giving the team their full support. Many of these fans are living in tents and travelling for 10 hours each way to get to the games – and loving every minute of it.

I haven’t yet made it to a major tournament outside of Australia to support my countrymen, but I have been lucky enough to get to some games featuring overseas based Aussies.

While living in the UK, I was fortunate enough to see former Socceroos captain, Mark Viduka while he played for Newcastle against Fulham in the English Premier League. While he only came on as a substitute, he did set up the winning goal, and it was great to celebrate with the fans who had made the journey from Newcastle.

Matt Nielsen in action in Lithuania

Another Australian team captain I was able to see, is Australian Boomers basketball captain Matt Nielsen, while he was playing in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. His side, Lietuvos Rytas, was playing against a team from Serbia in the ULEB Cup. Nielsen put in a solid – if not spectacular – performance, as his team won the game to the delight of the passionate home fans. Lithuania is a basketball crazy country, with players like Arvydas Sabonis, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Sarunas Marciulionis among the greats of the game and fans who are devoted to their sides.

By far the most success I’ve had watching Australian athletes ply their trade abroad though has been this past year as part of my NBA tour, where I’ve been to 12 games in nine different cities. Aside from the overall goal of seeing all 30 teams play over the next couple of years in each of the 29 stadiums, I also wanted to see all of the Australian players in action – and I nearly did it this season.

After the Bucks win over the Warriors, with my Bogut Jersey

Australia’s most prominent NBA player is Andrew Bogut of the Milwaukee Bucks. While travelling across country I spent several days in Milwaukee, and – aside from the beer – the highlight was the chance to see the Bucks play twice while I was around.

The first thing that struck me about the Bradley Center was the noise coming from “Squad 6” a group of 100 or so die hard Bucks fans put together by Bogut to get some more atmosphere into what was otherwise a fairly quiet crowd. It worked.

Bogut and his team mates celebrate

Of course, in both games I attended they had plenty to cheer for. In the firsr game Bogut’s new team mate, rookie Brandon Jennings, had a night out scoring 55 points – all after quarter time – in one of those performances you love being able to say “I was there”. The second game saw the Bucks fall to the Dallas Mavericks on a game winning shot by Dirk Nowitzki in an overtime thriller.

Bogut played a key role in both games, and while Jennings was getting all of the attention, the two players showed great chemistry together and, along with squad 6, their play was a key reason the Bucks achieved so much success late in the season. It was clear that Bogut has garnered the respect of his peers and his fans, something not easy to do in the best league in the world.

Bogut in the block

My next chance to see Aussies play would be just days later, this time in Minneapolis. This would come as a “two for one” deal, with Nathan Jawai’s Minnesota Timberwolves hosting David Andersen’s Houston Rockets.

My first impression of the Timberwolves home – the Target Center – was they could do with a squad 6. If not for the lure of the Aussie match up, this game may have competed with Detroit for my worst NBA experience.

Jawai scores in the post against Andersen

Neither player had a huge impact on the game, but they both showed some willingness battle – especially when matched up on each other. Both guys showed they’ve got plenty to offer in the NBA, not that the crowd seemed to care. They also seemed quite disturbed by me cheering for each of them despite being on opposing teams.

Andersen and Jawai contest a rebound

This left me with just one Australian NBA player left to see – rookie Patty Mills in Portland. Living in Vancouver for the past six months, Portland has been the closest NBA team to me, so I thought it could all work out. Unfortunately, on the two occasions I made the 6 hour trip south, Mills didn’t manage to get any game time. Mills did impress during the minutes he was given throughout the season, so I hope that I I’ll get a chance to see him next season – either with the Blazers or another side.

My next chance to see Australians in action will be this coming Friday, when I head south to Seattle to watch the Storm take on the Fever of Indiana. The Fever’s starting PG is Australian Opals veteran Tully Bevilaqua, while the Storm feature three Australians, including the most successful basketball player ever from down under, Lauren Jackson. The two teams are both in form, so as well as being a chance to support the players from my country, I should also be treated to a great game of basketball.

In the mean time, there is one other important game featuring a bunch of Aussies to focus on – the Socceroos third group stage game against Serbia. While they’re still a chance of progressing through to the knockout stage of the tournament, many Australians would settle for a committed effort from our boys.

Some still feel the Socceroos have to prove something to us, but to the thousands of dedicated fans in South Africa, as long as they played like they did in the second game against Ghana, they have nothing left to prove.

Go Australia!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

One World Cup: Different in Every Country

The World Cup is well and truly underway, with each team having played at least one game now.

So what have I learned from the opening week of games? Mainly, its that, how you perceive the tournament comes down – in part at least – to which country you’re from.

With Australia stumbling at its first hurdle, it seems there’s plenty of people back home who couldn’t wait to pull out the “I told you so” or “we’re not a Soccer nation anyway” articles. People that are basically revelling in Australia’s struggle. I mentioned in last week’s article that many Australians have a very regional attitude towards sport, and seem happy that they can write off the Socceroos and get back to their usual routine.

German fans celebrate the first of 4 goals against Australia

That’s not to say that all Australians have given up on our boys though. Plenty of Australians are embracing our national team, and the cup as a whole – getting up at all hours of the morning to watch with the rest of the world – showing the sport is alive and well in Australia. There’s even people out there providing advice on how to get some sneaky sleep at work, so you don’t have to make the decision between sleep and the World Cup.

Australia’s reaction to a poor start is certainly different from other countries though. England got off to a less than ideal start, thanks in large part to a horrible fumble by their keeper, with a 1-1 draw against the USA.

Despite the obvious disappointment, English fans are still convinced their team can (and in many cases, will) win the World Cup. There’s no jumping off the bandwagon. They’ll remain behind their team (except maybe Green) 100% until such time as they win the Cup or are officially eliminated, unlike Australian fans who seem to be trying to softening a potential future blow by lessening their expectations.

This is all part of English football though. They genuinely feel as though they are the greatest football nation on earth, despite not winning the cup since 1966. To them, this is their game and the World Cup belongs in England.

Whether you believe it or not, its hard not to admire their commitment. I watched the England-USA game in a bar full of English fans on Friday, and the lead up to the match took me back to the last World Cup, in 2006, when I was living in the UK. The camp pop songs that come out every four years as the English fans feel that this time they’ll win, and the commentators who indulge the nation’s belief that it is indeed their time.

I should point out that, while I was in the UK for the 2006 World Cup, it was not England – it was Scotland. And they’ve got an altogether different way of watching the Cup, and they’re not terribly keen on their cousins to the south. Some might say with good reason. During the coverage of England’s opening game in ’06 (the Scots receive the same telecast as the English) the commentary team actually had a discussion on “who we can expect to play in the final”. The crowded bar in Edinburgh didn’t react so well to that.

The Scots haven’t made the tournament since 1998, but that’s not to say they don’t have a team. It just changes from game to game – whomever is playing against England.

This World Cup, however, I’m in Canada, not in a traditional “football country”, and it does show somewhat. While Vancouver, with its many immigrants and tourists is embracing seems to be embracing the event with its many sports bars opening up early for the games, it seems a lot like back in Australia where you can see most of the locals would prefer to be talking about something else – in Canada’s case, that being hockey.

I’ll be watching much of the knockout games from the US, which similarly isn’t known as a football nation. Its easy to forget though, that the US has around 20 million registered football players, which is more people than live in many of the World Cup nations. Still, it seems, similar to Australia, many are simply taking an interest while the expectations of their own team is high. The added bonus for the Americans is a chance to gloat about their 1-1 draw with the English. I’m sure once the US are eliminated, most US sports fans will happily get back to ignoring the cup, and watching the baseball.

Of course, some countries and their fans are happy just to be there. The host nation, South Africa provided one of the best moments of the tournament to date, by tying their opening game 1-1. While the World Cup is unlikely to end the way the last major tournament in South Africa – the 1995 Rugby World Cup – did the event gives a country that is still quite divided another chance to come together.

Another country for whom the World Cup may mean something more than just football, is that of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea). Little was known about their team coming into the tournament, and yet much has been written about their first Cup finals since 1966. Much of it has to do with politics rather than football, with stories about their leader, Kim Jong-il not allowing games to be televised unless the team won, and an attempt to sneak an extra striker into the squad in place of a keeper.

It is hard to know exactly how the events are being viewed in North Korea. Do they expect to win the cup?
Some people aren’t happy with North Korea being at the cup, having been labelled as an “enemy” due to their weapons programs. Others, however, see this as another chance for sport to do what diplomacy often cant, and help open up the communist nation to the rest of the world.

Whatever the case, North Korea has supplied the best “David V Goliath” moment of the cup so far, when they played well above the expectations of everyone, and ran Brazil within a goal of dropping points.

For many though, the World Cup is a chance to party. And for my mind it’s a good one. To be in South Africa right now with people from all over the globe there to celebrate at least one thing that they have in common – football – would be a dream. I got to experience that at the 2010 Winter Olympics earlier in the year in Vancouver, but its very addictive.

For the rest of us, we can get a bit of the vibe by just hitting some of the local bars during the games, and letting ourselves get carried away in the excitement.

And hey, at least there’s one thing most everyone will agree with no matter where they’re from – how annoying are those horns?

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The World Cup: Confessions of a Convert

In less than 48 hours the worlds biggest sporting event starts in South Africa – the 2010 FIFA World Cup – and I couldn’t be more excited.

Along with the Summer Olympic games, the World Cup remains at the top of my list of events I want to travel to at some point. While I’m not able to make it to South Africa this year, I will get to one in the next decade. Of that I’m sure.

My love of the world game wasn’t always there though. Far from it. Growing up in small towns outside of Melbourne, Australia, you could easily be led to believe that the only sports that existed in the world were cricket and Australian rules football. Football, (or soccer as its known at home) never even entered the conversation – or if it was, it was considered inferior to our own football only played by “foreigners”.

My first exposure to the most popular game in the world came when I briefly attended a school in inner city Melbourne at the age of 9. My new school mates invited me to play some football at lunch time, but when I got there, I asked where the football was. It was a football, but not as I knew it.

While I soon moved back to the country and never played the “new” football I had been introduced to again, the seeds had been planted. I had learnt that other games do exist. They weren’t better or worse, just different. In the end I adopted another “foreign” sport, basketball as my game of choice.

It wasn’t until the 1998 World Cup that I started to finally take notice of the game loved by billions in the world. Like much of Australia, I thought the Socceroos were a great chance of making it to the finals in France, with only Iran standing in our way. Unfortunately, it wasn’t yet our time, with the lasting memory of Mark Bosnich being left on the ground as the equaliser went past him to leave Australia short after being so close.

Moving to Melbourne in 1998 to go to university, I met a lot of people passionate about football and looking forward to the World Cup. It rubbed off on me. I watched a lot of matches during that World Cup and from that point on became a big fan of international football.

That passion for the international game didn’t translate into me becoming a fan of the local game however. The local league, the NSL, was in shambles with fighting and ethnic violence among the fans. It didn’t encourage the new fan to get involved.

When it was time for internationals though, I was back on board. Qualifying for the 2002 World Cup was once again seen as our chance to make it to the world stage, however like ’98, our boys fell at the last hurdle. It seemed the most talented generation of Socceroos since the 70’s was destined to never make the big time.

Once the 2002 World Cup rolled around though, many forgot about the disappointments of our team and enjoyed an immensely entertaining tournament – for the first time ever in a time zone which gave us prime time viewing. The big games were even televised on a major commercial television station. It seemed that Australia was finally catching on to the world game. It wouldn’t last.

With the NSL still in strife, the major Australian codes quickly regained the ascendency and football was relegated to a side note once again, This time, however, I continued to become more of a fan of the game itself, watching more European club football, and taking interest in the news that Australian club football was finally starting to talk about a makeover.

In 2005 I finally packed up my bags and headed out to see some of the world. When Australia finally qualified – in a gripping penalty shootout – for the 2006 World Cup, I was working in an insurance office in England, getting text message updates from my friends. While my new colleagues thought I was crazy, I was ecstatic – they’d finally made it.

By the time the 2006 World Cup rolled around I was living in Scotland. Being a backpacker, I had many other backpacker friends and as such, every game had some interest to somebody in our circle. So for a month we hit the local sports pubs watching game after game.

I actually managed to get to a warm up game between South Korea and Ghana, and while nothing was on the line, it was great to be able to see the passionate fan bases of both teams come out and support their teams as they got ready for the big event.

Australia’s first shot at the finals in 32 years was successful, despite the misery at the end. Cahil sparked 3 goals in less than 10 minutes to come from behind against Japan, while a tense and sometimes spiteful 2-all draw against Croatia was enough to see us through the final 16. While the final 16 match against Italy ended in bitter disappointment, Australia had announced itself on the world stage.

Since then the revamped local competition – now called the A-League – has gone from strength to strength, and upon my return to Australia in 2008 I even attended a game of the Melbourne Victory. The Victory are also about to get a new stadium – the first purpose built major soccer stadium in Melbourne.

The Australian team has evolved too, now part of the Asian federation, the team has a chance to play together more often, in more meaningful competitions, and dominated qualifying for this coming World Cup, as well as next year’s Asian Cup.

For now, the Socceroos prepare for just their 3rd World Cup Finals appearance, and their second in succession, and the first test – 3 time World Cup champions Germany on Sunday.
While for the second straight time, I’m out of Australia for the World Cup, I know that an increasing number of my countrymen are supporting the team and are ready to enjoy the biggest sporting event the world has to offer.

Bring on Friday!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

NBA Tour Part 2 - The Worst Experience, Detroit

I’ve always said, that the worst day travelling and watching sport, is always going to be better than the best day at work.

Sure, there are times when that theory is going to be pushed to the limits. My worst day – or to be more precise night – travelling so far has been when I had my wallet stolen in Boston, shortly before having to get on a bus to Montreal, only to then be held at the border for eight hours waiting for the immigration office to open. Luckily though, that has been the worst of it, although one weekend of my NBA tour through North America, has come close.

In trying to get to games at all 29 NBA cities, there is going to be some that are not really built for travellers. One of these, is Detroit.

Now I know Detroit was once a great city. Home of the US car manufacturing industry, as well as the home of Motown Records, which gave us some of the greatest musical acts of the 20th Century. Their basketball team – the Pistons – were also once great, winning back to back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990 with Isiah Thomas and the “Bad Boys”, and another in 2004 with Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups.

I think its safe to say though, that Detroit’s best days – both on the court and off it – are well behind it.

The American automotive industry isn’t what it used to be, which has resulted in the city of Detroit halving its population in the last 50 years. This leaves the city feeling like a virtual ghost town with crumbling boarded buildings, horrible roads and a bit of an eerie feel for the tourist.

Its really not set up for the backpacking type traveller either. There were no backpacking hostels – not that I really expected one – so I treated myself to a four-star hotel (through a cheap booking website obviously). When getting off the bus I discovered two other issues – the city is massively sprawled out, and lacking in public transport. Both of these issues are obviously due to it being built around the car, but don’t make it easy for the traveller without a car.

When finally making it to the hotel – much nicer than anything I normally stay in – I was keen to get out and see the town. I was promptly told by the concierge (I know, an actual concierge, I thought they only had those in movies) that I “didn’t want to go out around this part of town”. Great.

Getting to the game the next day wouldn’t be easy either. I could attempt the public bus, which I’d been assured would take me at least 2 hours due to it being a Sunday, r I could get a cab for $50. Normally you can be sure I’ll take the cheap option, but on this one occasion I decided I just wanted to get to the game.

Once at the game, all of the problems with the city of Detroit went away. This was what I was here for – the hoops. While it wasn’t the most intriguing match up I’m hooked on NBA basketball, and this is what I do.

Unfortunately, like the city of Detroit, the Pistons have been crumbling for some time. After winning the NBA championship in 2004, and enjoying a couple more trips to the Conference Finals, the Pistons lost Ben Wallace and traded on court general, Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, resulting in the team being a shadow of its former self.

With the team well and truly in rebuilding mode, their match against the Philadelphia 76ers was never going to be a clash of the titans. Detroit managed to win the game 88-81, and while the game was far from the best I’ve been to, you could tell the crowd still love their team. The hard nosed bad boys of Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, Bill Lambier, Rasheed Wallace and company are all gone, and have been replaced with Charlie Villenueva, Ben Gordon and Kwame Brown – hardly inspiring replacements.

Long periods of success create long lasting fans, but like the city of Detroit, the Pistons are going to have to give the fans a reason to keep coming back while they’re going through tough times, otherwise the Palace of Auburn Hills will become another of Detroit’s crumbling buildings.

While Detroit would undoubtedly be the least favourite place I’ve gone on my NBA tour so far and I cant imagine a situation where I’d ever want to go back, I am glad I went – if for no other reason than it has gotten me one step closer to my goal.

And hey, it still beats any day at work.

Next week I take a break from the NBA Tour series to focus on the big sporting event of the year – the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

My NBA Tour, Part 1 - The First Taste

When I came to the US and Canada, one of my goals was to see lots of NBA games. To be specific, it was to see all 30 NBA teams live, and to see at least one game in each of the 29 NBA venues.

In the 11 months I’ve been on the trip so far, I’ve managed to make quite a dent in that goal, having attended 12 NBA games, in nine different cities, featuring 15 different teams. And boy has it been fun.

Over the next few weeks I’ll blog about some of the best and worst experiences of those 12 games, starting this week with my first NBA game, and my first chance to see my favourite team – the Toronto Raptors.

The First Taste

My first NBA experience came in the pre season, when I went to a fixture between the visiting Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks. This meant one thing – Madison Square Garden! Easily the most famous basketball arena in the world, the stadium was as much a part of the draw as the actual game.

The other main draw? Knicks fans. They’re known to be some of the harshest in the league, and on this day, they didn’t disappoint, booing their own player, Larry Hughes mercilessly. He has since been traded.

As it was a pre season game, there was nothing on the line, so players were somewhat going through the motions, but it was great to finally see some NBA action live in person after watching it on TV for almost 20 years.

My Favourite Team

One of the things I was looking forward to the most was seeing my favourite team, the Toronto Raptors play. While most NBA fans I knew back in Australia were fans of the big market teams like the Lakers or Bulls, I started following the Raptors when they joined the league back in 1995 after being a general NBA fan without a team for several years before that. The chance to finally see them play live was something I’d been looking forward to for years – so when I did get the chance, I tried to make it count, going to their first two home games of the season.

I was full of excitement going into the home opener against the reigning Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic. The Raptors were coming off an opening night win over the Cleveland Cavaliers and looked to finally have a team capable of competing. That part appeared to be a stretch.

The Magic, while without former Raptor Vince Carter, took control of the game early and never really let up, despite some spirited runs by the Raptors.

Despite the loss, it was great to finally be there. Being in a stadium full of Raptors fans (I’d never met another Raptor fan in Australia…not one) and being able to talk to them about our team. The pre game hype, the in game entertainment and watching Raptors franchise player, Chris Bosh, go for 35 and 16.  Above all it was great just to be there.

The problem was – it was over. But not for long. Luckily, since NBA teams play 41 home games a year, its never long before another opportunity comes along. Just a couple days later the Detroit Pistons hit town, and it was another chance to see the Raptors perform – and this time, they did just that. Watching them win the game – and the 20,000 strong crowd get behind them – would be one of the highlights of my sport watching life.

I did get to see the Raptors play on one more occasion, when they travelled to Portland to take on the Trailblazers. With Portland just six hours south of my current location of Vancouver, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to get to a Raptors games on the road. Unfortunately the Raptors were in the midst of a late season slump which saw them narrowly miss the playoffs. While the result was disappointing, I still had a lot of fun – the worst times watching your favourite team play are still pretty good.

I’d previously travelled to Portland (with a bunch of strangers) when I first arrived in Vancouver to watch the Blazers host the Houston Rockets, and its hard not to love the Blazers crowd – who sell out every game – even when they’re pummelling your team.

While I only went one-from-three in games watching my Raptors play this season, I’m looking forward to seeing them more while I’m living closer to Toronto in the 2010-2011 season.

Part 2 of My NBA Tour Blogs, will be about the only real low of my trip so far - Detroit.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Its Playoff Time! (All the Time)

With a game seven victory in Pittsburgh last night, the Montreal Canadiens advanced through to the third round of the NHL playoffs for the first time since 1993. That was also the last time they – or any Canadian team – won the NHL, so you can understand why people in Montreal right now are going a little crazy.

Not everyone is celebrating though. Here in Vancouver, with the Canucks already eliminated, many locals are already thinking about next season. For them, once the Canucks are out, the season is over, and all that’s left to do is wait out the summer until the next season starts.

Vancouver fans aren’t unique here though. Many sports fans, who really only like one team, or one sport, go through this every year. Back in Australia, thousands of fans go through a football withdrawal every year between AFL, NRL or Super 14’s seasons.

One of the (many) benefits of being a fan of sports throughout the world though, is that there is always some big sporting event, or league getting into playoff action, so that I’m never left without something to follow.
The year 2010 has already given us, amazing NFL playoffs in January, the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in February and the NCAA tournament – or March Madness – which was quickly followed by the start of the NBA and NHL playoffs

Right now, its playoff time in the NBA and NHL, and while the NBA playoffs have so far being somewhat underwhelming, the NHL playoffs have been anything but, with the Montreal Canadiens defeating last season’s champs in the conference semi finals, after defeating the top ranked Washington Capitals in the opening round.

What happens when the NBA and NHL playoffs finish up next month? By then we’ll be into the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which has almost daily football action for five weeks. This is followed quickly by the FIBA basketball World Championships for men and women, the US Open Tennis and then Australian Football League Finals and Major League Baseball playoffs. And after this? Well the NFL, NHL, NBA and college football and basketball start up again.

Some people aren’t as enthused by the constant stream of sport as I am though. A friend of mine, based in England, once told me that she was so happy that her husband was a fan of Rugby rather than football (soccer). This was because, while it was impossible to get him to concentrate on anything but Rugby during the Six Nations tournament every year, it only went for five weeks, as opposed to football in England, which (along with internationals) is virtually year round.

While many don’t like sport to dominate their lives year round – I live for it.

Tonight sees an incredibly important game in the NBA Playoffs, with LeBron James and the Cleveland
Cavaliers facing elimination at the hand of the Boston Celtics.

While Cavs fans will be distraught if their team loses, I’ll just keep reminding them, that the world has not ended – its always the playoffs somewhere in the world.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Why does an Aussie support the Montreal Canadiens?

It’s playoff time in the National Hockey League at the moment, and with two Canadian teams through to the final eight, the country is hooked on the action of the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens. Like I mentioned in a blog in January, Canada is all about hockey.

Living in Vancouver, you cant help but be swept up in Canuck fever – but that’s not where my loyalties lie.

Being a Canadiens fan myself, I loved every moment of the dramatic series comeback from 3-1 down against the heavily favoured Washington Capitals, and I’m right behind them in their next quest – knocking off the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. While I’ve only been a “Habs” fan since the beginning of this season, I’m already a 100% committed fan, and have been rushing home from work to watch as much of the action as possible.

The question I keep getting asked though – why do I support Montreal? Of all the NHL teams they’re geographically (I believe) the furthest from my home town of Melbourne, as well as being the only one of the leagues teams based in an area that doesn’t speak English as a first language.

While we’re at it – why do I support any of the sports teams that I do?

Being a fan of sports and leagues all over the world, I have favourite teams, countries and sometimes just players, but what makes me support these teams?

Its generally easy to understand why you support your favourite teams in leagues that compete in your own country – its generally got a lot to do with geography. In sports back home that generally have a “one team per town” set up, I follow my local sides – The Melbourne Victory (A-League, soccer), Victorian Bushrangers (Cricket) and soon to be Melbourne Rebels (Super Rugby).

In other sports – like the Australia’s biggest, Aussie rules football – there are many teams in Melbourne, and peoples reasons for choosing them vary. Reasons include following the same team as their parents or friends, or a team that’s made a school visit or sometimes – as you generally “pick” a team when you’re very young and impressionable – people pick a team because they like the colours. Even if, like myself, the reason for choosing the team is no longer relevant, once you pick your team – you support it for life.

All of these decisions were no brainers. I didn’t really have to make a conscious decision to follow them. My first conscious decision to follow a team was in Australian basketball, in 1990, at the age of 10. There were still four NBL teams in Melbourne at that stage, and I distinctly remember contemplating becoming a fan of the Southern Melbourne Saints (as the “Saints” is also the name of the NBL team I follow) however I eventually chose the Melbourne Tigers, as they had Australia’s superstar player, Andrew Gaze.

It was a good decision. The Saints merged with one of the other Melbourne teams a year later, and then with the other Melbourne team in the late 90’s and then in 2002 ceased to be. In contrast the Melbourne Tigers have gone on to win four championships in that time. Win.

Choosing teams to follow internationally is a different matter, however. There’s no geographic reason to follow a team, and for many sports, you may not have friends or family who follow team. There are many though, who’s parents are born in Europe who follow their favourite European Football sides as a way of maintaining their connection with their old country. I didn’t have that.

The other factor is, growing up, I didn’t care about sports in other countries. I was only into Aussie football, cricket, and basketball. It was only when I entered my teens in the early 90s that I started to take note of sports outside of my own shores.

The NBA was really the first international sporting league I followed. What basketball fan couldn’t get hooked watching the likes of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls? It took me a while to decide on a team to follow, however. I didn’t just want to jump on the same bandwagon that my friends did. In the early 90’s everyone was either a Bulls (Jordan), Lakers (Magic Johnson), Celtics (Larry Bird), Hornets (Zo) or Magic (Shaq) fan. Instead, I simply became a fan of the league.

It was only when expansion happened in the mid 90’s – and two Canadian teams were added – that I picked a side of my own. I was attempting to make the decision between the two new sides when the Toronto Raptors drafted Damon Stoudamire – a player I admired in college – as their first ever player, that I decided they would be my team.

While its been a rocky road, with little on court success, I’m still passionate about the Raptors, and fulfilled a 15 year old wish in November, when I went to their home opener in the 2009-2010 season – and would go on to attend two more Raptor games for the season. Now, like any Raptor fan – I just hope that Chris Bosh stays!

In all sports I heavily follow any team that features Australian players – this applies more so on a college level. Sometimes though, following a team with some Australians, can actually lead me to becoming a fan of the team for life.

In English football (soccer), while I was living in the UK in 2006, I was following Middlesbrough FC and their fateful run to the 2006 UEFA Cup Final. The team featured two of Australia’s best players – striker Mark Viduka and keeper Mark Schwarzer – and in the second leg of both the quarter final and semi final, the team needed to score four goals after being down 3-0 on aggregate, and both times they did it. Its hard not to have a soft spot for a team after watching them pull of this amazing feat twice.

Other teams I follow, are for pretty minor reasons. With European Rugby, its Munster, because I lived in the province for half a year. For NFL it’s the New York Giants – purely because I decided, that I loved New York City so much, and wanted a team based in New York to support. With Major League Baseball? The Chicago Cubs, largely because of the history of Wrigley Field, and the team itself.

All of this brings me back to the Montreal Canadiens. Why them?

It’s probably a combination of reasons. Some of the first Canadians I ever met and became friends with, were from Montreal. I also decided I wanted to support a team from a “traditional” hockey area, rather than one of the teams that has been planted in the south of the US, like Nashville, Tampa or Phoenix. Finally, I decided, hockey is Canada’s game, so it had to be a Canadian team. All of this led me to the Canadiens.
If I wasn’t sure at all, heading to Montreal in October, and watching the games in pubs with my friends – followed by going to see a live game – sealed it.

While I haven’t been a fan of the Habs for as long as a lot of other people – last year they celebrated their 100th anniversary – I’m now a committed fan of the team, and will be glued to my TV for the rest of the playoffs, and hoping for the off chance that both Canadian teams can make it through to the Stanley Cup Finals, so I can see them live one more team this season.

Why do I follow the Montreal Canaidens? Because they’re my team!

Sunday, 18 April 2010

My Poker Career

Earlier this year I wrote that being a professional athlete, and travelling the world while playing the sport you love, is living the dream. I came to the conclusion that pro tennis players probably have it best.

It seems I forgot one obvious one though – professional poker players. While some may not necessarily consider poker a sport, my rule is ifs its on ESPN its ok, and these guys really do have it good.

Professional poker players travel the world while staying in some of the best hotels, and making lots of money. That’s a pro sports career I could get into.

They have their own superstars too. While other sports have Kobe Bryant, Payton Manning, David Beckham, Tiger Woods and Alex Ovechkin, Poker has Gus Hansen, Patrick Antonius, Phil Ivey, Joe Hachem and Daniel Negreanu.

And the best part? Unlike other sports, to be a superstar at poker you don’t have to have any natural athletic ability. For someone like myself – short, unathletic and a prisoner of gravity – its probably the only hope I ever had of being a professional “athlete”.

While in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, celebrating my 30th birthday – and that of my best mate – with some of my best friends from home, I took my shot. Entering a tournament with a couple of mates at the Flamingo Hotel, I had dreams of putting my skills to the test. The result? Keep dreaming.

I didnt have much luck gambling in Vegas

It turns out that, while I’ve gotten to a decent level playing with my friends in semi-regular tournaments back home, playing in the world capital of gambling is a whole other matter.

I managed to play a total of four hands before going in on Ace-King suited and losing. 25 minutes. That’s how long my pro poker career lasted. Still longer than my pro basketball career. My attempts at Black Jack bore no more luck.

That’s not to say the trip was a write off – far from it. While my poker career was short lived, Vegas offers more than that, and the four days I spent there with some great friends – from both Australia and the US – were worth the money lost on the tables.

I did manage to get one great surprise while in the Vegas, with my friends organising for one of my closest friends to be in town without my knowledge, showing the unexpected, normally gives better experiences.

The Surprise

So while my last attempt at being a “pro athlete” may have come up empty, I enjoyed having a crack, and spent the rest of my time in the US getting back to what I do best – travelling to different cities, watching sport – more on that next week.

I cant say that I wont ever attempt to play some tournament poker again – in fact I’m sure of it – but next time I’ll know better what I’m getting in to, and hopefully, I’ll get a little more luck.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

March Madness - Who Do Ya Follow?

he NCAA basketball tournament – otherwise known as March Madness – is well under way, and the opening weekend has shown once again why it’s the best annual tournament in the world. With 42 hours of games – many going down to the wire – over four days in the opening two rounds, there has never been a better time to be a bum.  Much love goes to CBS and Canadian channel, The Score for their non stop coverage, and "surfing" to the best games. 

College basketball has some of the most passionate fans in all of sports. Fans line up for days – and maybe more – for a chance to get in and see their team play. It’s easy to see why too, as college basketball teams genuinely do represent the people who support them.

Fans of St Mary's Gaels watch their team win in Round 1

Unlike pro sports, where players go wherever the money is, college basketball players come from within their main supporter group – the students. They’re living on campus with them, going to classes and all the parties. It becomes easy for the other students to feel like they are part of the program, and to feel pride in their team, something that cant always be said for a pro player that you know is only playing for your team because he cant get out of his contract.

For those not current students, its also pretty easy to pick which team you’re going to follow. Be it your old alma mater, or maybe the local college that you get to see on a regular basis.

The question is though, for a foreigner like myself, who do I follow? I didn’t go to college in the US, nor have I ever lived in any town in the States to adopt a team as truly being mine. Sure, if asked I tell everyone I’m an Arizona Wildcats fan – I saw a game on TV when I was a kid and became a fan of Damon Stoudamire – but I wouldn’t say that I was any kind of die hard.

So who do I follow through the tournament? Recently I’ve been concentrating on any team with an Australian connection. Over the last few years there’s been some good Australians coming through, including Andrew Bogut, Patrick Mills and AJ Ogilvy. This season though there’s a team full of Aussies making a genuine run – the St Mary’ Gaels.

Interview with Gaels Coach Randy Bennett and star Omar Samhan

I first started watching the Gaels three years ago when Aussie young gun Patrick Mills played two seasons before being picked up by the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA. The Gaels, who have an Australian assistant coach David Patrick who I wrote about several weeks ago, seem to have realised the potential in the Australian market, and now feature five Australian players.

The Gaels have won their first two games, including knocking off a #2 seed in Villanova, on their way to the Sweet 16, and this week have a very winnable game against Baylor. While its been fun cheering on the Aussies, the start for the Gaels has been their local senior, Omar Samhan, who has been unstoppable inside, and has surprised many “experts” who had no idea he was capable of such performances.

CBS Highlights of Day 3 action, including the Gaels upset of Villanova

That’s the other aspect of the tournament that makes it so exciting – you never know which player is gonna explode onto the national stage. Watching players like Samhan and Ali Farokhmanesh of Northern Iowa who has hit some massive shots of his own, step up in the biggest games of their lives is what makes this tournament so special.

While I’ve yet to attend a college basketball game myself, I’m about to head off on my own March (and April) madness over the next few weeks, hitting Vegas, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, while catching the final of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) at Madison Square Garden. While its not the NCAA tournament, all of the above still holds true, and I’m looking forward to watching these kids play for their schools with pride.

I just love the madness!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

How OId is Too Old?

Having recently finished my stint working at Whistler for the Olympics, and with a couple of weeks until my next trip around the US with some of my best friends from home, I decided to head south of the border to check out Seattle and Portland. The main pull behind this was being able to see my favourite NBA team, the Toronto Raptors, play against the Portland Trailblazers, who also happen to have young Aussie Patty Mills on their roster. While the Raptors lost, and Patty didn’t get even close to getting court time, it was a fun trip. It did have its interesting moments.

While having a few drinks with some other travellers from the hostel I was staying at in Seattle, one girl from California – upon finding out I’d recently turned 30 – asked in all honesty, “aren’t there age limits for staying in a hostel?”

Way to kick a guy while he’s already starting to feel a bit old. While up in Whistler many of my co-workers were a good 10 years younger than me and had never lived out of home. I’ll admit, there were times when I thought to myself, am I too old for this?

Most of my best friends back home are working great jobs, owning houses (or at least mortgages), getting married and even having kids. When I got back from a few years in Europe two years ago, everyone – including me really – just assumed I’d jump on the same track as all of them. The moment I got home though I realised that wasn’t gonna happen.

A lot of people comment that they’d “love to be able” to do what I do, but cant because of their responsibilities. I often have to point out to them that me having no responsibilities is no accident. I’ve made it a point over the years to avoid things like a career or any other responsibilities. Makes it very hard to travel with commitments back home.

One thing I do want to avoid though, is becoming one of those crusty old guys you always see in the hostel. You know the one. They’re generally in their 50’s, bald and smelly, banging on about how “you kids these days have it so easy. When I was your age, I walked for 3 days across four borders while being chased by armed militia. And you think you’re travellers!”

I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but I do have a long list of things I want to get to in the next few years, so chances are I wont be “settling down” back at home until my mid 30s, penniless and without any career prospects. And ya know what, I’m good with that, because if its anything like the two-and-a-half years I spent in the UK & Ireland or the last nine months I’ve spent in North America, its gonna be a hell of a lot of fun.

So while some people may think that 30 is the age one should settle down and “grow up” I can assure you, that with me, its not happening any time soon.

Now if you don’t mind, its St Patrick’s Day. Time to go act like a 20 year old.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Olympic Recap Part 2: Canada Owns the Podium

There’s a long history in Australia of criticising the amount of money we spend on sport – and it doesn’t look like stopping any time soon. Much of the criticism seems to come from the arts community, who – probably fairly – feel they don’t receive their portion of the funds. While I can understand their position, I think that most Australians enjoy seeing their compatriots doing well on the world stage, and I think there are plenty of worse things to be spending out money on than programs which encourage Australians to get involved in sport.

Canada felt some of this heat coming into the games – and even after – as they strived to finally win a gold medal on home soil, after coming up short in two previous home Olympic campaigns. Canada spent a lot of money in the lead up to Vancouver 2010 through their Own the Podium program, in the hope of finally having one of their citizens on top of the dais at home – and it worked.

The Canadians dominated these games, winning 14 gold medals and leaving the entire country feeling proud of their efforts. While some writers clearly dislike Canada’s new found success and national pride, I think the overwhelming joy around Vancouver and Whistler – and I’m assuming the rest of the country – on a nightly basis demonstrates all the best things about the Games.

Unfortunately the Games got off to the worst possible start when Georgian Luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili tragically died in a training accident on the morning of the Opening Ceremony, however I feel that the Georgian team, VANOC and the IOC all did a good job of honouring him during the ceremony.

That’s not to say the Opening Ceremony went on without a hitch. In a scene reminiscent of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games opening – and poor Cathy Freeman standing for what seemed like forever in water – only three of four parts of the cauldron raised out of the ground. Note to those planning future Olympic opening spectacles – stay away from anything involving hydraulics.

The search for the first home gold nearly got off to an equally embarrassing start, when Canadian – British Columbia no less – born and raised, Dale Begg-Smith, now representing Australia nearly won the men’s mogul event, before Canadian Alexandre Bilodeau snatched the title from the reigning champion, and Canada finally had their gold. It would have been mighty ironic had the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal in Canada, was not representing Canada. From a personal point of view, I may not have fared very well in the bar I was watching it from.

From that point on, it seemed the flood gates opened up, and every time you checked, Canada had won another gold. While I was pleased to see Australia break through with two golds of their own, these 17 days weren’t about Australia, it was about Canada, and as each gold rolled in, the party got bigger, and the overall feel of the place just got more and more amazing.

Of course, for all the gold that Canada won, you always knew the one they really wanted – and it wasn’t the curling. As I’ve previously noted, Canada is all about Hockey, and a gold in the Olympic men’s Hockey tournament would – rightly or wrongly – determine in a lot of peoples minds, whether this was a success Olympic campaign or not.

When Canada lost a preliminary match to their arch rivals from the USA, some people wrote them off. Others questioned certain players, like young gun Sidney Crosby. Many others however, just blindly hoped that the team could put it together. An easy victory over Germany, followed by a dominant display against powerhouse Russia and all of a sudden many of the negative statements disappeared. A shaky last few minutes against Slovakia in the semi final did nothing to quell the new Canadian belief that their team would go on to take revenge on the USA in the final and take the title.

The Gold Medal game will go down in history as one of the greatest spectacles in Olympic history, and I’m sure that Sidney Crosby goal will be replayed forever and ever.

What I’ll remember though, is the sense of intense jubilation as Canada capped the win. The party afterwards, maybe somewhat more of a blur.

The win capped an amazing games for the home team. Sure they spent a lot of money to get there, but that’s what it takes to make amazing things happen.

Canadian flags are still flying all over Vancouver, with so many here proud of their countrymen – as well they should be.

They put in the work, and they owned the podium, and what’s wrong with that?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Olympic Recap Part 1 - Once in a Lifetime?

The thing about once in a lifetime experiences, is that, once you’ve had one, you wanna do it all over again. I know I do.
(The Olympic Rings in Whistler Village)

From the moment I found out the Winter Olympics were going to be in Vancouver when I was doing my working holiday there, it was my goal to get there and be part of it – and if possible, make some money while there.

Well, I did, and now it’s all over, and all I want to do is do it again.

Sure, Winter Olympic sports haven’t been my favourites in the past, but I always figured that being around a bunch of people who do care about sports like curling and Ice Dancing would make the whole experience worth it and I was right.

While I was pretty keen to stay in Vancouver during the games, I was sent up to the host mountain site, Whistler. At first I was a little annoyed, but I soon found out this was a pretty good stroke of luck, as I fail to see how I coulda had a better time if I had stayed in Vancouver.

While I was working pretty hard during the games (hard may not be the right word – long hours is probably more appropriate) and our living quarters may have been less than ideal, the three weeks we spent up at Whistler was just as good as I was hoping it was gonna be – something that’s pretty hard with the weight of expectations.

Like any good travelling experience, much of positives came from meeting people from all over. With 50,000 workers and volunteers needed to make the event work, some reinforcements were needed from outside of the local area. Along with plenty of folks from Vancouver and the rest of BC, an army of students were brought in from Ontario – many of whom were French Canadian, who always provide a lot of fun – along with plenty of Germans, Swedes, French, English, Italians and of course your usual compliment of Aussies.

Speaking of Australians, it has to be said, Whistler Village could easily be renamed “Little Australia”. Virtually every retail, dining and drinking establishment in town employs one of my countrymen. I’d heard the stories before, but I didn’t realise that people were not only not embellishing, they were very possibly understating how many Antipodeans are filling jobs they would never take back home – who goes on a working holiday to work in a McDonalds or a Subway? – just to be close to one of the best skiing and boarding mountains in the world.

(Whistler wouldn't run without Aussies)

It wasn’t just other workers from around the world that we were able to meet, it was the athletes and their families, friends and supporters that we got to meet that made the experience pretty memorable. Meeting the extremely excited mother of US skier Lindsay Vonn as she was on her way to watch her daughter win the gold, as well as a member of the Iranian ski team, are things you’re gonna remember. We also managed to meet the very proud sister of two members of the Peruvian Ski team – the first time Peru had ever had a team at the Winter Olympics.

(Team Peru logo)

Along with some great sporting action – which I’ll get to next week – there was some great musical performances. Usher, K’Naan, Feist and a bunch of supposedly famous Canadian bands rocked the medals plaza in Whistler on a nightly basis, but – for mine – the big one was The Roots. I’ve been wanting to see them play for years, so the opportunity to see them live, for free at the Olympic Games? Too good to pass up! Like the Games as a whole, they lived up to my huge expectations and rocked the house. When they pulled up the four Canadian girls who took Gold and Silver in the women’s pairs bobsleigh they managed to combined the celebration of Olympic champions with one heck of a party, which for mine, pretty much sums up the whole event.

(Me at the Roots concert at the Medals Plaza)

Next week I’ll sum up some more of the events – including the big one (hint, not the Curling) – but for mine, the event was about so much more than the sport. It really was like being at one great big party with thousands of people having the time of their lives.

Once in a lifetime? I hope not. I’m already making plans for London 2012….

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Olympic Dream

We’re now only days away from the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and preparations are in their final stages. Workers and volunteers all of Vancouver, Whistler and Cyprus Mountain are busily tying up loose ends to make sure when the games start in full on the weekend, that the whole thing goes smoothly, not only for the athletes who have toiled since the last games in Turin, Italy, but also for the spectators who have paid good money to witness something that is for many a once in a lifetime experience.

My Olympic experience kicked off several days ago, relocating to Whistler Mountain, where I went through my final training, and recently started working in what is undoubtedly the most scenic workplace I’ve ever had the pleasure to work in.

It’s hard not to get carried away with the games too. While I’m working long hours, my spare time is spent soaking up the atmosphere in Whistler Village, and getting to know my new colleagues who have come from all over Canada and the rest of the world to be part of this, just as I have.

While we’re working hard, a lot of credit has to go to the many volunteers who are working just as hard, while many have given up well paying jobs just to have the chance to be a part of the games. Some of their jobs seem to be a lot of fun – many are responsible for “maintaining” the downhill track, which appears from an outsider to mean they just get to ski all day. Tough life huh? I’m sure there is more to it, but it seems like the pick of the volunteer jobs.

Whistler Village has been pumping of late, and its only getting better. I’ve so far managed to have my self photographed in a Swiss bobsled, and seen at least one former Australian Olympian – swimmer Gian Rooney. While she wasn’t a Winter Olympian – I’m not sure I’d know any of the current Aussie team – it was good to see a representative of my home country walking the streets of the village.

AS this will likely be my only chance to be officially part of an event like this, I plan on making the most of it, no excuses, no half measures. For the next couple of weeks, my event is a different kind of Olympic Biathlon – Work & Party.

I’ll add an update at around the midpoint of the games, and will be providing some regular real time updates from my Twitter account, to let you know how things are going as they happen.

Enjoy, I will.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Watching Sport in a Different Time Zone

As a fan of sport throughout the world, I have travelled to a lot of different locations to watch some top quality live action. The problem is, you cant get to all of the events you want to. With so many sporting events happening worldwide, time and financial restraints mean that you have to settle for watching some on TV.

This can be the cause of a lot of sleepless nights, however, as events can happen at any time of night or day and as a result can throw your regular pattern into chaos.

This past week I subjected myself to some late nights while watching the business end of the 2010 Australian Open culminating in the mens final which saw Roger Federer take Andy Murray in straight sets. As the Australian Open is in Melbourne - my home town - it’s an event I go to every year, so it felt kind of weird having to stay up to all hours to watch it.

As an Australian, I’m used to having to watch some of my favourite sport at odd times. With so much top level sport happening in Europe or North America, its common for Australians to have to stay up late and night, or get up early in the morning to watch their favourite team play.

My earliest memory of this was getting up ridiculously early in the morning to watch the Australian cricket team play in matches throughout the Caribbean against the West Indies. As a youngster, it would always make me tired and grumpy for the rest of the day, but it was worth it to see some quality action.

With the Six Nations Rugby set to kick off in Europe on the weekend, expect to see some of the many Irish pubs in the world open past their usual times so that ex-pats throughout the world can watch Ireland, England, France, Scotland, Wales and Italy battle it out in Rugby’s best annual event.

I’ve found that sports fans in the US and Canada are less used to inflicting this sort of punishment on themselves. Not because they are less dedicated fans, but largely because the major sports here – Football, Baseball, Basketball and Hockey – are all sports where the best leagues in the world are based in North America, so there’s simply no reason to.

And even when there is a sporting event of interest to North Americans outside of prime, the money here seems to be able to change that. Many people will remember the controversy of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where a US broadcaster paid to have the swimming finals in the morning sessions rather than the evening, so that Michael Phelps’ record breaking eight gold medals could be shown during prime time in the US.

Lack of sleep isn’t the only issue when watching sport in a different time zone, however. Quite often the sporting event you want to watch is on while you’re supposed to be at work. While DVD and hard drive recorders these days means you wont miss any action when you get home, trying to avoid knowing the result can be torture.

This becomes an issue every year when its time for the Super Bowl, as it is this week. While in the US, the Super Bowl is on a Sunday evening, in Australia it is on a Monday morning. Though American football is not terribly popular in Australia, the Super Bowl always gets plenty of coverage, and it’s the one time of the year most Australians take notice of the sport many have dubbed “throw ball”.

Last year – in what turned out to be one of the most exciting Super Bowl games ever – I had a very hard time trying to not find out the result. All of the TVs in the bristro upstairs had the game on, while others were following the game online. It became like an episode of How I Met Your Mother as I ran out of the room any time anyone would start to talk about it and walked around with my head down any time I was in the same room as a television. Luckily for me, I managed to avoid the result, was treated to a great game.

This year I’m looking forward to watching the game live from a bar in Whistler Village where I’ll be based for the next few weeks during the Winter Olympics – another event I normally have to watch at all hours of the morning.

For the record, I’m hoping to see a win for the New Orleans Saints, as I think they’re city needs this after everything they’ve been through in the last five years.

On the whole though, I’m just looking forward to a good game – and one I can enjoy as it happens.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Living the Dream

Last week I wrote about how the world is shrinking for pro athletes. In that article, I focussed on those athletes at the top of their chosen sports, and decided that Tennis probably gives an athlete the best chance to travel the world while competing at the top.

You don’t have to be at the very top of the tree for sport to give you the opportunity to work in other countries however. You don’t even necessarily need to be an athlete.

A friend made a comment in last week’s blog about Formula One drivers travelling the world in pursuit of the F1 championship. While the majority of the races are still in Europe, they also travel to North and South America, Asia and even my home town of Melbourne, Australia.

While this would be a perk for the drivers, it’d also be a lot of fun for the support crew, of which Formula One teams have many, including pit crew, engineers, mechanics etc. While many of these guys would likely never have considered that they could be a pro athlete, they’re getting a chance to travel the world because of their chosen career.

With my own lack of athletic ability – combined with chronic laziness as a youngster – I always knew I was unlikely to ever make a career as an athlete. I have, however, been given the opportunity to get a job at one of the biggest sporting events in the world – the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver starting next month, as one of the 50,000 strong work force helping the games go off smoothly. While my role is not directly related to any of the events, to be a part of such a big event is something I’ve always wanted to do.

There are, however, plenty of people who do manage to make a living while actually competing in their chosen sports. While living in the UK and Ireland, I came across a number of Australians (and New Zealanders) playing Rugby in the lower level leagues across the British Isles. They were all paid, but for some it was not much more than room and board, and others who were merely set up with a good job in return for playing. The thing they all had in common was, they’d prefer to be in another country playing the sport they love, rather than going home and getting a “real” job.

Two team sports in particular, offer opportunities for players to ply their trade all over the world – basketball and football (Soccer).

Football, being the world’s most popular sport, is played everywhere and offers players at many levels, the chance to make some kind of an income playing almost anywhere in the world. The majority of players chosen for Australia’s national team – the Socceroos – at the coming FIFA World Cup will be players based outside of Australia. However, as this list of Aussies playing football overseas shows, for every Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka or Tim Cahill, there is another five guys you’ve never heard of playing in the lower leagues of Europe and Asia, and even in the MLS in the USA.

Basketball has offered Americans who weren’t good enough for the NBA to play professional basketball around the globe for over 30 years. As noted last week though, with the standard of play in Europe and other parts of the world increasing, the flow of players between countries is now at its highest level ever.
My favourite example of a guy who has made an enviable career out of basketball, without ever dominating, is David Patrick.

Patrick was born in Bermuda, raised in Australia and received a scholarship to one of the top schools in NCAA Division one basketball, Syracuse University. He didn’t get a chance to play much in his one season at Syracuse, but the team had great success as the fairytale story in the 1996 tournament, making it all the way to the 1996 NCAA final, before eventually losing to Kentucky. After his freshman season, he transferred to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette where he was given more playing time and earned himself his degree.

Patrick then embarked on a professional basketball career, where he played in the Australian NBL for the Canberra Cannons, before heading overseas where he played several seasons in England and Spain.

Since retiring as a player, David Patrick has continued to make a living in basketball as an assistant coach with the St Mary’s “Gaels” in Division one college basketball back in the USA.

While David didn’t have the sort of career you dream about as a kid, he has managed to make a career out of the sport he loves, while playing professionally in three countries and also converting his talent into a degree. To me, that’s an incredibly successful career, and one that many other young Australians currently playing basketball in the US college system could look to emulate.

Some will of course go on to have long professional basketball careers, and others will choose a career outside of the sport. Those fringe players that wish to prolong their careers, however, now have a better chance to do that than ever, and they can do it while competing all over the world.

For mine, that’s living the dream.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The World is Shrinking for Pro Athletes

In my initial post on this blog, I posed the question, “what could possibly be better than travelling and watching the best sports in the world?

While for me, the above is my life - and I love it - you can probably go one better, with those that get to travel the world to participate in sport.

This week, I came across an article about former NBA player Michael Dickerson, which caught my eye. Dickerson, who was by all measures a successful player in the worlds top basketball league, was forced into retirement at the age of 28 due to injuries. He’s since come out of retirement to play the Spanish second division.

According to the article, he has spent the six years of his retirement travelling the world, and has now decided to have another go at playing basketball. The emergence of basketball as a genuine world sport, along with his final $43 million contract have allowed Dickerson the opportunity to combine his two passions of sport and travel.

This, my friends, is living the dream.

While not every athlete will have the kind of money Dickerson does to play with, the opportunities for athletes to travel the world to compete in their chosen sport are greater than they’ve ever been.

The NBA is learning about this quickly, with the emergence of European basketball leagues in the last 10 years with the flow of players back and forth over the Atlantic at an all time high. This year NBA opening day rosters had a record 83 international players spread over the 30 teams. The flow isn’t one way, however, with more high profile US players being lured to play in Europe than ever. Americans playing basketball in Europe is nothing new, however the players crossing the ditch were generally players not good enough to make it to the NBA.

That is changing now, with European sides offering money comparable to that of NBA teams, as well as a chance to get outside their comfort zone and test themselves with a very different style of basketball.
The first big name to choose Europe over the NBA was former Atlanta Hawks high flyer, Josh Childress. The Hawks were playing hardball with their restricted free agent, however NBA rules failed to take into account the option of playing outside of the NBA, and Childress was able to get himself a more lucrative contract.

The next big name was that of high school star Brandon Jennings, who chose Europe over going to college for the one season the NBA demands after high school before entering the big time. Jennings says he learnt a lot during his year in Rome, both on the court and off it appears a year living in and learning about another culture has helped keep this kid stay grounded and focussed on his goals.  I watched Jennings drop 55 points on the Golden State Warriors in November, and his maturity, for a 20 year old appeared much greater than those rookies who went through the US college system.

Brandon Jennings on his way to 55 points

It’s not always easy adjusting to your new surroundings however, as a recent story on Nathan Jawai has shown. Jawai has been traded three times in the 18 months since he was drafted into the NBA by the Indiana Pacers in June 2008. Now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jawai has struggled to gain confidence with limited opportunities.

Basketball isn’t the only sport to provide opportunities to compete internationally, of course. Football (Soccer) is by far and away the most popular sport worldwide, and as such has talented players from all over the world plying their trade in leagues throughout the globe. Australia’s national team, the Socceroos, will fill the majority of their squad for the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa from players playing in the top flight leagues of Europe.

That’s not to say that big names wont play outside of Europe though. Former Aston Villa and Manchester United standout Dwight Yorke spent a season in Australia, playing for Sydney FC before heading back to the English Premier League, showing that clubs throughout the world take notice more than ever of what is going on in foreign leagues.

Of course, there are some individual sports, where world travel is a big factor, most notably, Tennis and Golf. Make it to the top level in these sports, and world travel is a given.

There are probably no pro athletes that cover more ground than tennis players who have their four Grand Slams in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York each year, with other major tournaments in all other parts of the world including Asia and South America. And the best part? The follow the sun. The world’s best Tennis players are currently in my home town of Melbourne for the Australian Open where it is the middle of summer, for the first Grand Slam of the year. The worlds best then continue to follow the summer north to Europe and North America for the remaining three Grand Slam tournaments later in the year.

I think few would disagree that tennis players’ combination of travelling the world, playing the sport they love and constantly chasing summer is one that is hard to beat.

What could be better than travelling the world to watch sport?  I think I have my answer.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

It's All About Hockey

Growing up as a kid in and around Melbourne, whenever anybody asked which team you follow (in Australia the question would be “who do you barrack for?”) you knew exactly what they were asking. It wasn’t about which basketball team you supported, or which Rugby League team you liked. It was about football – Australian Rules Football. To many people it was – and to some still is – the only sport worth caring about.

It’s a little bit the same here in Canada, except instead of football, its all about Hockey.

I am of course, talking about Ice Hockey, as it is known everywhere else in the world, not field hockey which is more popular in Australia and the non iced over parts of Europe.

Don’t get caught calling it ice hockey in Canada though. You’ll just end up looking foolish. They cant get their heads around the fact that anyone would ever play field hockey – that’s a girls game isn’t it?

Coming to Canada, I knew I would have to embrace hockey. I’d only ever been to one hockey game before – a second tier game in Olomouc in the Czech Republic, and while it was a fun night, it didn’t exactly hook me in.

Within days of arriving in Canada, I would realise that I would have no choice but to enjoy this game. Like Aussie Rules footy in Melbourne, if you’re not watching the hockey, you’re kind of left out. Your team plays every couple of days, and everyone meets up at the pub to cheer on their local team. This is something I could learn to love. Hockey you say?

While I do love watching the games at the pub, nothing does it for me like seeing the game live, so I bought a couple of tickets and went along to watch the Montreal Canadiens host the New York Islanders.

Ok, I’m hooked.

The game is awesome. I was a little worried about being able to even see the puck on the ice, but that wasn’t a worry at all. What I loved about the game more than anything was that, unlike all other major North American Sports (American Football, Baseball, and NBA Basketball) the action is virtually non stop. Its fast paced end to end action with virtually no let up, and with our game going to overtime – with the home team Montreal winning in sudden death – the crowd was amazing.

Me & a Buddy at the Canadiens game

The Montreal fans are known for being some of the most passionate in the NHL, and its any wonder considering they have won the league a record 24 times. It really is the only show in town, and sports wise it’s the only thing of interest to anyone. Montreal actually won the Canadian Football League this season, and yet I didn’t meet one person in Montreal who would choose a football game over a hockey game. The game on ice wins every time.

It’s not only Montreal that loves hockey though, it’s a nation wide obsession. There are six Canadian teams in the NHL, however there used to be more, which is something of a sore point to the people of Winnipeg and Quebec City.

Everyone here can skate. Even those that say they cant, can. They’re just used to comparing themselves to the rest of Canada. Kids grow up wanting to be hockey players and as a result they’re one of the best teams in the world.

With the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics fast approaching – just one month away now – all of Canada is hoping their mens and womens hockey teams can take home the gold. The womens team is virtually assured a spot in the final against the USA who are obviously the number one rival. The men will have a more difficult assignment, with the depth of talent in the world much higher, and teams from Europe providing tough opposition along with the Americans.

The big game in the group stage will of course be the US against Canada on February 21st.  While other teams, such as world powerhouse Russia will come into it when the medals are handed out, the game against the USA is the one that all Canadiens want to win.

It's sometimes easy to forget that the Winter Olympics provide a chance for some of the minor winter sports of the world – such as curling – to have their moment in the spotlight, because everyone knows that in Canada, its all about the hockey.