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….