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!