Take off your shoulder pads and skates

The National Basketball Association — ever heard of it? Take your shoulder pads and skates off for a moment, put that Tim’s cup down and scooch closer: let’s talk ball.

And let’s talk ball for good reason. The NBA is currently enjoying one of the brightest eras in the history of sports, and it’s sadly flying a bit under the radar, especially up here in Canada. We hear tons about Crosby, Ovechkin, the Canucks or Gary Bettman, but what about the fact that the Toronto Raptors, Canada’s team, is home to Chris Bosh, arguably the best power forward in basketball (I use the term arguably only because of Dirk Nowitzki), and easily a top 10 player in the world. How about the fact that the NBA is about to enter one of the most anticipated, exciting off-seasons is sports history where names like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire and unfortunately, Bosh, will all be up for grabs?

Of course, before this free agent frenzy begins there are playoffs to tend to. The Lakers are once again the favorite in the West, and the Cavs in the East. It really does seem like destiny will lead us to the ever-anticipated Kobe vs. LeBron finals. But the fact of the matter is that there are just so many championship caliber players in the league and several championship caliber teams that one could easily slip through and take down the Cavs or Lakers, much like the Orlando Magic did last season. This is what people seem to fail to realize about the NBA: the absolutely freakish number of brilliant young basketball players in the league with freakish talent and the records that are being shattered by the current class. If the NBA was a Lord of The Rings novel, we’ve just entered the battle at Helm’s Deep.

Let me give you a quick example of what I’m talking about.

Who is Kevin Durant? No, he’s not your accountant. KD is a brilliant young basketball player, the second leading scorer in the league mind you, averaging 29.7 points per game and the leader of a young team with mature playoff expectations.

What team does he play for? No the answer is not the Seattle Supersonics, they haven’t existed in over two years. It’s the Oklahoma City Thunder, and I would be willing to bet every student at the U of M $100 that they have not heard of Durant or the Thunder and I would surely come out a rich man. How many NHL contenders could one say that about?

But it’s guys like the Durantula and Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Roy who possess top-level talent yet don’t make all the headlines that make the NBA so amazing. Games are on almost seven nights a week and usually feature at least one team that could do damage in the playoffs, often two. The league is just that good these days.

The theatrics of NBA games (things like crowd interaction, arguing with refs, technical fouls, tattoos, creative dunks and of course, the league’s signature eccentric billionaire owners in the stands losing their minds as their teams perform poorly, also known as Mark Cuban) are also unmatched by any other league. The drama that can unfold in an NBA game cannot be overlooked, as was seen back in November 2004 when members of the Indiana Pacers got so fed up with fan-taunting that they ran into the stands during a road game in Detroit and punched out crowd members.

Another attribute, unlike hockey or baseball, is that the players wear no helmets, cages, full body uniforms or pads. It’s a jersey, shorts, and a fresh pair of kicks. Faces are extremely visible, as are unbelievable physiques (Dwight Howard’s shoulders require at least a 52-inch screen, however). They love to interact with the crowd. Kobe hit a game winning shot against Sacramento and ran to get a fist-pound from Jack Nicholson, who was sitting in his courtside season seat. LeBron slammed it down against the Nets and threw up the Roc symbol to Jay-Z sitting in the front row. Word. This level of intimate emotion and interaction between athlete and fan is unmatched by any other league.

The NBA does have its negatives of course: they overpay for starters. The Knicks’ Tracy McGrady currently ranks as the league’s highest paid player and is not in the top-75 in terms of talent. The free agency signings next season do have the potential to lead to a lockout. Several league refs have been accused of fixing games and ex-official Tim Donaghy was actually charged and convicted of it.

But the question of whether watching basketball is really worth it can come down to a one word answer: LeBron. The bottom line is, LBJ is an absolute treat to watch. The Nike campaign centered around LeBron and the idea that we are all “witnesses” to something magical, something legendary, could not be more accurate.

I’m not telling you that you should like basketball if you don’t. But the fact is that so many people around the world grow up playing the sport and it simply does not get enough recognition in Canada. Basketball matters and it matters to Canadians, but this is not reflected in the media in relation to hockey. Jay Triano is the first Canadian to ever be a head coach in the NBA and this is something that deserves more recognition. Canadian media, if not supporting basketball, should at least support the huge footprint Jay Triano has made on the sport and the unlikely path he’s paving for Canadians in general. He’s currently trying to push Bosh and the Raptors into the playoffs and reverse their fortune of not making it out of the first round since the Vince Carter days, but you probably don’t know who that is.