Thursday, July 17, 2008

SPORTS: The Rautins Flap

I find myself in an oddly conflicted position over the current flap between Leo Rautins and Sam Dalembert and the damage that flap is doing to the national basketball program in Canada.

Basically, I think everybody involved is wrong and the repercussions this program will suffer will make all of we hoop fans in this country rue the very mention of Leo and Sam.

Let's start with Rautins, who I have blasted as a colour man on Toronto Raptors broadcasts. His performance there is overly-teachy and his passive-aggressive approach with outgoing play-by-play man Chuck Swirsky was off-putting. On the other hand, I pointed out how good with kids he was and that there was not a single doubt in my mind as to how dedicated to basketball he was. So, you have my pre-flap biases straight.

Leo should not have been afforded the chance to become a first-time coach as the national coach of this country. Not that the move is unprecedented. It's rare for second and third tier countries NOT to turn to past stars to coach their squads. Leo's predecessor, Jay Triano, fit the same bill, BUT had head coaching experience in university ball before tugging on the Maple Leaf-embroidered jacket. That's a big difference.

Coaching is more than x's and o's. It's people management. As Casey Stengel once said about coaching the Yankees, "I had to keep the 1o guys who hated my guts from the 10 guys who weren't sure." It's not overstating the case. The coach has to play five and sit seven. In that seven are a bunch who think they should be on the floor 40 minutes a night (Carl English?). Giving players roles and having them accept those roles, differentiates the good coaches from the bad. The quality of the talent then decides whether a coach is good or can be great. Make no mistake about it, Leo is not a great coach because he can't be. Doesn't have the talent.

But, is he a good coach? There's no evidence to suggest it. Before Dalembert 's participation came asunder, there was the Juan Mendez issue. He started a pre-qualifying tournament game and then left the team the next day. A decent-sized wing player with a Euro game, Mendez surely could have found a 12th spot on this roster ahead of some of the youth that predominates the team. That one of those players was Leo's son Andy was a bad sign. Having Andy Rautins on the team and a useful player like Mendez not, was the first sign of the coming apocalypse. That's just visuals, but the optics were bad.

Kicking Dalembert off the team immediately, without an intermediary step like suspending him for a game, was another mis-step. It might have been popular. Other team players were sounding off on the preferential treatment Dalembert was getting and expecting. Most of that was anonymous, so how bad COULD it have been. But getting rid of Dalembert before the biggest game in Rautins' coaching career was either a gutsy move, or the latest bone-headed one. If nothing else, it suggested Rautins didn't have the gravitas to coach a difficult player. And trust me, basketball players can be the most difficult of all the team sports athletes. Most have been coddled since coaches and teachers realized the dude was big enough to be a difference maker on the basketball court. It's hard NOT to grow up feeling entitled.

So, it's Leo's fault?

No. Not entirely. Dalembert was the feel-good story from last summer. He moved heaven and earth to get Canadian citizenship in time to play in the Americas qualifying tournament in Las Vegas. Played decently, but not well enough to propel Canada through. It was the sports movie where the underdogs' winning shot at the buzzer clanks off the rim rather than going through it. Despite that, Dalembert became one of the few visiting players who'd get cheers in Toronto. Not up there with Mo Peterson, but not inconspicuous.

That'll change this year. The facts certainly need more light before announcing him a spoiled and pampered big baby. The initial reports are not favourable. If he has, in the words of several reporters, been trying to 'big-time' his teammates and coaches, then he's lost his way big time. Acting like you're a star and a difference-maker requires a winning team and a leading performance. In neither case was Dalembert putting those attributes on display in the opening loss to Slovenia. After that kind of performance, you put your tail between your legs and tell your teammates you PROMISE to do better.
Of course, he never got the chance to do better. That must have been some sort of conversation between Leo and Sam, as they vied for the honour of wrecking both of their careers completely. And in the end, they decided on self-immolation.

Whoever picks up the pieces (Gord Herbert?) better hope Dalembert WAS acting like a huge knob and doesn't deserve solidarity from other players. If he WAS wronged, then agents from the NBA and overseas will be doing everything they can to steer clients wide of Canada's national team until Rautins is history. And maybe beyond. If Dalembert was guilty and people know it, then there's a chance the team building can continue. Either way, I can't see Rautins around for the next Americas qualifying tournament three years from now.

Hey, there's a game Friday with Croatia. Doesn't really seem to matter now, does it?

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