Thursday, April 14, 2022

Why Do I Paint Sports Figures?

This is a super long read for this era of quick sound bites and talking points, but if you want to understand why I like to paint sporty stuff, this will give you a good idea.

There aren't many things I'd rather be doing than playing sports. Basketball, football, and hockey are among my favourite things to do in my spare time. I am actually up for any kind of physical challenge - the more challenging the better. (Unless it involves water. Or sharks. Water and sharks are my no-go zones.) Even lately, I've been reading and thinking about a trip to the Cinque Terre in Italy, and I find myself salivating looking at all the hiking paths in 3D in Google Maps. Sweating my rear end off on those trails, particularly the ones that go straight up, would be the highlight of a trip there. I can feel a bit of a rush building, even from just imagining the thrill I'd get from running those old stone steps next to the water's edge up into those hills. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Autographed by the Rocket himself

I played ice hockey as a kid, starting when I was four or five years old. The folks in charge would put a big log at centre ice to divide the rink so that two games could be played at once. I think mostly because parents couldn't wait for us to skate the entire length of the ice. I played until I was about twelve or thirteen, but I had a rink right across the back lane from my house so I could go skating whenever I wanted, which was often.

I got home from school one day when I was around 12 or so, and my mom asked me to turn the tv on. "Switch through the channels. Can you guess what's different?" Well, cable tv for one thing, but pretty quickly, I discovered what was different was Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers. Free time on days above zero degrees had me out on our gravel driveway, trying to dunk on our eight-and-a-half-foot hoop, emulating Dr. J as best I could. For a little while, I needed a log of wood intended for our wood stove to jump off of, but eventually I could do it on my own. 

My buddy Darren R and I played sports pretty much around the clock during summer holidays. We'd go throw a ball around before lunch, get together again after lunch, and then play 21 before going in for supper. We did this for probably five consecutive summers. One day, Darren and I were throwing the ball out on my front street. A neighbour lady came out and told us that her son had moved out, but left behind a whole bunch of Sports Illustrated magazines. Would we be interested in taking them? I still have a couple of them. 

My gym teacher in high school got mad at my friend Shawn and I because all we wanted to do was play basketball during our free time in gym class.

Back row, centre

My high school intramural flag football team was called Black Death, a likely indicator as to the type of music I would be listening to a short time later. Throughout high school, Darren and I would constantly be looking for people to play football with, and very often ended up having an epic Sunday afternoon game on the field at Fort la Reine School, just a couple hundred yards from my house. Michael C, Sheldon G, Ronnie D, John F, Peter O, Kelly B, Steve C and a few others were regulars, a few more coming out on occasion. As long as there were three of us, we had a game. Cornerback, Quarterback, Receiver we called it. We just rotated through, and after several years of this, became more than proficient at each position. 

I was ROY for my high school basketball team, and in grade 12, led the team in scoring and rebounding, playing a quasi shooting guard/power forward position. The gym was always open in those days, so if there was no class in there, I was there, shooting around. Lunchtime, after school. Otherwise I was dunking (without the aid of a log) on our still eight and a half foot hoop.

I played a tonne of basketball at Frank Kennedy gym once I started going to university. We had an intramural team for our residence, University College, for a few years, just not a whole lot of basketball players, unfortunately. At the end of my third year of university, I started hitting the weight room, and found a groove quickly. We'd often go play basketball in the afternoon, follow that up with some time in the weight room, and immediately race back to res for a marathon supper at the Great Hall. In those days, suppers had unlimited seconds, and I made full use of that loophole. Night times were spent down in the basement of our residence, in a room that had seemingly no other function than to be the perfect size for ball hockey. Lots of floor rivalries were built in that room.

The following year found an unusually high number of tall, slender athletic first year students living in University College. Their speed was the foundation of success for our dominant run in intramural football. The mortar was the arm I'd spent all those years working on with Darren, honing the complex technique of getting that ball downfield in a perfect harmony of power and finesse. All that time in the gym and the extra thirty pounds I put on since high school meant that there was no limit to what we could do on the field.

From the outside, throwing a football might seem like a simple thing. And it is, until you need to do it on the run, or need to get it to hit a spot as quickly and as accurately as possible before the defence can react. Or you need to hit a swift, six-foot, eighteen-year-old sixty yards downfield without him breaking stride. Or get the ball back across the field when you're running in the opposite direction. You need to be able to throw short and you need to be able to throw long. You need to be able to fire it downfield on a rope so that it arrives immediately, or send it sailing high so it drops in on your receiver as if coming straight down from the heavens. All of these things and more require that your throwing technique is flawless, and this is where simplicity exits the equation. Hours and hours of practice, which in the late 70s and early 80s meant just playing with your friends, every single day, every single breath. When you couldn't get the ball to do what you wanted it to do, you tried harder the next play, and the play after that, for years on end. Every throw was a building block in the pursuit of perfection.

Listen to your younger self, kids.

Being a visual learner, I spent a lot of days watching CFL and NFL games. I remember the last couple years of Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach’s careers, but it was the 80s I remember the most. Dan Fouts, Doug Williams, Dan Marino, John Elway, Warren Moon, Randell Cunningham. What did all these guys have in common? They could throw that ball. Hard. I watched them as often as I could, and would stay up late so that I could watch the sports highlights on the evening news. I'd watch the games on the weekends, and whatever day the CFL decided to have their games on that year. Joe Barnes and Sonny Wade, Dieter Brock and Tom Clements. I watched and I watched, and then I put into practice what I saw during those games and on those highlights.

I watched how the feet were planted and angled, how the weight shifted from one foot to the other, the hips twisted, and up the spine that twist was magnified by the shoulders that whipped the arm forward, culminating in a final flick of the wrist as the ball was released. I remember the feeling of the ball coming out of my hand, rolling off my fingertips so perfectly, and then watching it fly. When it all came together, there was a certain effortlessness in getting the ball to where it needed to be. Those moments were pure magic. Today, this is what science would call “flow,” the countless hours of a young life spent perfecting a craft to the point where you didn’t have to think anymore, your body just did as you needed it to, as you wanted it to, as you imagined it could if anything were possible.

Fast forward to the intramural days of university, and those early years of watching and learning, practicing and playing, came together with the new size and strength I'd gained over the previous year or two. Now there was a consistency that came with that effortlessness that meant I could put the ball almost anywhere on the field I wanted to. The other teams simply hadn't seen this kind of thing done before. They wouldn't cover past thirty or forty yards down field because they hadn't seen someone throw the ball that far before. They didn't know how to cover guys who were a few inches taller that could also run a lot faster than they could, so guys were always open. It got to the point where we'd huddle, and I'd just randomly pick two guys to go long. Every time. When the defence figured it out, our receivers would run faster, and I'd throw it further.

Eventually, our magnificent run came to an end, in the playoffs of our third year together? Maybe it was our second. Looking back, it felt like decades. But apathy had set in, and we had trouble getting enough guys to the games. Each team fielded seven players, but you were required to have a minimum of six players on the field or you would forfeit the game. We would regularly begin a game with only six guys, and be up by a couple touchdowns at half-time when our seventh player would show up. In the semi-finals that year, we only had five guys when it was time for kick-off. The referees said we would forfeit unless the other team would allow us to play with our reduced roster. Our opponents couldn't even look us in the face as the muttered something about rules being rules. We tried to cajole the into playing, but they knew what would be in store for them if they allowed us on the field, and we were forced to forfeit. And that was the end of an era. Our era.

Eventually, I started playing pick up basketball at Bison East on Friday afternoons. Those were good games, and that's where I really learned how to play against big, strong, tough opponents. A lot of hours were spent in that gym.

Even after finishing university, I'd still show up to play there when I could. Eventually, the guys I knew had all left, and university was feeling like a different kind of place. I did find some of them on the court at St. Ignatius, which by the early 90s felt like it had become the court to play on at the time. I could even walk there from my apartment on Woodrow, so I was there a lot.

In the late 80s, I played a half year of tackle football for The Rods after a friend heard they were short players. And after university, I worked for an idiot painter who played for a senior men's tackle football team. He invited me out, and I played two years with that team. It was for players who were too old (over 22) to play junior football, but included guys who were well into their thirties and beyond, I think, although at that time, someone ten years older than me might as well have been fifty. Anyway, we played the city's junior teams, and also the UofM Bisons' team. Let me tell you, that was a lot of fun.

Around 1991, some of the guys I knew from my university residence asked me to join their men's league team. I did that for two or three years before everyone started going their separate ways.

Laura and I moved to St. Boniface right after getting married in the summer of 1992. I found some courts across Provencher Blvd. at Holy Cross School and Provencher School, and spent a bit of time shooting around that summer. In 1993, I found a bunch of guys at Provencher school. One of them had brought out his grade 12 friends to play against the junior high team he was coaching. Nobody knew who I was, but they said I could play with the junior high kids. I huddled together with them before we started. They were nervous, and a bit scared about how badly they were going to lose. "We are not losing this game," I growled. 

From all of the activity I'd had for all those years, I knew how my body worked, and much like throwing a football, a good vertical jump required both an understanding of the mechanics of jumping, and a fundamental desire to practice those mechanics over and over again until it was simply a natural expression of movement. Having spent a lot of time on an actual basketball court (and not just a gravel driveway jumping off a log) in an era when Michael Jordan was coming of age (in the NBA) meant that there was a lot of focus on dunking, and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to jump higher and higher. At my best I might have had close to a forty inch vertical, but likely close to three feet at any time from the later 80s and into the 90s and beyond. The summer of 1993 was no exception. And the court we were playing on was attached to an elementary school. The hoops might have been nine feet high. I'd played a lot on these hoops the previous summer, and I knew what I was capable of on a nine foot hoop. Dr. J, remember.

Barely two minutes into the game, our team got a rebound which was quickly outletted to me, and I had a fast break with only one defender back. For whatever reason, I think mostly because he was inexperienced, but also unaware of what I was about to do, this defender continued to back in closer to the hoop. I knew exactly how far away I could jump from and still get to the hoop. And that was when I was there by myself, just practicing, fooling around. In game time, with the hopes and dreams of a half dozen junior high boys riding on these things, the adrenalin was already pumping, and I wasn't letting anyone down. As my defender backed in, I could feel the rush. I left the ground about eight or ten from the hoop, sailed past his shoulder, and hammered that ball home. "He just jumped right over me..." he said to his friends. My teammates exploded with screams of pure joy. The game was on. My favourite part of that story is that I am still friends with a couple of the high school guys who were there that day. We played hours and hours and hours of basketball the rest of that summer and throughout 1994.

In 1995, Laura and I moved to Lord Roberts. Through a job I had at the time, I heard about some pickup basketball happening at a high school in Fort Garry. Some of the guys playing pick up also played in a touch football league, and after seeing me play basketball the first few weeks, asked if I'd be interested in coming to play football with them. Would I?!

That was a run of three or four years in the A-Division of touch football with the Ratz. I played against guys like James Murphy, and a few times with guys like Joe Poplawski, Willard Reaves, Darren Yewchyn. One or two of those years, we were champs.

The Ratz disbanded in the late 90s, and a few of the players got together on a new team known as the Nationals. When that team died, I got a phone call from another team, and the following year was playing on two different teams in different leagues. 

Also in the later 90s (1996 or 1997?), the mom of a young artist friend in my neighbourhood worked at the local high school, and could get us gym time once a week in the evening. Chris and his young friends and I would show up every Tuesday to play ball hockey. In the summer when the school was closed, we were playing outdoors on whatever surface we could find. The tennis courts in Riverview, the crappy asphalt in the fenced-in area beside the library, the wonderful fresh and new asphalt at Our Lady of Victory School across Osborne. We'd play for hours and hours. That seven-hour Saturday is the stuff of legends.

One winter, when our numbers were down, I brought out my old university friends. Then my new football friends. But somehow we always managed to play. Occasionally there'd be a night when it was just Chris and I, so we figured out a way to play one on one hockey so we wouldn't waste the night. For a couple years, we were playing two nights a week. We made up our own league, tallied points, I wrote articles (imagine that) for our weekly Sporting News. 

You may think this is not worth reading, but I beg to differ.

In 1998 or so, I bumped into an old university friend, from the Bison East days. A few weeks later, he called saying that they needed some bodies for their city men's league team. Right on. We had a few really good years, winning the second division in 2001, and following that up with a tournament win in Grand Forks against Deek's Pizza. I will never forget that team name. That summer, I buggered up my knee playing basketball with some teenagers outside at Lord Roberts Community Centre during my youngest kid's soccer windup. I hobbled through the rest of the football season, winning the MVP of the league and leading the league in interceptions at age 35. 

That fall, our basketball team moved up to Division 1, where we struggled with the bigger bodies and more physical, faster play. It took its toll, and in February, I tore up my ankle pretty badly. When I was 25, it might have been a few weeks off, and then slowly back to work. But this year, coupled with an already bad knee, chasing two young kids around home, and my age I guess, the healing process took months. I never fully recovered from that injury, and it was a few years before I really felt like I was over it.

Even with less emphasis on basketball, football and hockey did continue, pretty much right up until we left on our world trip in 2007. Interestingly enough, it was several months into that trip where I realized how much better my knees felt when I got up in the morning. Or when I had to jog across a busy street. When we returned home, football season was just getting started, and I got right back into it. Chris had started playing ball hockey at Robert A. Steen in Wolseley, and so I joined him there on Tuesday nights the next fall. I managed to worm my way into a basketball group that included a couple of church friends, and I found that my knees and ankles were up to the task.

When yet another football team fell apart in 2015 or so, with me closing in on age 50, that was the end of the touch football career. I said to my youngest kid, "If this had been ten years ago, I would have had quite a few calls asking me to join teams. Yeah, well, this year, no one called."

Ball hockey had pretty much wrapped up at that point too, but I was still playing basketball weekly until Covid shut us down.

I still have my hoop out back on my garage and play there on my own pretty regularly. The high flying dunking days are long past, and I'm not quite as keen to see if I can grab that rim anymore. My vertical leap seems more like a low, slow broad jump these days than anything else, more a measurement of distance rather than height. But to this day, I still have dreams of playing basketball on a court all by myself, where I’m running from one end of the court to the other, dunking the ball, turning around and doing it again. The dream is accompanied by a nearly magical feeling of being able to jump as high as I want to, like there’s some kind of invisible force pushing me upward, as though I’m weightless. The feeling I had in my youth.

My favourite thing about this image was the shadow of the hoop on his arm.

When Michael Jordan retired the first time, in 1993, I was sad to think that I wouldn't get to see him play live. Basketball had to this point given me such a sense of fulfilment, a sense of joy, and Michael Jordan to me seemed like the physical embodiment of all of that in my life up to this point in time. Sure, he was probably the most recognized athlete in the world that year, but my interest in him went far, far deeper. He was a manifestation of excellence, an athletic excellence that I'd been chasing since I was a kid. What he could do on the court was the result of the hard work and effort and practice that came before his time in the sun. Creating an oversized drawing of him doing the things that I liked the most was a natural expression of my artistic skills and my athletic dreams. 

And that is what I celebrate with my sports paintings and drawings. I find that physical expression inspiring and empowering, and now also a reminder of what I was capable of as a younger person, whether it was on the court, on the field, or the rink (well, ball hockey gym). I celebrate what sport has meant to me for over forty years, the joy of being with friends, of competing, all the stuff that comes as part of being on a team.

Even a little bit of the simple pageantry: the uniforms, the colour, the equipment. The lights of a Monday night game. How sometimes you can see the entire stadium reflected in a player’s helmet. The way players used to look at half time when jerseys would be so encrusted with dirt you could barely see their number. The sweat, the fatigue, the perseverance. All of it.

The basement gym

So now, turning 56 this year, what’s left in the athletic tank? I will tell you this, being down in that basement, surrounded by many of the players of my younger days, listening to the music I did when I was twenty years old (and let’s be honest, the music I still listen to all the time), I am fired up to be in my best physical condition for as long as I can.

A couple years ago, we were in Bologna, and one of the things to do there is climb to the top of Asinelli Tower to get a great view over the city. This tower is 97 metres high, with 498 steps to the top.

I asked the young guy taking tickets what his fastest time to the top was. Five minutes, he said.

Challenge accepted.

Unfortunately, a family of four with two young kids got in line before us. I had to wait for them to huff and puff up to the first landing before they stepped out of the way, then darted past them and raced up the rest of the stairs. Five minutes and twenty five seconds. (I would’ve done it if it weren’t for those meddling kids!)

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