Under the Bleachers: The War of 1812 Revisited

Above: Andrew Wiggins shows how laid back he can be.

Sports fans in Canada are used to hearing disparaging remarks about foreign-born athletes. We’ve been listening to Don Cherry rag on Russians and Europeans and French-Canadians and Americans for more than thirty years so, even if we think he’s a xenophobic gasbag, it’s hard to find nationalistic stereotypes shocking.

But Canadians definitely take notice when we’re the ones being disparaged, don’t we?

We’ve gotten comfortable with our international reputation for loyalty, stoicism and aw-shucks niceness. We don’t mind being ribbed for constantly apologizing or being overly polite because we totally do, and we totally are. But impugn our work ethic? Call our competitiveness into question? Sorry, but you’re out of line there, sir.

This week on Keith Olberman’s show, Jason Whitlock, ESPN columnist/talking head, was asked about Andrew Wiggins—the NBA’s first-overall draftee and future Canadian national treasure. Whitlock gave his honest opinion: he thinks Wiggins shows inconsistent effort. He isn’t the only pundit to share that opinion, and he’s certainly entitled to it. But Whitlock wasn’t finished.

“Canadian athletes, I think, among NBA players, perhaps don’t want it as much as even some of the Europeans, and certainly the American players.”

Maybe he missed that time Steve Nash broke his nose, fixed it himself and took his free throws with no delay. Yeah, Steve Nash, who won two NBA MVP awards and happens to be from Victoria, B.C. He sounds like a guy who doesn’t “want it” very much. If he really wanted to be the best he would have been scoring more, rather than leading the league in assists five times. Canadians are just too generous.

Whitlock would have said the same things about intensity if Wiggins was American, but he sure wouldn’t have tried to say all American players lack intensity when compared to European and Canadian basketball players because that would be absurd. We get what Whitlock is trying to say—Canadians are generally “laid back” and don’t obsess over “being the best.” He might be partially right; there are definitely hyper-competitive Canadians somewhere among the 35 million of us, but we do tend to be team players. We like when other people do well, too.

So it’s a good thing “laid back” Andrew Wiggins doesn’t play tennis for a living.

Basketball is a team sport; it doesn’t matter if a team has the single most competitive player in the history of the universe, if the rest of his team isn’t very good or doesn’t play very hard, the team isn’t going to win. If Andrew Wiggins wants to be the second-best player on his team, he’s still aiming pretty high— would anyone slight Scottie Pippen for not trying to out-play Michael Jordan? And, if Wiggins becomes the second-best player on his team, they’ll win a lot of games.

So it isn’t that Andrew Wiggins has to want to be the best individual player in order to be successful, it’s that Whitlock and the amorphous “NBA people” he knows so well need to recognize that while players can win games, teams win championships.

Cleveland seems to get that, signing Wiggins to a rookie contract and ensuring all the talk of trading him for Kevin Love will die down for at least a few weeks. But Cleveland generally disagrees with Whitlock, having drafted four Canadians in the past four years; three within the top four draft spots.

Lots of teams disagree with Whitlock, actually: Sacramento is happy to have Nik Stauskas on their roster this season and Phoenix is pleased with their decision to draft Tyler Ennis. But Cleveland will be the biggest challenge to the idea that Canadians don’t have intensity—if they do well in the Eastern Conference this year, and smart money says they will, perhaps we’ll have to send Whitlock some maple syrup to pour all over his words before he eats them.

A Canadian invented basketball, he was just nice enough to let the Americans have it for a while. But it’s a new day in the NBA, and the Canadians are coming to take their game back.

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