Book Excerpt From “Backspin” By Pete Strobl


My new head coach was Jack Armstrong. He was proof that you can take the guy out of Brooklyn but you can’t get the Brooklyn out of the guy. Keep in mind that my only exposure to the East Coast mannerisms had come through the Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro films I had watched late at night. Keeping up with Coach Armstrong’s speech cadence was tough at first because it was so entertaining. I felt my mellow West Coast vibe slowly dissolving and knew it would be a challenge to keep up with his pace mentally, as well, as physically.

Armstrong was a hard-working guy and a real throwback to what I imagined a barnstorming coach in the fifties might have been like. The one thing about him I learned to count on was his consistency. Well, okay, two things: his consistency, and his extraordinary flair for showmanship. Before we had played half of my first season I realized that he was on a first name basis with every other referee in our conference. The way they went at each other, I got the impression they had all grown up on the same block and had been arguing streetball calls since they were kids.

During the very first game of the year, an official made a call that rubbed Armstrong the wrong way. He executed a move worthy of an Olympic shot putter. No, to be precise, it was much more like an expert hammer throw. He exploded out of his chair, spun around, tore off his suit jacket in mid swing, and before he came around again, the jacket had landed in the third row behind the bench. It’s a good thing Armstrong wore slick-soled dress shoes on game days, because if he had tried that move in sneakers he would have torn his ankles out at the roots. The referee walked over, soothingly put his hand on Jack’s shoulder and explained the call from his vantage point. Armstrong, accepting his jacket from the outstretched hand of a beaming Niagara fan, penitently nodded and patted the ref on the back as if to say, “Oh yeah, well when you explain it like that I can see how you could have blown the call.” I’d seen coaches lose their cool trying to play to the refs many times, but they were just as likely to cross the line and end up listening to the rest of the game from the locker room. My new coach had a real knack for timing his outbursts. And I had never seen anyone with Armstrong’s astounding recovery time.

Later in the season we found ourselves fighting to win a close game that would keep us on pace to have Niagara’s first winning record in nine seasons. With less than a minute left on the clock, Coach Armstrong called our last timeout and we huddled around him to get instructions for what would be our final offensive possession. One of the assistants shoved the dry erase board into his impatient grasp and he was practically writing up a play before the marker touched the board. The marker darted furiously back and forth across the board as he improvised our first, second, and third options on the fly. It was remarkable the way Coach Armstrong’s mind worked. Even more remarkable, all of us, to a man, stood and nodded as if we had a full and complete understanding of this amazing play that not one of us could actually see. In the excitement and gravity of the moment, Jack had scribbled away the entire timeout without realizing he was using a dried out marker. But a small detail like that wasn’t going to prevent us – all of us – from pretending we knew exactly what we wanted us to do. With fire in his eyes and his mouth foaming at the corners, he screamed, “Are you ready?” We answered with a resounding “Let’s go!”

We went on to win that game in the final moments. I don’t know if the play we ran had anything to do with Jack’s invisible ink act but I’m certain his intensity in the timeout is what got us the win. And it’s a good thing it did, because I wouldn’t have envied the person that put the spent marker into Armstrong’s hand if we had run out the final seconds of the game bumping into each other and acting like Jack had just drawn up an invisible play.

This was an excerpt from Backspin by Pete Strobl. Copyright 2013 by Pete Strobl. Reprinted with permission from The Scoring Factory.

Dwane Casey Isn’t Worried About Loss To Phoenix Suns


The Toronto Raptors lost 121-113 to the Phoenix Suns this afternoon and there were be plenty of things to be worried about.

With the Phoenix Suns rising from the ashes of the Western Conference cellar this season, the NBA Betting odds were in favour of the Suns. It’s not like the Raptors were expected to win.

Still, it was a game that was ugly to watch and showed a lot of possible glaring weaknesses for the Raptors moving forward.

Jonas Valanciunas scored 11 points in the first quarter but only attempted three field goals over the final three quarters. After going 6-8 from the field in the opening quarter his teammates decided to ice him out.

In the fourth Kyle Lowry took a couple of knees to his head and had to be helped off the court. No foul was called on the play and Dwane Casey nearly picked up a technical for arguing with the refs too much.

There’s also the fact DeMar DeRozan is starting to show the signs of fatigue after averaging a career-high 38.1 minutes per game this season. DeRozan went 6-16 from the field against Phoenix and 4-12 against Memphis.

This month DeRozan has shot lower than 40% from the field in five of seven games so far this month. It’s clear he’s battling through tired legs that is taking away some of the lift from his legs when he is shooting.

The big issue is that Toronto’s defence is showing signs of slippage. Toronto gave up 121 points while allowing Phoenix to make 50% of their field goal attempts and 47% of their shots beyond the arc (11-23).

Still, after the game Casey pulled his best Alfred E Newman impression.

“It’s not a systemic problem,” Casey told the media after the loss. “It’s not a situation where we should panic. It’s one game. We knew we weren’t going to go undefeated the rest of the way. That team right there are fighting for the playoff lives like we are and they are a quality team. It’s not like it’s the end of the world. We gave it our best shot.”

True, the world isn’t ending, but there are cracks in the foundation and Toronto’s core.

It’s nice that Casey wants to dismiss the problems – and maybe they are just the result of playing a tough Western Conference team – but the culmination of everything that went wrong is reason for concern.

Hopefully the team rallies in Atlanta and New Orleans this week and proves Casey was right.

Toronto’s Future Remains Shrouded In Mystery And Intrigue

Welcome to Toronto Masai

The Toronto Raptors are caught in a tug of war between playing for the present and paving the way for future success.

This season was supposed to be a lost season of sorts where Toronto played for ping pong balls in the NBA’s draft lottery while Dwane Casey was going to be given the chance to show he could groom young players while establishing a defensive culture.

When Rudy Gay was traded to the Sacramento Kings and the Raptors actually started winning games it flipped the script.

Most NBA franchise would view a trip to the playoffs and a chance to win their division as a great thing,however, with Toronto not having the kind of players which have the potential for showing long-term sustainability when it comes to building a winning franchise, Masai Ujiri and Casey now find themselves in a tough position.

The reality is Toronto’s roster is currently bare of players that would – or could – start for a franchise playing in the NBA Finals.

What makes things tricky for Casey and Ujiri is fans and the local media are now clamoring for a trip to the playoffs but it might be wise to let Lowry walk this summer and package some of their young assets this summer for different pieces or draft picks.

This was highlighted by Ujiri refusing the temptation to make any major moves this past Thursday to bolster the roster for a playoffs push.

Instead, Ujiri hinted that some bigger moves could happen could this summer.

“It’s always a tedious time because you’re trying to see what makes sense for your team,” Ujiri explained to the media on Thursday. “(We need to balance) what makes sense on our side for our team now and the future. That played a part into kind of the little thing we did and I think a lot of the stuff we saw are things that maybe we can do in the summer. So why change it here a little bit now and obstruct (progress)?”

Ujiri also added that, “Some of the deals that were coming about we felt that if we (still) needed to make those moves we could pull them off in the summer.”

Clearly there were some interesting moves that were presented to Ujiri that nearly tempted him to pull the trigger.

It’s also clear that despite giving some young players the rest of the season to show what they can do there are a lot of chess pieces on Toronto’s roster that could easily be moved this summer.

Hearing Ujiri talk on Thursday there was a clear sense of wanderlust about what he could fetch in return via trades for some of the players currently on the roster and how he can spend money this summer on free agents.

In the meantime, Casey is stuck between continuing to help younger players grow while being thrown into the pressure cooker of making a push for the playoffs.

“It’s very difficult because Jonas (Valanciunas) and Terrence (Ross) are two second year players that are growing every game and they make a ton of mistakes,” Casey admitted to me. “You have to live with it just because they are growing and they are a big part of our future and our core. At the same time we are trying to win.”

The tension between winning games and helping players grow has formed the quagmire that Casey and Ujiri find themselves trying not to sink in.

While the team may still make push for home court in the first round and might even win a series, it’s far from certain that the current core group of players will be back again next season.

Fans might be resistant to that idea of the roster undergoing more reshaping, but it is probably in the best long-term interest of the franchise to see some bold moves this summer in restructuring the roster.

Toronto Raptors Are Playing With Fire

The Toronto Raptors are currently sitting atop the Atlantic Division and seven games above .500. While most basketball fans would like their basketball money-lines, their inconsistent style of play have them as a risky bet moving forward.

Fans are elated because the team has one of the easiest schedules the remainder of the season because the combined win percentage of the Raptors’ opponents for the remainder of the season is .453.

On top of that, the team survived a tough early schedule and Toronto is 26-13 since Rudy Gay last played for them which is tied for the 2nd-most wins in the NBA in that time (since December 8).

Things look great, right? Wrong.

Against the Chicago Bulls they dug a hole early when they gave up 31 points in the first quarter. They clawed back after holding Chicago to 39 combined points in the second (17 points) and third quarters (22), but the sluggish start doomed them.

Then against Cleveland they only scored 16 points in the first quarter and had to rely on 37 points in the third quarter to steal the win.

Slow starts hurt them once again when they only scored 19 points against Orlando. Lucky for them they held Orlando to 17 points in the first quarter while exploding for 36 points in the third quarter.

Sure, the team is 7-3 over their past ten and appear to have an easy schedule to close out the season, but things are far from easy moving forward. Toronto needs to find a way to start games strong, play hard on both ends of the court and find some sort of consistency.

If not, Toronto’s surprising season will end in disappointment.