Australian Rules Basketball

Fans of the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes will recall ‘Calvinball’. It was the epitome of children making up their own game. It is a game of ‘no rules’. Or better, rules that change to benefit the possessor of the ball. And since the ball and game are named after Calvin, he always benefits.

 

Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes, lives in Northeast Ohio where I grew up, the hub of which is Cleveland. There is a strip of Calvin climbing a Stegosaurus statue in front of a natural history museum. I and many fellow Northeast Ohioans have climbed that Stegosaurus in front of the Cleveland Natural History Museum.

 

My childhood was the 70s and 80s and I spent most of those years in Berea, Ohio, the “Grindstone Capital of the World”. The Cleveland Browns of the National Football League had their headquarters in my town, in an insurance office looking building across the street from my high school, then in a slightly more impressive office next to the local college’s stadium where my high school team played under Friday night lights. The present more lavish Browns’ offices seen in the Kevin Costner vehicle Draft Day are still in Berea, but in land annexed from a neighboring town that wasn’t part of Berea while I lived there.

 

It was in this industrious little town that my friends and I developed our own version of Calvinball. We called it Australian Rules Basketball.

 

Australian Rules Basketball was a mash up of two sports. It was house driveway court basketball that allowed for checking like in ice hockey. We called the game ‘Australian Rules Basketball’ because with no one around to explain the rules behind Australian Rules, it looked to us as if the players were constantly checking up against each other. As for how a handful of teenage Bereans growing up in the 70s & 80s, pre-internet and pre-cable, knew anything about Australian Rules Football, you can thank UHF channels for that, the local independent media stations, (the ‘UHF’ stood for Ultra High Frequency), that were accessed by the dial below the upper dial. The upper dial was reserved for the major networks affiliates, at that time there were only 3, that broadcast nationally throughout the United States. The lower dial of local stations had time to fill, and occasionally filled that time up with marks, behinds, and goals on the ovals of Australia.

 

The first bounce of the first (and so far only) footy match I attened, 2008 MCG match between Fremantle & Colingwood.

The first bounce of the first (and so far only) footy match I attended, 2008 MCG match between Fremantle & Colingwood.

When bored due to inclement weather or not wanting to watch soap operas or TV news magazines, we’d watch anything peculiar to our tiny suburban world of limited reach. A sport only played in the country Men At Work came from attracted us for its novelty. All we knew about Australian Rules Football then came from that dial down under. I didn’t realize until many years after first watching the music video for “Be Good Johnny” that when Colin Hay’s bullying interrogator asks ‘You gonna play football this year, John?’, he didn’t mean grid iron football, but Australian Rules.

 

In a sense, the basketball/hockey mash-up that was our Australian Rules Basketball was basically basketball with the removal of most fouls. Charging was never called. The person with the ball could barge into whomever they wanted as long as they weren’t traveling with the ball. Another way of looking at it is there were no personal and flagrant fouls, but there were still technical fouls. You couldn’t hit or push with your hands, just your shoulders. We weren’t barbarians. This was Australian Rules Basketball, not Mad Max Basketball.

 

Interestingly, the inventor of the basketball, Canadian-born James Naismith, had a Mad Max Basketball problem early on in the creation of basketball. In the only extant recorded interview with Naismith, recorded in the year he died, 1939, a recording uncovered by Dr. Michael Zorgy, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, Naismith regrets not having assigned enough rules initially to properly contain the dangers of the game –

 

“Well, I didn’t have enough, and that’s where I made my big mistake. The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free for all in the middle of the gym floor. Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several had black eyes, and one had a dislocated shoulder. It certainly was murder.”

 

As Naismith correctly diagnosed, the absence of certain rules promotes gang warfare, encourages gamesmanship, not sportsmanship. And as my childhood friends and I would soon discover, the inclusion of certain rules could be dangerous as well.

 

We played Australian Rules Basketball at my friend Greg’s house. Even though other friends had hoops in their driveway, we always played at Greg’s for some reason. One day when I was checked while trying to rebound, I stretched out my arm to brace myself against one of Greg’s garage doors. Except it wasn’t the garage door. It was one of the small square garage windows. And the force with which my friend checked me sent my arm through that fragile glass barrier. After the crash, and likely an ‘Oh, Shit!’, we all froze like a highlight snapshot.

 

After a moment frozen in time, perhaps long enough for shards of garage door window to fall to the concrete floor of Greg’s garage, a few of those present at this accident bolted home. Such are moments when you find out who your true friends are. Only a few of us remained including myself, the bleeding one.  ‘What the hell we gonna do?’ was likely said.

 

Did I mention this game was being played when Greg and his family weren’t home?

 

Well, they weren’t.  We didn’t even know if we were allowed to play in their driveway while they were gone. So close we felt to Greg’s family, we never thought to ask. Upon accidentally vandalizing Greg’s garage, my friend Brian brought us back to reality with the obvious,  ‘Greg’s dad is gonna be pissed!’

 

Those of us who didn’t desert the scene went to our piggy bank equivalents at our respective homes and pooled money together. We put that money in an envelope in which we also included a note apologizing to Greg’s family for breaking his garage door window.

 

I’m sure I went and got my hand addressed. Strangely, this is one of the aspects of the incident I don’t remember. All I remember is the visceral, my hand thrusting through glass, and the fear of Greg’s dad’s wrath.

 

If only that garage window had been made out of the same material as this sign.

If only that garage window had been made out of the same material as this sign.

The consequences ended up not being that bad. Greg’s dad didn’t yell at us. I’m not even sure if the money covered the cost of replacing the window since he didn’t ask for more. I figure he was rewarding the good behavior following our bad behavior by not asking for the next three month’s allowances from each of us. And funny thing is, Greg ended up breaking his garage window soon after by trying a between the legs shot from the driveway across the street. I think he even broke the same window my Heisman-ing hand did.

 

Years later, after getting a job in San Francisco with a company that at the time had a Melbourne office, I was able to reconsider the game I saw through temperamental reception snow on my TV while growing up. A Melbourne Demons supporter co-worker asked me to join his Footy tipping pool. When it came time to choose a club to barrack for, my Cleveland underdog roots led me to decide to choose a club outside of Melbourne and Sydney. Of the five options at that time, I chose the Fremantle Dockers because I liked dockworker black hats and coats. My choice was sartorial, not statistical. That was 2003, the first year Fremantle ever made it into Australian Rules equivalent of the ‘playoffs’. I have been an avid follower ever since, my fandom now encouraged by what the internet has made available. Considering the time zone difference, I much appreciate the AFL’s next day match highlight videos, making it easier for me to obtain a narrative of the match rather than just snippets of success or failure. (And, please, I beg you, don’t make the Grand Final a night game. I’m getting old and can’t stay awake late into the night anymore.)

 

My days playing Australian Rules Basketball came back to me while watching Cleveland’s favorite Australian Matthew Dellavedova jump around the court in Game 3 of the 2015 NBA Finals in Cleveland. Barreling towards misguided passes from opposing players, showing what many called ‘grit’ and LeBron himself called ‘steel’, I realized that I was seeing in Delly something close to the living embodiment of Australian Rules Basketball from the hard driveways of Berea. I have some issues with the other two major Cleveland sports teams I won’t go into here. But I have only felt loyal to one Cleveland team, the Cavaliers. Some of this may have to do with winning one of the two academic scholarships given out by the Cleveland Cavaliers when I was a senior in high school. When the team where I live, Golden State Warriors met the team where I grew up, the Cavs, in the finals, I had to make a choice. The Warriors were my Western Conference team in the NBA like the San Francisco Giants were my National League team in Major League Baseball. But Cleveland raised me, so the NBA Finals became Cleveland or nothing. As usual, (Cleveland hasn’t won a major championship since 1964 and have several devastating close moments since), this Cleveland boy got nothing.

Your author looking sad in his Cavs shirt next to the the Warriors NBA Finals trophy.

Your author looking sad in his Cavs shirt next to the Warriors NBA Finals trophy.

 

I, like many Clevelanders, adore Delly. I love how many Australians have entered the NBA in recent years because Delly and the other Australian players enable a chance for me to not so casually evangelize for the AFL since so many of these Australian NBA players grew up playing Australia’s unique game. (Both sports have early histories of being an option for athletes of other summer sports, baseball and cricket respectively, to stay fit during the winter months.) I know Delly supports the Collingwood Magpies, Andrew Bogut of the Golden State Warriors barracks for the Essendon Bombers, and Patty Mills of the San Antonio Spurs roots for  the Adelaide Crows. And let’s not forget the first Australian to play in the NBA, Luc Longley of the Chicago Bulls, is a fellow Dockers fan. I know these players, especially those hailing from the state of Victoria, had to play Australian Rules as kids. If they hadn’t, their schoolmates would have picked on them like the bully in “Be Good Johnny”. And now that the pipeline is going the other way, American college basketball players changing codes for Australian Rules Football, such as Jason Homes for St. Kilda and Mason Cox for Collingwood, I have even more evangelical angles to advocate for the game over here in the northern hemisphere.

 

During the 2015 NBA Championship series between the Cavs and the Golden State Warriors, there was lots of talk about how Delly embodied ‘Cleveland’ through his style of play. Yes, there is something ‘Cleveland’ in his grit, his steel, his tenacity. There is a Cleveland in his awkwardness too. That off balanced shot he took in Game 3 that miraculously went in, that’s basketball style equivalent of what we used to call the ‘Full Cleveland’, a male sartorial ensemble from the 70’s/80’s of coaching shorts pulled up past the navel and white socks pulled up past the knee. That shot was my old neighbor’s forever fixer-upper car forever up on cinder blocks in his front driveway. But don’t go saying he is the ‘most’ Cleveland. (Akron native LeBron has way more claim on that.) It’s important not to isolate ‘being Cleveland’ as one thing. Cleveland is many things. The folks who are completely indifferent to Cleveland sports teams are just as much Cleveland as the fanatical season-ticket owners. There is no one quintessential Clevelander, there are many. The Cavaliers are a hodgepodge of various Cleveland masculinities and Delly is just one of those. The Cavs’ former coach David Blatt did say Delly was the most ‘Cleveland-like Australian’ he’d ever met. That is something more nuanced. That’s not saying he represents Cleveland more than anyone else, just that he has Cleveland in him.

But maybe us all dilly-dallying about Clevelanding Delly keeps us from seeing what Delly has really done. He is Australianizing the game of basketball. He has brought Australian Rules-like tactics, such as a willingness to barge into players to get the ball. When he lunges towards the ball bouncing away or a wayward pass from an opposing player, he is almost ‘marking’ the ball. Now, if only he could make every three-point shot like Eddie Betts of the Crows seems to effortlessly kick goals from the pocket, then I’d have more confidence that Cleveland will finally win one of the big three sports’ championships in my lifetime.

Cleveland is the city everyone in the US picked on, or else it seemed like it when I was growing up. It is weird to see folks wearing Cleveland gear proudly. I see less of it in Warriors nation, but the other day, I saw a very tall man walking towards where I was standing waiting for the bus. He had a Cleveland Cavaliers shirt on underneath a New York Yankees jacket. (Now there’s a weird juxtaposition. I grew up hating the Yankees, which is why I have an irrational hatred for Collingwood since they share a sartorial semiotics of black and white stripes.) I asked this guy if he was from Cleveland. He said ‘No, I’m just a fan of Delly.” And I had heard just enough of his accent to figure he was from Australia. He actually said he used to play for the Kangaroos and the Swans. He told me his name but I didn’t catch it, as awestruck meeting a former player as I was at still trying to figure out his bizarre juxtaposition of allegiances to both the Cavs and the Yankees. Needless to say, I’ve been hoping to run into the guy again in our neighborhood of the Richmond District, a part of San Francisco named years ago by an Australian who said it resembled that part of Melbourne. (Would I have known this when choosing my club, I would have become a Tigers supporter.)

 

Some of us Clevelanders growing up during the time when ‘The Mistake on the Lake’ was the butt of the nation’s jokes developed a self-deprecating humor as a defense mechanism to deflect against Cleveland bullying. That kid bullied in the Men At Work music video, he’s Cleveland too by the fact that he’s always getting picked on.  I was a huge fan of Men At Work when I was young. Little did I know when listening to their cassettes that I’d grow up to love a sport from down under I wasn’t even aware was briefly noted in one of that band’s classic tracks. Ones sporting passions, ones sporting affiliations, can be a weird mob of influences. You can end up being an Australian Rules footballer in San Francisco wearing a Cavs shirt under a Yankees jacket. Or you can end up being a kid from Cleveland rooting for the Fremantle Dockers while living in San Francisco.

About

Adam Hartzell writes most often about South Korean cinema, with other interests in Sports films and portrayals of physical disability in cinema. Keeping references to footy here, he wrote about Australian Rules Football films for the website THE FILM JOURNAL, he wrote about FALLING FOR SAHARA (Khoa Do, 2011) for VCinemaShow, and he wrote a piece on Peter Bell's Australian Rules Football Hall of Fame induction for KOREAM magazine.

Comments

  1. Great article Adam! As someone who’s knowledge of Cleveland up to now barely stretched beyond rivers catching on fire, baseball fans rioting after an afternoon of free beer and the (utterly pointless) Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame it was great to hear from the passionate heart of a gritty American city. One only imagine what a trip 80s Australian footy must’ve been for a boy from Ohio!

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    A very enjoyable read Adam. Welcome, perhaps we might get a Dockers match report from you this year.

  3. Loved it Adam. It is never irrational to hate Collingwood!

  4. Thanks for this Adam, a great yarn.

    For what it’s worth, the players I can remember playing for the Kangaroos and Swans are Mark Roberts (also played for the Brisbane Bears), Wayne Schwass, Shannon Grant, Craig Holden and Dan Currie. The tall ones out of those two would be Roberts (about 6’4″, is about 50 years old now) and Currie (was with the Swans for a few years without playing a senior game before North, now moved on to the Gold Coast, 6”6″ and 27 years old).

  5. atomberea says

    Thanks everyone for the kind comments and thanks Noelmc for giving me permission to hate Collingwood. ;)

    And Rob C, I was actually was thinking of making a parenthetical request for help on who this former Shinboner/Swan was, so thanks for researching. Based on what you say here, sounds like Dan Currie might be the guy I’m looking for. If I find him again, perhaps he’d let me interview him for Footy Almanac. We’ll see.

  6. A great read, love watching Delly and Patty and sometimes Bogut, there are plenty more coming your way.
    Another player from North Melbourne to Swans is Wayne Schwass or shwatter. And Shannon Grant moved from Swans to North Melbourne.

  7. Hi Adam. Really enjoyed this. I stopped over one night in Cleveland in 1997 on my way back to Ithaca New York. We crashed at my friend’s cousin’s student accommodation. Didn’t get to see the city unfortunately. We had been in St Louis and I have since followed the STL Blues due to my visit to that city, that I barrack for Caltton and of course love to watch ice hockey. Hope to read more from you on the Almanac.

  8. jan courtin says

    Very interesting Adam. I lived in Berkeley for several months in the 1984 – during our footy season – and remember greatly looking forward to watching the one game a week of AFL that was shown on television there. It was always shown at about 12 noon local time, and I think on a Friday.

    I used to walk from the Berkeley campus, up and up those hills, to a friend’s house, overlooking the Bay. She would leave a key for us to enter, and we’d spend two glorious hours watching our wonderful game. When the 1984 Grand Final was shown and our American friends were at home, they simply couldn’t believe that they’d never heard of Aussie Rules, let alone realised what a superb game it is.

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