Canadian Sports culture: the dilemma of four-on-four basketball

How four-on-four basketball reflects Canada’s unique sports paradigm

Photo credit / Japan Times

By: Grant Simms, SFU Student

One of the strangest things I’ve ever encountered was playing pick-up basketball in Vancouver for the first time. I’d previously been to Phoenix, where the pick-up culture is superb and there are a ton of talented players to be found on any given night at any LA Fitness location. So, when I walked into the YMCA in Vancouver and saw that, instead of playing full court basketball, everyone was playing half court four-on-four, it blew my mind — and not in a good way. I’d never seen pick-up basketball played in that format before. Never on any indoor or outdoor court I’d ever been on had people played using just half the court when there were enough players to play full court. That includes courts in LA, Hawaii, Ohio, and even Italy! This may not seem like such a huge deal, but when it comes to sports culture, trust me, it is. It shows that Canadians are living in a different sports paradigm than most of the world. In my opinion, this is certainly a factor in Canada’s poor international performances in basketball and soccer.

It’s no secret that Canada is a winter country. Surely, our climate and geography are a factor in Canada finishing third in the medal count for the 2018 Winter Olympics without being in the 2016 Summer Olympics’ top 10. Culturally, many Canadians understand, pla, or otherwise participate in winter sports. We experience these activities and the lifestyles surrounding them not just as sports, but as a fundamental part of daily life. 

It’s the exact same situation with soccer. With the relatively high level of Canadian participation in soccer, it’s ridiculous and confusing that the Canadian soccer team is ranked 75, six spots behind North Macedonia — a country I didn’t even know existed until I saw this list. 

To change this, Canada doesn’t need to spend more money or invest in better coaching. What Canadians need to do is stop playing these sports like you’d play hockey. What I mean is that hockey, due to requiring an entire ice rink, a full set of body armour, and other expensive items, is almost always played in a highly organized fashion with leagues, trainers, and costs. Basketball and soccer should be viewed as more of a ‘street’ sport that can be picked up for cheap, anywhere, with anyone, at any time, with little or no cost and formal structuring. Canadian basketball and soccer players don’t have the ‘street’ edge needed to become competitive with countries that do have this culture, but perhaps less resources. 

To show you what I mean, let me tell you about Andy Livingstone Park and its two huge soccer pitches. Based on my admittedly anecdotal yet consistent discussions with players at this park, at least 90% of the street soccer players are either visiting or have recently come to Canada from other countries with strong soccer cultures. With the organized games, the ratio is flipped, and the street soccer players are so much better. These players grew up in a soccer-centric culture — they understand that you can’t monetize, organize, and commodify all sports. The greatest players in these sports are bred in a sporting culture that is urban, hungry, and passionate before it is organized with expensive facilities and trainers. 

Basketball is the same. It needs to be played like it is in New York — hard nosed, full of trash talk, five aside. Not this mutated four-on-four thing that Candians anomalously prefer. When I play basketball in Vancouver, there’s no conflict, no swagger, no taunting, and little passion. These traits are what make basketball. This lack of steeping in street basketball culture is, arguably, the reason Andrew Wiggins lacks the ability and authority to assert himself on the court, and it’s arguably the reason he has never reached his true potential. 

It may be difficult to embrace the shift necessary to create a street sport culture because Canadian sports culture is relatively reserved. It’s a culture in which players will apologize for anything before they’ll push boundaries, compete hard, and possibly hurt someone’s feelings, or body, in the process. However, as the popularity of basketball and soccer continues to grow, this may change. But, that will only happen if players are allowed to play these sports the way they should be played — without too much structure and organization and with the freedom to express emotion, personality, and passion.