As I walked into the McGill gym last Sunday afternoon, the results of the second annual Pop vs. Jock – a charity basketball game put on by Arcade Fire’s Win Butler – seemed preordained. Watching McGill Redmen and Concordia Stingers effortlessly throwing down reverse double-pump slam dunks on the “Jock” end of the court, while a seven foot giant hefted a much smaller, bearded yoga instructor towards the rim by his underarms for a dunk on the “Pop” end during warm-ups, seemed to underscore the absurdity of Pop vs. Jock as a concept.
Not that the point of a charity game should be to display the best that competitive basketball has to offer. But at least during the warm-ups, it looked that we were about to witness the reverse equivalent of what would happen if Pop vs. Jock was not a basketball game but a battle of the bands – that is to say, this was going to be a rout.
Canadian DJ Kid Koala, looking dapper in a giant koala costume, played a remixed version of the national anthem. The players lined up facing each other and were introduced by a couple of announcers who had the charisma of radio hosts: people used to not hearing people laughing at their jokes. Some of the standouts from the Pop team were Arcade Fire members Win Butler and his brother, Will, alongside The Strokes bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and Martin Starr of Freaks and Geeks fame.
The aforementioned seven-foot giant turned out to be pro-baller Luke Bonner, the brother of the NBA’s Matt “Red Rocket” Bonner, while the diminutive yoga instructor was introduced as Ryan Leier, a former college player who now resembles a Norse hero because of his bushy blonde beard. On the more anonymous Jock team, there were surprisingly few McGill players, but it was possible to pick out Redmen guard Karim Sy-Morissette and Martlet point guard Dianna Ros.
Once the game started, it became clear that despite the obvious discrepancy in athleticism, the game wasn’t going to be the one-sided affair warm-ups had foretold.
Win Butler proved himself a savvy post player, threading graceful no-look passes to cutting teammates. His younger brother, though relatively inept as a player, had the energy of a pre-teen riding high on endorphins; he bounded around the court even when he was supposed to be on the bench. Beneath Leier’s outward yogi was a pretty well-rounded basketball IQ, manifested in his effectiveness as an unselfish point guard. Starr, for his part, led the Pop team to a late first quarter comeback.
After coming into the game in the second quarter, Fraiture seemed put off when a soaring jock tried to block his breakaway layup and tumbled down on top of him. But he seemed unfazed a moment later when he came back down the court and made good on a short jumpshot, raising his hands to the sky afterwards in delight to form the pose of a Vector cereal posterboy.
At halftime, the game was still neck and neck, with the Jocks holding on to a narrow 46-43 lead. The halftime show began with a disorienting glow-in-the-dark roller disco session, the rules of which were unclear. Afterwards, Talking Heads’ lead singer David Byrne teamed up with Fraiture and the Butler brothers to perform covers of “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians, and then K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like it).” The crowd was almost as delighted as Will Butler.
The second half was no less close than the first. Highlights included the Jocks making a series of impressive putback dunks, a small child in the crowd holding up a cardboard sign that read, “Basketball was originally played with a soccer ball until it was changed in 1920,” and an excited Will Butler trying in vain to distract Jocks taking foul shots by furiously twirling towels and jumping up and down behind the basket.
The real drama came in the final moments of the game, though. With just over a minute left on the game clock and the Pop team down by a few points, a referee made a questionable foul call on a Pop player that enraged Win Butler. Butler threw his hands in the air and got in the ref’s face before stomping to the other end of the court yelling profanities like, “That’s weak shit!”
A minute later, Leier took his first and only shot of the game, a heroic three-pointer that tied the game up and sent the crowd into hysterics. But a referee called the shot off, probably for no other reason than to see if he could make Win Butler’s head explode, which it almost did. But, seeing the advantage his status as a world-renowned rockstar afforded him over a university-level referee, Butler grabbed a microphone and threw the decision to the crowd. He faced us and said, “Because this is a charity game, we’re going to let you decide!”
The people spoke, the basket counted, and at the last second a Jock hit a cool three-pointer that sealed his team’s victory.
The teams celebrated as Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blasted from the speakers – a final attempt by Pop to steal glory from the Jocks.
As the crowd filed out, gold confetti burst out of two confetti machines and rained down over Pop and Jock alike.