January 3, 2017


Since I started this blog in 2012, I've made a concerted effort to make it to at least one NBDL game each year. By and large (but not always), I've been successful in taking some time off to watch pro hoops below the NBA level. Last month, I took my fourth road trip in five seasons to the underbelly of the NBA. I stopped in Cleveland for one night (which I've already chronicled here and here) and then moved on to somewhere which I thought would be a little less cosmopolitan: Canton, Ohio. Turns out I might have been wrong.

I should probably start out by saying years and years ago (OK...decades ago) I really really wanted to make a trip to Canton because the Pro Football Hall of Fame is there. This was a time when football (and the New York Jets) was my number one sport, like when I was in high school and college. But as time passed, my urge to travel to Canton to visit a museum faded until the D-League resurrected my interest a few years ago. Finally I got to go and check the place out. The Canton-Erie NBDL swing has been on my radar for years.

So the point of making the run to Canton was obviously to see a Canton Charge home game. Canton is one of three original teams remaining in the NBDL (now the NBA Development League but I will continue to use NBDL), along with the Austin Spurs and the Oklahoma City Blue. Neither the Spurs nor the Blue (dumbest team name ever?) nor the Charge started their lives in their respective cities. The Charge started out in Huntsville, Alabama as the Huntsville Flight (awesome name, after the city's early space program history) before moving to Albuquerque and later Rio Rancho and becoming the Thunderbirds (also an awesome name) before finally landing in Canton as the Charge (NOT an awesome name), where they have been since 2011.

Considering the brief history of the D-League, the Charge's predecessor teams were relatively successful, making the Finals in 2004 while in Alabama and winning the whole shooting match in 2006 in their first season in New Mexico. Today, they are the D-League affiliate of the hated (by me) Cleveland Cavaliers as a wholly owned minor league franchise, meaning of course that Dan Gilbert is the owner. And let me say as a basketball fan if there's an owner I dislike more than Dan Gilbert, I'm not sure who it is. This dude proved he's petty and mean in his reaction the LeBron James bailing on the Cavs in 2010 and now loves everything to do with James now he's delivered him a title. And I don't say this because buying tickets for a Charge game in advance required me to use a special app on my phone and charged what I consider to be a worse than Ticketmaster fee on top of the gate price. Enough ranting. For now.

The Canton Brewing Company in downtown Canton. I'll explain later how awesome this place is.
Canton is one of those cities in the midwest's rust belt, a former center of manufacturing (originally agricultural implements and later iron) along a railroad route which has seen employers move their operations to places where it costs them a whole lot less to employ workers to make their products. Living in upstate New York for nine years I saw towns up and down the Erie Canal and Hudson River struggling with these same issues. The harm it can do to a community is significant.

The city was founded in 1805 and was named after the province in China with the same name. I know; totally random, right? Apparently the place was named by the town's surveyor after a trader whom he admired who had conducted business in China. Go figure. Other than its former place in American manufacturing history and its current place as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the town is also the adopted home of President William McKinley, who practiced law in the town before making a successful run at the Ohio governorship and then taking his talents to Washington as the Commander-in-Chief. It's pretty obvious when you are there. There are a lot of things named McKinley.

Considering the history of Canton and what I assumed would be an empty downtown center, I was a little apprehensive about my choice of hotels in the city. I love staying downtown in cities because it allows me to walk the city before and after the game (including to the arena) and really get a sense of what it's like to be there. While there seemed to be a number of chain hotels out near the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the choices for staying downtown seemed to be one: the McKinley Grand Hotel, which sounded pretty fancy but came with a decidedly un-fancy less-than-$100 per night price tag. Driving into the city pocked with vacant lots and a mixture of Richardson Romanesque (which is amazing) and late 1960s / early 1970s American concrete-heavy brutalist architecture (which is not amazing) didn't make me feel any better.

There's a reason I travel and the biggest reason is so I can go to places and make my own mind up what it's like to be there. And I have to say Canton is the greatest little town and the hotel was a good reflection of the town's overall spirit. Sure it looked a bit run down and the pool deck inside the hotel on the second level  with sliding glass doors leading directly to guest rooms seemed like it was an idea conceived in the early 1980s (it probably was) but other than that it was fine. Definitely worth less than $100 a night, which included free buffet breakfast. Just get to breakfast early. It's buffet but it runs out. I made it there before they ran out and filled up; my friend Bryan was less successful.

Also, if you are a D-League traveler like me (and look, I know probably nobody else out there goes on these crazy minor league hoops trips), the visiting team seems to prefer to stay at the McKinley Grand. Both the Raptors 905 team (which was the Charge's opponent the night we were there) and the Long Island Nets (opponent on the second night of the homestand) were bunked up at our hotel. I even got to say hi to former Wizard and current Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse in the lobby. 

Just an aside here. I shook hands with Jerry Stackhouse when he played for the Wiz about a dozen years ago and I have to say he had the softest hands I've ever shaken. I don't mean smooth, although they were. I mean like pillow soft, like his hands were filled with air. I shook hands again in Canton and they are definitely less soft. Maybe it's the age or maybe the Wizards have something special in that locker room.

The Canton Charge play their home games just down the street from the McKinley Grand at the Canton Memorial Civic Center. The building was built way back in 1951 and it is definitely of its time. The materials used are brick and stone on the exterior with glazed masonry inside along the concourses. Speaking of the concourses, they are extremely tight which is hardly surprising; I can't imagine concessions was the number one priority for arena design back in 1951. 

This is a great old building although I guess my one time visit and sense of nostalgia affected my judgment here. The main space was clearly built not for basketball but for performances on the stage at the west end of the arena. It works for hoops because the seating is all parallel (or perpendicular depending on your perspective, I guess) to the court, rather than being oriented towards the west end.

Despite the last paragraph, I can't get on board with the space frame inserted just below the roof structure and shown in the picture below. Those things have no place in architecture, whether being used as structure or just as decoration as they are at the Civic Center. Not good. I'm thinking it's a 1970s or 1980s addition.

The on court action that night was nothing much to write about so I won't write much about it. The Charge got killed by Raptors 905 (does this get abbreviated to "Raptors" or "905"?) by a score of 104 to 72. We kicked back and took it all in anyway along with a couple of Long Island Nets players sitting right in front of us in the smallish Civic Center seats. This is probably the first time I've attended a D-League game where I didn't root for the home team. I just couldn't; see the Dan Gilbert comments above. I didn't overtly root for the 905 either though.

That report wraps another NBDL game. That's six of the current 22 teams I've seen at home so far. Hopefully this thing settles down soon and teams stop moving around. It's getting close I believe which might have negative consequences for some communities but we'll get to that soon. 

Some final notes about Canton.

First of all, this place has a lot of soul. The city is not dwelling on the urban flight that took place in the last quarter of the 20th century. Instead, it has re-imagined itself as an arts town and has both public art displays and numerous galleries scattered around town. So despite the relatively empty feeling to some blocks, what is there is really cool and interesting. I hope it continues to develop and draws residents back in. There's clearly more than hoops happening at the Civic Center and the Palace Theater a few blocks down Market Avenue seems to be really promising.

Second, there are some awesome bars in town, which let's face it for me influences how I feel about a place a great deal. We had some drinks and snacks at the Canton Brewing Company down on Third Street before returning for dinner later the same day. The food was overall very good but the Scotch eggs (shown above) were maybe the best I've had (like ever!); it was the chorizo, I'm sure. Canton was a big brewing town at one time and one of the great things that Canton Brewing is doing is honoring the history of the town's beer making by replicating logos of historic beers of Canton on their glasses; I came home with two. Plus a metal brewery sign. Couldn't resist. The logo is incredible.

If you need a great place to hang out later in the evening, I'd recommend Conestoga Grill, which is a dark somewhat dank bar with some local beers on tap plus Heileman Old Style in 16 oz cans. And in case you are wondering, dark and somewhat dank are the best qualities one can find in a bar so those are compliments. Thanks to Natalie over at Canton Brewing for not only serving us over on Third Street but also pointing us to the Conestoga.

Finally, there's a nut and chocolate place in town named Ben Heggy's. I found this place while i was wondering around town the morning after the game and the smell of roasting nuts was irresistible. Unfortunately for me, I was out too early and the place was closed. But I ordered some for the holidays based on the smell alone. The one pound of mixed nuts I got mailed to me lasted barely a day and a half at my parents' place. I'll need two or three pounds next year, at least. I recommend you pick some up if you are ever in town.

What started out as a visit with a little apprehension on my part worked out about as well as it could. If it wasn't obvious, I'd go back to Canton in a second. Until then, I'll just keep mail ordering from Ben Heggy's. Great D-League stop. The best ever!

Hey, Mike! Show everyone how Wizards fans feel about the Cavs and their overrated point guard!

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