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BRENDAN McCARTHY: Honouring the phenomenon that is Carl English

In total, Carl English played about 60 games for the St. John’s Edge, but his impact over two seasons was such that the retirement of his jersey Sunday during a ceremony at Mile One Centre seems far from inappropriate. — St. John’s Edge file photo/Joe Chase
In total, Carl English played about 60 games for the St. John’s Edge, but his impact over two seasons was such that the retirement of his jersey Sunday during a ceremony at Mile One Centre seems far from inappropriate. — St. John’s Edge file photo

On Sunday, he'll go back to Mile One to watch his Edge jersey retired and to say thanks

On Sunday afternoon, for the first time this season, and quite likely the only time this season, Carl English will attend a St. John’s Edge game at Mile One Centre, where he once ruled the court and emphatically declared “This is my house.”

It is not his home anymore. But on Sunday, it will be a house packed with his friends, most of whom he’s never met.

Carl English, the Newfoundland basketball phenomenon, is being honoured as the Edge retire his jersey and he gets the opportunity to deliver a sort of official thank you to fans for their support throughout his two seasons as the undeniable star player of the National Basketball League of Canada team.

The “phenomenon” label, at least as applied here, is not so much about the skill that made English an international basketball star. It’s about the fact his time with the Edge amounted to less than 10 per cent of a stellar, high-level career.

Nevertheless, for only the second time in the almost 20-year history of pro sports at Mile One, a jersey of someone who played out of the building is being retired.

The first was that of Nathan Dempsey, who appeared in almost 550 regular-season and playoff games for the AHL’s St. John’s Maple Leafs over nine seasons, most of them as the team’s captain.

(As an aside: the fact there had been a Mile One retirement ceremony for Dempsey is largely forgotten is because the banner denoting the honour and anything else associated with the AHL Leafs was removed from the Mile One rafters years ago, never to be seen again).

As brief as English’s career in St. John’s might have been, especially considered in the scope of his entire playing history, Sunday’s ceremony cannot not be seen as inappropriate.

Yes, the Edge are undoubtedly hoping this reflects well on them after the fallout from what was a badly damaged recent relationship between English and the organization, and without question, there is Newfoundland nationalism at play. But even then, there is something more to all of this, otherwise you would have to think there would be a collateral move to have Adam Pardy’s number raised to the Mile One rafters.

After all, like English, Pardy is someone from rural Newfoundland who found success in professional sports, came to make metro St. John’s his off-season home and finished up a lengthy pro hockey career — in his case, one that included nearly 300 NHL contests — playing for a team out of Mile One Centre. But while Pardy appeared in a total of 63 games — including 33 at Mile One — for the Newfoundland Growlers last season, and helped them win an ECHL championship, there is no apparent movement for a ceremony to formalize the Bonavista native’s retirement as a player.

But for English, he of 61 total games — 35 at home — with the Edge, Sunday’s ceremony nevertheless seems befitting.

I believe it’s because it’s about a legend who came home.

For nearly two decades, English was a legend in that he and his on-court accomplishments were something heard about, but rarely seen in these parts. Yes, we got a glimpse of him with the University of Hawaii at the NCAA tournament and from time to time during his lengthy tenure with Canada’s national team. And he got back to Newfoundland for a couple of months each summer. But otherwise, especially as he toiled in Europe’s top basketball leagues — in Croatia, Greece, Italy, Spain and Germany — his basketball story was something that was a little akin to folklore.

And then came the Edge.

Over the years, English had frequently been a recruiting target of the NBLC, but the talks had never gone far. That changed when St. John’s got an expansion franchise.

“It was always intriguing, the possibility of playing home in Canada, but with the (NBLC) salary cap, once they started talking about what they would be paying you, then the talks get shut down quickly,” he said.

“But once it was about going to Newfoundland, it all became different.”

Still, while the fit seemed natural, there wasn’t an immediate and clean dovetailing of the two sides. Not everyone associated with setting up the new team was so keen on meeting English’s terms. But after months of negotiations — with Glenn Stanford, then part of the Edge establishment, working hard as a middle man — English was on board, tasked with being the face of the franchise off the court and the playing star on it.

And he delivered.

Earlier this week, on CBC Radio’s Morning Show, and after some prompting by host Maggie Gillis, English agreed on his importance to the franchise.

“I was the Edge,” he said.

You might see that as self-aggrandizing or cocky or brash. But you can’t say he is wrong.

English was the Edge as he earned NBL Canada’s MVP honours that first season, setting a league record with 58 points in a home-court win over the KW Titans, leading the expansion team into the second round of the playoffs and headlining the team’s works and promotions in the community.

He was the Edge as he worked steadily as the team’s interim general manager the following off-season and during the team’s second year, even when he struggled through a litany of injuries that had English, less than two years away from his 40th birthday, taking ibuprofen pills like Tic-Tacs and spending as much time with athletic therapists as his family.

And he still was the Edge even though his playing schedule was halved by the hurting and despite the presence on the roster of as large a personality as former NBA champion Glen “Big Baby” Davis.

But he is no longer the Edge.

While his arrival to the team might have been described as a little bumpy, English’s exit was downright rocky. It was a big-time falling out, with the team showing little interest in bringing him back as a player and English claiming management had not met its contractual obligations to him.

The dispute has since been settled, enough so that Sunday’s ceremony won’t be so uncomfortable as to be impossible. And while English has mentioned the possibility about some future re-connection, there doesn’t seem to much expectation of it actually happening, certainly not this year.

But today, as the team prepares to celebrate his career, English is expressing his appreciation to the Edge for giving him the opportunity to play in Newfoundland.

“It was amazing to come back home and finish my career in front of my friends and family and the fans from all over the province,“ he said. “It’s allowed me a chance to put my stamp on the game here and hopefully inspire a lot of young people.

“For that, I'll always be thankful to (the Edge), because they helped make it happen.

“But it’s ended. It’s not way I wanted it to end, but this is the way it ended.”

English also sees Sunday as a sort of jumping-off point. He’s already moved on to other things, with publication of a successful biography; some speaking engagements, including corporate motivational talks; his CE23 basketball camps; and continued work towards establishing a multi-sports complex.

“The biggest thing about (Sunday) is that it will allow me to thank the fans, all those who supported me during my two years playing there … and to especially thank all those who have supported me since the beginning, when I was a skinny kid playing basketball by the highway who should have never been able to get off the island.”

Carl English

Nevertheless, Sunday might stand as a date when he officially stopped being a player and started becoming something else.

Just what that might be, he’s not certain.

English has been approached about doing some work in broadcasting. He also says there have been some preliminary talks about having his life story turned into a movie.

“We’e working on it, but we’ve got to put the full-court press on to get it the right people involved,” he said. “With my book, the more the story gets out, the more people will understand it.

“I was actually approached in 2000 about a movie, but there's been a lot more that’s happened since then, a lot more to tell.”

He also finds himself listening, with a little amusement, to those suggesting he should consider a career in politics.

“I never close door on anything, to be honest,” he said. “I certainly have the sense of pride from being from here and growing up here, and If I believe there is something I can do to help this province, it’s intriguing.

‘But is politics something I'm open to right now? Aaagh, I’m not sure. I do know there are better candidates then me.”

He will find welcoming constituency on Sunday.

He will be speaking at the ceremony — “mostly off the cuff,” he said — and doesn’t believe he will get too emotional, although he might have to hedge his bet in that regard when it comes to addressing his wife Mandy and his three children.

“But I’ve been saying it all along, the biggest thing about this is that it will allow me to thank the fans, all those who supported me during my two years playing there,” said English, “and to publicly thank my family and to especially thank all those who have supported me since the beginning, when I was a skinny kid playing basketball by the highway who should have never been able to get off the island.

“I’m telling you now, the most genuine thing that will be said during the whole ceremony will be when I say, ‘Thank you.’”

Twitter: @telybrendan

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