Arcade Games: Courtside at Win Butler's Charity Basketball Game

Joined by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and NBA pros, Butler takes the court for a cause

Win Butler of Arcade Fire and Team Pop shoots a layup during the Pop v Jock charity basketball game on September 20th, 2014 in Montreal, Canada. Credit: Dominick Mastrangelo

In a hot gymnasium at Montreal's McGill University Sports Centre, a seven-foot tall, retired American basketball player named Luke Bonner is singing a passionate rendition of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know."

The crowd goes wild, fueled by cans of Molson Canadian, and Arcade Fire's Win Butler surveys the scene with glee. Bonner's energetic live karaoke performance – complete with fist-pumps and the occasional salsa footwork – is punishment for losing a three-point shooting competition a few moments ago. His opponent? Brother Matt Bonner, of the 2014 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.

It's all part of the halftime fun at this third edition of Pop vs. Jock. A highlight of the annual Pop Montreal festival, Butler puts together the charity basketball game to support local non-profit organization DJ Sports Club, which offers youth programs in sports and education. While the Jocks are top players from local universities Concordia and McGill, the eleven-member Pop team is basically a crew of basketball-loving indie rockers – with a little help from the pros. There's Butler, his brother and bandmate Will, the Strokes' Nikolai Fraiture, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Michigan State women's basketball star Alisa Wulff and NBA pros Brian Scalabrine and Royal Ivey. Matt Bonner is Team Pop's coach. 

Bonner sashays over to his brother to howl the "Every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back" line, and the audience hoots and hollers – but earnestly so, as Montrealers are wont to do. The crowd enthusiastically chimes in for the chorus, in part to help out their new buddy, but also to join the party. After all, this moment perfectly captures the quirky, joyful vibe of this music-meets-sports jamboree; of Pop Montreal, and this city's eccentric, inclusive, multifaceted charms.

To wit, the halftime show also featured a posse of preschoolers dancing around the court in plush animal costumes. And kazoos. Next up, though: a two-song set by the newly formed Pop All Star Band (the Butlers, Vernon, Fraiture, Kid Koala, surprise guest A-Trak and Arcade Fire member Régine Chassagne). They cover Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," followed by a brief version of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." Chassagne's vocal solo on the Collins cover gets the crowd, already on their feet, cheering.

"If you guys want to watch this later, it'll be on YouTube," Butler laughs, as cell phones flash like fireflies. And he was right:

Chassagne plays the organ throughout the game, while Kid Koala and A-Trak DJ. Songs like "Funky Cold Medina," "Jump" and "Supersonic" add punctuation to the action on court, but instead of cheerleaders, girls wave paper fans on the sidelines. There is the sound of obedient clomping up the gym's concrete staircases, and the air is filled with the faint aroma of chlorine and sweat. The crowd showed up early and cheered loudly throughout, though this being Montreal, ticket-holders lined up patiently and happily, fanned themselves with their red and white Pop vs. Jock programs and chatted each other up.

"Thanks for coming, we appreciate it," Butler welcomed the crowd. "The first game we won by two, the second game they won by three, so who knows what could happen."

Things start off light, with players introduced by their height and favorite foods – Avery Cadogan of the Jocks likes pizza, while his teammate Gabe Riche prefers poutine – before bounding onto the court and high-fiving and chest bumping each other with gusto. Then we get down to the business of basketball, and while Team Jock leads the first quarter 27-22, Pop rules the second, taking a 57-40 advantage into the half.

The jocks storm back in the third, tying the game at 71. The suspense is palpable, yet Team Pop keeps its cool – at one point, Scalabrini hangs from the rim, leading the announcer to quip "Even Team Jock is impressed" – and Win Butler drains a late three-pointer, leading Pop to a 101-92 victory. A medal ceremony brings the trophy back to the Pop camp, complete with handshakes, high-fives and Queen Elizabeth waves. It was a very polite celebration.