The Canadian Basketball Revolution

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With all due respect to lacrosse lovers everywhere, hockey is Canada’s national sport. NHL games attract a huge television audience in Canada—Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals attracted a whopping 8.7 million viewers north of the 49th parallel—and the arenas of the seven Canadian NHL teams are consistently sold out. Canadians themselves make up over 50 per cent of the players plying their trade in the NHL.

But, as close to the hearts and minds of Canucks as hockey undoubtedly is, Canadians are also embracing another team sport, both from a spectator and a participation standpoint. That sport is basketball; a game invented by Dr. James Naismith, himself a native of Almonte, Ontario.

On June 26, sixty players were drafted into the National Basketball Association. By all accounts, the 2014 NBA draft was the deepest in over a decade. Prior to the draft, Chad Ford (college basketball and draft expert for ESPN) asserted that the player who went as low as seventh in Thursday’s draft—who turned out to be Julius Randle—would’ve gone first overall last year. Any team who had a lottery pick (one through 14) now possess a player who can have a real impact in the league, and anyone who selected in the top five could have a perennial All-Star on their roster.

 

Photo: Jason DeCrow/AP Photo


Eight Canadians were in contention to be drafted last night, and four made it to the podium—a new record for Canada. Dwight Powell was drafted in the second round, while Michigan sharpshooter, Nik Stauskas, and Syracuse point guard, Tyler Ennis, were picked eighth and 18th overall, respectively. Both men look set to make a big impact next season on their respective teams.

But all eyes—both in Canada and in the United States—were on Jayhawks standout Andrew Wiggins, a native of Vaughan, Ontario. Coming out of high school Wiggins was the sure-fire first overall pick—he had been billed, perhaps unfairly, as the best prospect since LeBron James. However, questions about his ability to lead a team, and the emergence of his Kansas teammate, Joel Embiid, had knocked him off the top of most people’s mock drafts.

With Embiid likely to miss the coming season with a stress fracture in his foot (a huge red light for any team looking to draft a big man) the Cleveland Cavaliers, drafting first overall, selected Wiggins, a player who will slot in perfectly for them at their vacant small-forward position. Wiggins, who was sporting a very bold, black and white floral tuxedo, walked up to the podium to shake Adam Silver’s hand and to make history. The Cavaliers’ pick ensured that Canada became the first country, outside of the U.S., to produce first overall picks in consecutive drafts.

Simply put, Thursday night was a historic one for Canadian basketball. There had never been more than two Canadians selected in the same NBA draft, and between 2001 and 2010 no Canadian player was taken. Granted, there have always been Canadians playing in the Association, and turning heads—Steve Nash put Canadian basketball on the map, winning the league MVP in 2005 and 2006, and players like Jamaal Magloire and Joel Anthony have had long NBA careers and have done their country proud.

 
Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images
 

But the trickle of Canadian players entering the NBA has turned into a deluge in recent seasons. Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Cory Joseph of the San Antonio Spurs (now an NBA champion) were drafted in 2011, and last season Anthony Bennett, a native of Brampton Ontario, became the first Canadian ever to be drafted first overall. Heading into next season there will be a total of thirteen Canadian players on NBA rosters across the league. Canada has never been better represented in the NBA.

But why the sudden influx of talented Canadian ballers?

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that part of the appeal of basketball, aside from the aesthetic merits of the sport itself, is its inclusivity. Ask any parent whose kid is enrolled in hockey and they will tell you how outrageously expensive it is—pads, skates, sticks, rink fees. Hockey prices-out most people of a lower economic status, but anyone can play basketball. All you need is a hoop, some sneakers and a ball.

The real watershed moment in Canadian basketball, however, came in 1995—the inaugural season for the Toronto Raptors. Prior to that point the NBA was a league that operated solely in the United States, and while it had its die-hard fans in Canada, it was a league that seemed distant—somewhat untouchable. Toronto was a city dominated by the Blue Jays and Maple Leafs. But when the Raptors—and to a lesser extent, the Vancouver Grizzlies—established a home in Canada, a generation of young fans became inspired by a team playing basketball in their own backyard.

While the majority of those kids simply became die-hard NBA fans for life, some of them were also inspired to take up the game of basketball and to dream of replicating what they saw on a nightly basis at the Air Canada Centre.

 

Photo: Getty Images


Vince Carter, a man vilified for his ugly exit from the Toronto Raptors in 2004—but also the greatest player to have ever worn a Raptor jersey—inspired a generation of young Canadian ballers, in the way Canadian hockey players were inspired by watching Doug Gilmour play for the Leafs.

Tristan Thompson and the Boston Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk have both spoken openly about how much they idolized Carter (his unforgettable Slam Dunk Contest victory in 2000 can be seen as a defining moment for Canadian basketball) and Andrew Wiggins, to the delight of many optimistic Raptors fans, has mentioned to the media on more than one occasion, that he grew up cheering for the boys in purple.

As much as the Raptors have struggled since entering the league, the team—and Carter, in particular—have left a huge legacy, both in terms of community centres built and paid for by the organization, and inspirational moments on the court. It is a legacy that has shaped the current crop of super-talented, super-motivated Canadian ballers.

And the influx of Canadians into the NBA is unlikely to stop anytime soon. Wiggins looks set to be a star in the NBA, and while Carter (a Floridian by birth) inspired a generation of Raptor-loving Canadians, a homegrown talent like Wiggins could have an even greater impact on young Canucks dreaming of playing basketball at a high level. When asked prior to the draft why he wanted to go first overall, Wiggins himself stated, “it would mean a lot to my country.” It definitely did.

On the international stage, years of developing the game in Canada should bear fruit in Rio, at the 2016 Olympics. Team Canada hasn’t qualified for Olympic competition since 2000, but Canada now possesses a roster of players—a golden generation—that rivals the depth of any country outside of the USA. It might be too early to expect a medal in 2016, but by 2020, if all goes to plan, Team Canada should be a real contender.

Hockey is, and might always be, Canada’s national sport, but with Canadians invading the NBA, the country might just have room for another. Dr. Naismith would be proud. 

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