It’s coming, they say.
Canada’s development as a basketball nation has been slow – much slower than expected – despite two decades of NBA basketball, a strong grassroots base, a good reputation for coaching and player development, a massive increase in media exposure, and Steve Nash dragging a uninterested nation into legitimacy years before he would receive adoration or respect for doing so. For years, there has been a reverberating hope for Canada to take the lead for second place in-line behind the Americans for international basketball supremacy.
There are signs that this might be happening, but stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There are lots of people willing to tell you about the rise of Canadian basketball. Scott Cacciola writes in the New York Times, “the great democratization of the game has altered its landscape, sending the game west and east and even north — as in north of the border.” Alex Ballingall in the Toronto Star writes that the “golden generation” of young Canadian ballers is “a crop of players that represents a new historical apex of Canadian basketball output.” Masai Ujiri said in the National Post he’s felt “there [is] something waiting to happen.” For their coverage of the BioSteel High School All-Star Game, TSN was relentless in touting the next generation. Scouting services and coaches claim their players are all of these things — The! Next! Great! Talent! Is! Here! — but now the top tier of basketball takes them (more) seriously.
Monday’s news that the Toronto Raptors would be the 19th NBA team to get their own D-League team, named Raptors 905, is one more nugget of respectability to add to Toronto’s already growing cadre of basketball credibility. For any squad to get a D-League team is a sign in the right direction, and the Raptors continue to make strides to shed their past and have become an established team in the Eastern Conference. Suddenly, Toronto is being taken seriously as a basketball town and it is easy to see that it extends beyond the NBA. In recent years, scouts for big Division I schools have picked more talent from the GTA (notably overtaking New York City for developing basketball talent) and more of those players are making a name for themselves on a bigger stage. Toronto is, of course, not just one urban centre but many connected municipalities – an economy linked by a huge network of highways and small suburban cities feeding a nebulous urban mess, the majority of which sits outside the 416. Most of Ontario feeds off the energy of the GTA, which is a bright red zone on a heat map of growing basketball mania, stretching from Niagara to London to Orangeville to Ottawa.
When the basketball world descends on Toronto during 2016 All-Star Weekend, they’ll be on the home turf of a basketball fanbase that is growing in numbers and in intensity. It is a strange mix of diehards that have been beaten and beaten again by a franchise that has struggled like no other for two decades, paired alongside doe-eyed teenagers wearing throwback gear from when the team was terrible. A tension between those trying to forget the past and a new generation trying to relive it – unaware what is was like to have been through the fray and to fully understand the struggle and strife those purple dinosaurs represent. As this collective nostalgia for two decades of Raptors basketball shows, Toronto has grown into their mandate to be Canada’s basketball town. The All-Star festivities will be one celebration – Drake as the emcee of Toronto’s basketball bar mitzvah, our Raptors all grown up! Look at all of these people that showed up! I remember when they wore those adorable purple uniforms! Cute as a button they were! – but it’s deserved payoff for a basketball city that has long struggled for legitimacy.
For those paying attention, the rise of basketball in this country was not sudden, and it was never easy.
Some of these effects of this new popularity have been sudden. Raptors gear and merchandise from the NBA’s 29 other team are hot fashion items, visible on youth and adults throughout the country. TSN, the nation’s largest sports broadcaster, lost media rights for the NHL and doubled down on the NBA, aiding the increased notoriety for the NBA nationwide as it ripples across other media. Basketball is a sport but also pop culture: LeBron James and Steph Curry are suddenly household names across the country, there is Spurs gear in a Foot Locker in Winnipeg, Vancouver Grizzlies gear for sale in Halifax, and as far north as this country gets you will find Raptors fans. Canadians kids in suburban elementary schools are adopting sneaker culture and worshipping Jordans to an extent no other generation has before. Basketball is popular and cool – and attention inspires participation.
Jamal Murray, who you may have actually heard about, is a big deal. Other highly-recruited Canadian athletes, like Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson, went to private schools in the US that doubled as elite basketball academies. Murray is from Toronto and attended Orangeville Prep in Orangeville, Ontario, and next year he is one of John Calipari’s prized recruits at the University of Kentucky. The growing infrastructure of high-level programs for young players, highlighted by Orangeville Prep and elite AUU programs like CIA Bounce, doesn’t happen without the supporting infrastructure of volunteers, coaches, scouts, trainers and even refs who feed those organizations. Our most talented and most dedicated players no longer have to go to the US to develop or get exposure from top scouts. The best basketball people are regularly spending time in the country. It’s all connected.
There is an undeniable momentum in Canadian basketball, but now that we have so much more of an international stage and the respect of our peers, where do we go from here? The hard work of our collective hoops obsession is paying off, and now we have to start to wonder: what does success actually look like?
Exposure and popularity means nothing in terms of increased success on the court … until it does. Tristan Thompson, the Toronto-born breakout star of the NBA Playoffs, was of the first generation of players who grew up in a GTA that had always been home to NBA basketball. Thompson and his father who sat in the cheap seats at the SkyDome during the Raptors early years – an anecdote that was repeated throughout these past NBA Finals. Without an NBA franchise to stoke Thompson’s relentless basketball appetite, and without fuel for his tenacious work ethic, he may not have become an elite professional basketball player. Repeat a similar process a dozen times over for other GTA players like Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Olynck, Tyler Ennis, Nik Stauskas and Cory Joseph who all have stated the influence of the Raptors as an essential part of their love of basketball.
Setting ourselves up for failure (is a good thing)
Internationally, a new level of interest and talent injected into the Junior and Senior Canadian Men’s National Team is going to produce a lot of exciting basketball, but not necessarily successful basketball. This is fine, really, but there are going to be critics and naive fans looking for instant success. Expanding the audience for international basketball is going to create a learning curve for casual Canadian hoops fans: Wait, Spain is good at basketball? Lithuania… is something? And of course, people who think we have a chance for golden success at the top levels of basketball.
The ingredients for success are there, but the recipe is not. Our best stars are young, some of them teenagers, all of them trying to find their place in the basketball world. One of them plays professionally in Canada, while half of a best possible team are receiving NBA paychecks in Minnesota, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Boston, others are currently battling for positions on NBA Summer League rosters with the odds stacked against them to make an NBA line-up in come fall. The obligations for these athletes are numerous – an 82 games NBA season in enough in itself when you tack on community, league and sponsorship involvement. Players making it abroad as professionals in Europe and Asia have to devote their lives to pursuing their dream and making a living. A national team is a luxury, and many countries have had trouble retaining NBA players for quadrennial World Cup tournaments and even the Olympics, let alone lesser tournaments. Why should we expect or demand anything different? (Tristan Thompson played 102 games this NBA season and need not risk his next huge NBA contract by playing in the Pan Am games, alright?!) Right now, our absolute best as a basketball nation maxes out at a pretty good team – not a great team. Check in a year from now and we may be closer to that goal. Beating the Americans, and everyone else, is what we want to do. It is not going to be easy.
So what is our next step? Failure.
Failure with gloriously high ambition.
There will be a time when Canada can win big in an international competition, and finally the process has been shown to work. There is no reason to suggest there is anywhere to go but up… just not for a few years.
Those eager for Canadian success and stardom in the NBA should be patient or look to the recent past. Steve Nash is the most successful international basketball player in the history of the sport. (Take the ‘international’ qualifier away, and Nash is one of the defining superstars of the post-Jordan era.) A lingering fear that a superstar like Andrew Wiggins would never have a supporting cast has subsided, no longer will he have a burden like the one Nash endured during his international career. In this first year post-retirement from the NBA, Nash has taken on an essential leadership role as General Manager of the Senior Men’s National Team, ensuring that his expertise and wisdom will not be lost.
Canada has come of age as a basketball nation. We now have generations of knowledge, generations of players but a very new sense of self. Growing up and accepting the benefits and responsibilities of growing up can be an awkward process, though, sometimes the results calamitous. We have endured and we may have to endure more until success becomes deep rooted. But make no mistake: Canada is rising. It is happening right now.