Saturday night might have been the lowest moment for the Toronto Raptors this season.
With Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Malachi Flynn, and Patrick McCaw all in COVID-19 protocols, the Raptors have looked lost lately. Coming into Saturday night they’d lost three straight and any hope for a turnaround against the Charlotte Hornets didn’t last long. It took all of four minutes for the Hornets to mount a double-digit lead and six minutes to put them up by 20.
Across the country Raptors fans mourned what would late become another embarrassing loss for Toronto. In Nova Scotia, however, there was a slightly different feeling.
It was right around the Hornets’ eighth first-quarter 3-pointer to put Charlotte up 22 points that Jason Darling began to get excited. It was admittedly a weird feeling for Jason, a lifelong Raptors fan, that a 22-point Raptors deficit was generating so much excitement. Had it been any other night, Darling would have been watching the Hornets at home on NBA League Pass casually paying attention to see if something special might happen. But on Saturday, the Hornets were playing Canada’s team, so this alone was cause for celebration.
“When the Hornets came out and broke out into the big lead early, we were all sitting thinking there’s a chance,” Jason said. “We were hoping they’d keep that lead into the fourth and they’d potentially play their bench.”
To some, Jason may sound like a Raptors traitor, but on this night his basketball allegiance was slit. It wasn’t the Raptors he was cheering for; it was his son Halifax’s Nate Darling he wanted to see make history becoming the first Nova Scotian to play in an NBA game.
With the Hornets up 21 late in the fourth quarter, Canadian basketball history was made.
“It was incredibly exciting, and it was emotional too,” Jason said. “I know what has gone into his efforts to get just to that point. Yeah, it was tremendous.”
At times over the past few months, Jason admitted he wasn’t sure if the moment would ever happen. Nate went undrafted in November and while NBA teams were certainly interested in his skills, nobody was telling the family he would for sure get playing time. So when it did happen, Jason said he broke down.
“I just kind of sat down by myself, by my fireplace, and started thinking about when he left [for prep school in Maryland] at 14 and sort of the ups and downs he’s faced, and the grind he’s gone through to just to get to that moment,” Jason said. “I was just really proud and happy.”
On November 2, 1946, Victoria’s Norm Baker became the first Canadian to play in an NBA game. Seventy-four seasons later, Canadian basketball has officially spanned the continent.
“There’s guys turning up everywhere. It’s good to see,” Raptors and Canada Basketball coach Nick Nurse said. “I think the depth of talent [in Canada] continues to show up all over the place.”
Nate played 3:34 on Saturday night. He attempted one shot, a 3-pointer that he missed, and he didn’t record any box score numbers. To him, the moment wasn’t a very big deal, Jason said. It was just a moment on a journey that he hopes is a lot bigger than four minutes of garbage time basketball. But back home in the Maritimes, it meant everything to Nova Scotia’s growing basketball community.
“Kids are saying, ‘hey, I could do that too,’ and it’s not just a dream, like, actually, it is proven it can be done,” said Jason, who coaches his other sons’ u14 and u10 basketball teams. “You can see it on their faces like they’ve got a renewed sort of, I don’t know what the word is, but their eyes are a little wider when you’re talking to them.”
Nate’s journey won’t stop here. As he continues to fight for playing time with the Hornets, just his being will inspire children in the Maritimes that there is a path for a select few to one day play in an NBA game.