When NBA basketball first arrived in Toronto 25 years ago it came as an entirely new sport to the country. It was, as one of the Toronto Raptors founders John Bitove said, much like Australian Rules Football or Rugby, a sport completely foreign to the country, usually reserved for a few gym classes in grade school.
Back then, in 1995, Canadians hardly knew how basketball worked, let alone basketball fandom. When Raptors cheerleaders handed out noisemakers at halftime of the team’s inaugural game, they handed them to fans behind the Raptors own basket to seemingly distract their own players at the free throw line. It prompted a laugh from then-NBA commissioner David Stern who elbowed Bitove to point out the obvious error.
“Are you guys teaching us something new?” Bitove remembers Stern joking.
Now, 25 years later, basketball has reached heights in Canada once considered unattainable by many.
“You had the entire hockey intelligentsia saying it would never last in this country,” Bitove said.
Despite the doubts, Bitove said he always had faith basketball would succeed in Canada. He grew up surrounded by the sport, first playing with his cousins in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and then later on when he attended Indiana University and watched those legendary Bobby Knight Hoosiers teams of the 80s.
“When you have an exciting basketball game, there is no other sport that is as riveting,” he said.
That’s a lesson millions of Canadians learned during the Raptors’ 2019-20 championship run. It wasn’t just the die-hard Raptors fans that tuned in to see Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry make their run to the Finals, but millions of Canadians from coast to coast tuned in and fell in love with the sport. Bitove said he’d chat with his friends who would gush over the Raptors, people once considered outside of basketball’s base democratic were now drawn to the sport in record numbers.
Today, Toronto’s residential streets are lined with basketball nets and children of all backgrounds shooting hoops in driveways and local parks.
“I even get emotional now thinking about it,” said Bitove, thinking about the streets in his old York Mills neighbourhood. “Anyone who questions whether we’ve arrived or not, the sport is here forever.”
The first 25 years of basketball in Canada have been an unequivocal success. Not only have the Raptors reached the pinnacle of the NBA, but Canadians have become household names throughout the league. It’s not just Steve Nash anymore, there’s Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, and an increasing number of extremely talented Canadians who are known throughout the league as Canadian stars.
It’d be hard for the next 25 years to top the previous 25 years in terms of success, but there’s still room for growth, Bitove said. Canadian fans are thirsting for more basketball and Bitove said teams in both Vancouver and Montreal could be viable if the league ever considers expansion.
“I think if they ever do expand, I think Canadian cities will be there,” he said. “Montreal has got an incredibly strong basketball fandom.”
Outside the NBA, the next step for basketball in Canada will be pulling all that talent together on the international stage and winning a gold medal at the Olympics, Bitove said.
“I know Glen Grunwald at Basketball Canada and Nick Nurse, the coach, and Rowan Barrett, the GM, are committed to that,” he said. “Just to be viewed globally as a basketball power and domestically to continue to have more kids playing, more people watching and more teams.”
If the next 25 years are as bright as the first 25, Canada will have no trouble reaching that next level and competing with our southern neighbours on the world’s biggest stage.