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(MATTHEW SHERWOOD FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(MATTHEW SHERWOOD FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why Toronto is becoming Basketball City Add to ...

Toronto, basketball city.

It’ll never happen, say the hockey diehards. But as the Raptors kicked off their season this week, it’s worth underlining the significance of a recent prediction made by outgoing Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., CEO Tim Leiweke. In 10 years, he said, as demographic change chisels away at our collective tastes, the Raptors will be more popular than the Maple Leafs. To borrow Mr. Leiweke’s phrase, that’s a bloody big cultural shift.

Hundreds packed Jurassic Park, the square outside the Air Canada Centre, on Wednesday to exult in basketball’s return. They massed willingly in the cold just to be near the arena, hoping the Raptors might be that rarest of local standard-bearers: a contender. Confetti fired from a cannon added a sense of occasion to the start of the Raptors 20th season, all to the delight of a crowd that was notably younger and more culturally diverse than those that turn up at this city’s hockey, baseball or soccer games. As Mr. Leiweke put it in his speech at Ryerson University last month, having observed the same crowd last spring during a playoff run that brought thousands of crazed fans to the square, “It takes you about one second to figure out where all this is going.”

Jerry Formoso, 43, a Raptors fan in a logo t-shirt and toque who was born in the Philippines, stood with his two nieces in the brisk evening air. He watched the Raptors in year one, and he’s still around for year 20, he said. He can sense the buzz about the team this year. People are talking about them as a winner. Tickets are harder to come by. His hopes are high.

It’s fitting that the game is taking off here. It was invented by a McGill man, of course, and the first international player in the NBA was a Canadian, Hank Biasatti, born in Italy but who came to Canada as a child. He played with the Toronto Huskies in 1946, before going on to also play pro baseball. This year, with 12 Canadians having secured NBA contracts and at least three others on the margins of the league, Canada has more players in the NBA than any country outside the United States. Five of them are from the Greater Toronto area, including the last two top picks in the draft, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett.

It’s an incredible amount of talent, a reflection of the growth competition that has made Toronto, for the moment at least, the top basketball hotbed in the world.

The game is being played by 354,000 Canadian kids, according to the Youth Sports Report, making it the third most popular team sport, after soccer and hockey. But among new Canadian kids (and immigrants make up half Toronto’s population), basketball ranked second. It’s also more popular than hockey among girls, with more than 100,000 participating.

“There’s no learning curve, everybody knows how basketball is played,” said Kaan Yigit, president of Solutions Research Group, which produced the report. The game is cheap, it’s safer than hockey, demands less of parents and, like soccer, has global appeal, he said. In Ontario, organized leagues have flourished, particularly after the arrival of the Raptors. Today, the children playing in those leagues are often second-generation Raptors fans.

Galio Fortunato, 15, an aspiring point guard, plays a lot of his basketball at the community centre at Bathurst and Lakeshore. He came to Canada from Angola, Africa’s top basketball nation according to international rankings. Like most of his friends, he aspires to earn a scholarship to an NCAA Division I basketball program, the U.S. college system that’s a stepping stone for future pros. Last year a record 105 Canadian men played at that level, a jump of more than 50 per cent over the last five years. It’s evidence that a path now exists to make it to the next level, particularly for kids from the Toronto area. He’s been playing seriously for about four years now, dedicating himself to improving his game.

“I’m not really thinking about the NBA, but that’s my top goal. I want to play Division I though, and get a degree. That’ll make my mom happy,” he said. “I just have to keep working hard.”

While the opportunity to play at the highest level is remote for most, the path carved by today’s pro and college stars has given young people something of a model to work toward.

Basketball up north is not quite the “city game” that its history in the United States would suggest. Lately the top talent has come not from the tough asphalt battlegrounds of Regent Park or St. James Town, but from places like Brampton, Mississauga and Pickering. The days of kids playing outdoors in rain and snow are no more, many coaches say. The city may have embraced the Raptors “We The North” marketing campaign, but most kids these days wouldn’t dream of playing outside on a cold day, let alone shovel the snow off the court the way they did when he was growing up, said Kirk Hodgson, a coach with Rise Athletics. This generation is looking for a climate-controlled gym where they can hone their game.

“We’d shovel the snow to the side and get some shots up,” said Mr. Hodgson, 33, who grew up in St. James Town, “because there were no gyms to go to. We’d shoot until our fingers got numb.”

These days, basketball players have a wealth of options for gym time and organized leagues.

“They’re getting into the gym so often with so many different programs being offered … Streetball in places like Brampton is just not as prominent,” said Tony McIntyre, who runs the CIA Bounce program that has produced several NBA players, including his own son, Tyler Ennis of the Phoenix Suns.

There are more than 200 kids taking part in his program, many of them from communities in the 905 region.

Roy Rana, head coach of Ryerson University’s men’s basketball team, said the growth of basketball in the 905 is in part a reflection of where Ontario’s immigrants are going.

“If you’re an immigrant or if you’re living on a low income, it’s pretty hard to live in the city and try to raise a family. It’s not affordable,” he said. The facilities are better in the suburbs, people have more money and in some cases, more time to devote to their children.

“We had great pockets at Jane and Finch, Bathurst and Lawrence, Regent Park,” he said. “But now many of these communities have spread out into the suburbs.”

Some of the most exciting basketball developments are happening out in Orangeville at a basketball-focused prep-school program called the Athlete Institute, where a seven-foot tall Sudanese-Australian basketball phenom named Thon Maker recently transferred from the United States to finish high school. Scouts say he could be a future top pick in the NBA draft. A number of other Canadian high schoolers with enormous promise also play at the Athlete Institute.

It’s not far-fetched at all to think that one or more of those teens will one day tread the boards at the Air Canada Centre. A homegrown star might finally seal the transformation of turning Toronto from a hockey town to a basketball city.

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