As the NBA all-star weekend madness descends on Toronto, there is no shortage of theories to explain why the the NBA gave Loserville its due. It now boasts the league’s fourth-highest attendance, ahead of Golden State, New York and Miami. Already a veteran host of TIFF, the Six can deftly stage-manage three days of private planes, entourages and paparazzi. It also has the luxury hotels, high-end restaurants and low-down lifestyle opportunities that big-time athletes require. And for the sports fans taking more democratic means of transportation, the failed Pearson Express is free this weekend, which means that new arrivals can have an empty car all to themselves.
But the most poignant reason could be found last Thursday, at an event in a west-end Toronto gym. A low-key group of local politicians, athletes and the head of the NBA Players Association gathered with schoolchildren to celebrate a joint project: the refurbishing of a court surface at the Masaryk-Cowan Community Centre. There were no NBA stars in sight. Neither Drake nor an Owl emblem, either. But there was a lot of wisdom in the room, people who represent what the Raptors have already accomplished, and where the league wants to go. Diversity isn’t just a virtue. It’s also a business plan.
For the past two decades, the Raptors haven’t gone far in the playoffs, but they still have made huge inroads to new Canadians. “We have the most diverse audience in the NBA,” said Nav Bhatia, the team’s so-called superfan, standing at court’s edge.
“You go to the Raptors games, you see Asians, Indians, everyone in the city. Hockey crowds mostly have your colour,” he said jokingly, gesturing to this reporter’s pallor.
Mr. Bhatia isn’t just the auto-dealer magnate who organizes the Raptors annual Sikh New Year celebrations at Air Canada Centre, which historically has included a baby elephant. Going back decades, he has also been a key architect of the Raptor identity, a team which from the start had to find an audience in a hockey-mad (or deluded) city – and faced the additional challenge of a baseball team that had won two World Series championships. As perhaps the former prime minister might have put it, hoops was competing with “old-stock” sports.
The Raptors then, like the NBA now, had to find new audiences. One strategy is matchmaking athletes to local demographics, Europeans mostly. Franchise players such as Vince Carter or Chris Bosh would have shared the key with Andrea Bargnani, popular among Italian-Canadians, Hedo Turkoglu among Toronto’s Turks or Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas with the local Baltic crowds.
But when the Raptors got started in the mid-90s, Mr. Bhatia explained, the crowds were largely Caucasian, so much so that around a dozen years ago, a banker type mistook this small, turbaned man for a cabbie. For the frenetic Mr. Bhatia, the error was a call to arms.
As an early show of support for his team or an act of rebellion, he offered to buy 3,000 tickets from Raptors management, which he described as a difficult sell, even though he himself was assuming the risk. They were worried he couldn’t fill the seats.
“I told them it was their opportunity to showcase the team, but they didn’t think it would work out,” said Mr. Bhatia, whose white Bentley was parked – illegally – right in front of the centre. He gave out the tickets to temple members, school groups, underprivileged children. The seats were filled. The program continues.
The business case for multiculturalism hasn’t been lost on the Brooklyn Nets, whose borough boasts the same kind of diversity as Toronto’s. Mr. Bhatia said that the franchise approached him recently to advise them on diversity. He hasn’t decided yet if he will talk to them.
Sikhs aren’t the only group that are rabidly Raptor. Chinese- and Filipino-Canadians are perhaps the biggest followers. “I had no idea how important basketball was to these communities until I went to a tournament a few months ago in Downsview,” said Mayor John Tory, who was also present at the event. “There were hundreds of talented Filipino kids playing for trophies. It was a revelation. It was serious business.”
For ambitious, visible-minority athletes such as the GTA’s Sim Bhullar – the NBA’s first player of Indian descent – the Raptors are a team within reach. For the NBA, shows of diversity are good business. The 7-foot-5 athlete appeared on the Late Late Show and was the subject of a Newsweek profile. Last May, the league flew him to India. “Eight cities in eight days or something like that,” said Mr. Bhullar, who now plays for the Raptors 905 in the NBA’s developmental league. “Everywhere I went there were big billboards with my picture on it. It was unbelievable.”
At the opening of this season, there were a record-tying 12 NBA players from Canada on opening-night rosters, more than any other country outside the United States for the second consecutive year. “We’re just now seeing a whole generation that’s grown up with the Raptors,” Dan MacKenzie, vice-president and managing director of NBA Canada, said in his office.
Torontonian Clement Chu, 41, grew up with the Raptors. The early days were strange. Chinese players faced quizzical looks during pickup games. Even the Chinese vocabulary wasn’t fully developed yet. “Rather than saying left forward, it was something closer to left wing,” said Mr. Chu, founder of the Chinese Canadian Youth Athletic Association. Compounding the difficulty, Chinese parents also generally discouraged hockey. “They didn’t want their children walking around with broken teeth.”
But the Raptors organization made huge efforts to embrace the community, sending in teams of volunteers and ambassadors. In the early days, Mr. Chu said he oversaw eight or 10 Chinese-Canadian basketball teams. Now there are 200 or so. Mr. Chu also took a risk like Mr. Bhatia, buying 6,000 tickets from the team, which he then either gave away or sold at cost, just to make sure community members had access to the games. “A lot of people then didn’t even know how to use Ticketmaster.”
The Chinese have had a long history with the game, cheering on stars such as Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin of “Linsanity” fame. They also have a home team that has recognized the Chinese New Year by dressing their athletes in symbolic gold and yellow warmup suits. (Similarly, the Golden State Warriors wore Chinese New Year uniforms).
Standing in the corner of the high-end basketball store Mitchell and Ness on Queen West Wednesday night, Mr. Chu was playing host to an NBA all-star-related party for the Chinese community. The average age looks to be mid-20s, and everyone is decked out, the seriousness of their outfits undermined by backward, albeit designer, baseball caps. The house music is pounding through everyone’s pant legs.
Mr. Chu looks proud. “I’ve coached almost everyone in the room,” he said. “I can’t tell you how great it is to see them taking it forward.”