Near the back of the Memorial Park Cemetery in Lawrence, Kan., in the shade of two tall oak trees, is the grave of Dr. James Naismith. The Canadian arrived in Lawrence in 1898 to run the new department of physical education at the University of Kansas. In a telegram that recommended Dr. Naismith’s hiring, among the citations was “inventor of basketball," the game he had come up with in 1891 at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass.
Three years before Dr. Naismith died, he presented the medals at the Olympics debut of men’s basketball in 1936 in Berlin. The United States defeated Canada 19-8 for gold on a soggy outdoor court.
Canada’s silver still stands as the only Olympic medal the country has won in basketball.
In our long and mostly unremarkable history as a basketball contender, the NBA’s arrival in Toronto in 1995 is a demarcation point.
The Raptors captured the imagination of the country this spring, as they went on a historic playoff run that culminated with the team’s first NBA championship. Some 10 million Canadians were watching in the final minute last Thursday as the team clinched the title, and big crowds are expected for the parade in Toronto on Monday morning.
The deeper story of the team’s impact, however, is on so many basketball courts, from NBA arenas in the U.S. to the many hoops in the Toronto region and across Canada.
“Crazy,” tweeted Canadian NBA player Jamal Murray after the Raptors won, adding a couple of mind-blown emojis. Mr. Murray, like most of the dozen or so Canadians in the NBA, grew up in the Toronto area in the 2000s, the son of immigrants and a devotee of the Raptors. “I still can’t believe it,” he wrote in a second tweet.
The first wave of the Raptors generation arrived in the NBA in 2011. From that draft through last year, 18 Canadians have been picked, including two at No. 1. As many as five more young Canadians could be drafted later this month, which would mark the highest number in a single year.
Canada now has the most players in the NBA of any country outside the United States, and Toronto rivals traditional basketball hotbeds like New York City.
But Toronto and Canada today look far different from the places the parents of the Raptors generation arrived in years ago. Marita Payne, the mother of Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in 2014, came to the Toronto suburbs as a girl from Barbados in the early 1970s. The city then was predominantly white and smaller than American cities like Philadelphia, Detroit and San Francisco.
Today, the Toronto region is among the largest in North America, with more than six million people, about half of them born outside Canada. The Raptors launched in 1995 just as immigration was lifting Toronto. From 1991 through 2016, according to Statistics Canada, the city welcomed 1.7 million immigrants, more than a quarter of the current population. The newcomers, especially their children, embraced the new team and its sport.
As the boys-turned-NBAers were inspired by the Raptors, so too were many girls. Kia Nurse, who grew up in Hamilton, is one of them. These days, she stars for the New York Liberty of the WNBA and is a key player on Canada’s national women’s team, ranked fifth in the world.
The next test of Canadian basketball on the international stage comes in September at the men’s basketball World Cup in China. Canada – expected to be coached by Raptors head coach Nick Nurse – will have one of the best teams after the U.S. and could contend for a medal, if it can get through a difficult group stage where it will face strong squads from Australia and Lithuania.
“#WorldCupNext!” tweeted Canadian Kelly Olynyk of the Miami Heat and a national team stalwart, as he congratulated the Raptors on the title last week.
“Inspiring the youth back home,” Mr. Olynyk also wrote. Indeed, it is easy to picture the many thousands of girls and boys across Canada in love with these Toronto Raptors, as Mr. Murray, Ms. Nurse and Mr. Olynyk were as children.
The rise of Canadian basketball has been a long time coming. And it is only starting to really take off. The first Raptors generation is in its professional prime. There will be others to follow. Canada as a regular Olympic medal hoops contender is something we just might get used to.