A team of players from around the world playing in Toronto and on the cusp of winning the National Basketball Association championship. A team of players from across Canada, playing for an American team, one game from drinking out of the Stanley Cup.
The latter is a tale almost as old as this country. The former is something new and exciting. The Toronto Raptors and the St. Louis Blues: two teams, two sports – and, for Canadians, two different homecomings.
How would a Canadian team winning the NBA championship be a case of coming home? Get your American friends’ eyes rolling with this bit of trivia: According to the league’s official history, its very first game was played in Canada, at Toronto’s old Maple Leafs Gardens, on Nov. 1, 1946, between the Toronto Huskies and the New York Knickerbockers.
The NBA started because a bunch of National Hockey League owners needed something to fill arenas on non-hockey nights. In the United States, pro basketball caught on. In Canada, not so much. The Huskies folded during their first season. Canadians weren’t yet interested in the sport.
Oh, and basketball is a Canadian sport – and not just because a lot of Canadians play it and watch it and obsess over it. A Canadian invented it.
James Naismith was a graduate of McGill University who, like a lot of Canadians in the 19th century, moved south for work. In 1891, while teaching physical education in Springfield, Mass., he came up with a new game designed to be good exercise, not too rough and ideal for playing inside during long northern winters.
Naismith was born and raised in Almonte, a former mill town in Eastern Ontario whose founders named it in honour of Mexican General Juan Almonte, who had fought against the United States in the Mexican-American war. Canadians have always identified with the underdog, and with whoever is going up against Goliath. We can relate.
The Raptors’ rise to the top of the NBA, taking on the star-studded dynasty that is the Golden State Warriors, is a tale Canadians can get behind. Canada’s Team? Hell yes.
There may be no Canadian-born players on the starting roster. (Well, other than Drake.) But there is so much about the team, and its stories, that Canadians can identify with.
Masai Ujiri, the Raptor’s president, was born in the United Kingdom, raised in Nigeria, played college basketball in the United States and pro in Europe. To get his foot in the NBA, in 2002 he accepted a job as an unpaid scout. A decade later, he was named the league’s executive of the year, the first non-American given the honour.
As the song says, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.” None of the Raptors came out of college at the top of the draft pick. Fred VanVleet wasn’t even drafted. Pascal Siakam, from Cameroon, went to an African basketball development camp at the age of 17, on a lark, having little experience with the sport. Four years later, he attended his first NBA game – as a player.
Marc Gasol is from Spain. OG Anunoby’s parents are from Nigeria, he was born in London and he grew up in Missouri. Serge Ibaka is from the Democratic Republic of Congo but has Spanish citizenship. Chris Boucher was born in Saint Lucia but grew up in Montreal. In a country where everybody has a story about starting somewhere other than here, the Raptors themselves are a kind of homecoming.
As for the Stanley Cup, the iconic Canadian trophy owned by an American league and being battled for by a team of Canadians playing in the heartland of America would be a new take on an old story.
Until the 1980s, the NHL’s rosters were 100-per-cent Canadian, or close enough, but those days are long gone. Today, Canadians make up less than 50 per cent of the league’s players. The Boston Bruins, the other team in the finals, are an outlier at one end of the curve: just four Canadians on the roster. The St. Louis Blues are the exception in the other direction; the team is more than two-thirds Canadian.
A goalie from Richmond Hill, Ont. A captain from King City, Ont. An assistant captain from Winnipeg. Top defencemen from Edmonton, Thunder Bay, Ont., Brandon, Man., and St. Albert, Alta. Top scorers from Clinton, Ont., Wilcox, Sask., and Sherbrooke.
And a coach who is First Nations, from the hamlet of Calahoo, Alta., population 85.
Go Canada, go.