Kyle Lowry walked gingerly into the Raptors practice gym as a local boys basketball team sat cross-legged on the floor, squirming and gasping as they learned he was the surprise they had been awaiting.
"What's up fellas? You alright?" asked the Toronto Raptors point guard, boyishly greeting the giddy kids while being tracked by a throng of news cameras.
In a span of 18 months, Lowry has gone from the underachieving and often chilly point guard on an underwhelming Raptors team to, arguably, Toronto's most popular sports star. He helped carry the team to its best-ever regular season in 2013-14, and it first playoff appearance since 2008. Today, he's a leader of a 35-17 contender and had Canadians helping to vote him onto the starting lineup of this weekend's NBA all-star game. On Monday, the Philadelphia native weaved further into the country's sporting fabric by landing his first Canadian endorsement deal.
"It just shows I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere," said the 28-year old veteran, who's in his ninth NBA season. "I'm getting support from my country – the country of Canada – like getting voted into the all-star game and now striking a deal with Sport Chek. It's a testament to me being excited to be back here."
The advertising campaign makes Lowry the face of Sport Chek's grassroots #MyNorth campaign, launched in conjunction with the Raptors and MLSE to spotlight Toronto's basketball culture. He also joins Sport Chek's Jumpstart Charities, which help financially disadvantaged kids get involved in organized sports.
Sport Chek and Lowry announced the deal in a press conference, and then he ran drills with kids from the Markham Unionville Minor Basketball Association. They previewed a 60-second Sport Chek TV commercial, which includes training montages of Lowry interspersed with images of Canadians such as Steven Stamkos and Christine Sinclair. He joins a stable of Sport Chek athletes that includes Sidney Crosby, Kaillie Humphries and Rosie MacLennan.
"We decided two years ago that we wanted to align the Sport Chek brand with basketball in the GTA, and we saw it as a five-year game plan. But everyone did a hurry-up offence when the team caught fire," said Duncan Fulton, senior vice-president of Canadian Tire Corp. (Sport Chek's parent company).
"We hurried up the deal so we could get Kyle into the commercial. We told Kyle, 'You tell us what you want to be known for in Canada over the next few years, and we'll get the marketing machine behind you.'"
The deal follows a dramatic rise in basketball's popularity here. When free agency knocked in the off-season, Lowry opted to sign a $48-million (U.S.), four-year contract extension in Toronto rather than play elsewhere, and the deal was announced before hundreds of fans at MLSE's Real Sports. Then last month, Canadians – including Justin Beiber and Prime Minster Stephen Harper – went on social media to support Lowry's All-Star candidacy.
Fan interest nationally is also being stoked by domestic talent. Opening-night rosters this year featured a record 12 Canadians, more NBAers than any non-U.S. country, including the top overall picks in the past two drafts, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, both of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Wiggins and Boston Celtic Kelly Olynyk will play in the Rising Stars Challenge on all-star weekend. (Next year's all-star game comes to Toronto, the first time it will be held outside the U.S.)
NBA Canada's sponsorship business, meanwhile, is expanding. "There has been a bigger buzz around Canadian companies wanting to invest in basketball, and we will see more announced around playoff time," said Dan MacKenzie, vice-president and managing director of NBA Canada. "These companies are eager to reach a valuable Canadian fan base that is young and diverse."
According to NBA Canada, the country ranks third in NBA merchandise sales (behind the U.S. and China) and third in NBA League Pass subscriptions (behind Australia and Germany). The NBA also says Canadian TV viewership of its games this season is up 65 per cent over last year, with Raptors viewership specifically up 102 per cent.
And that's all good news for the new face of the Raptors. "This is an exciting time for me," said Lowry. "For me to get a sponsorship from a Canadian company, I feel like I'm home."