Toronto is about to finally pull back the curtains on the first NBA all-star game ever to be played outside of the United States – an idea that had its beginnings with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper more than 20 years ago.
It was 1994 when Isiah Thomas, the Raptors' first-ever general manager, and John Bitove, the Toronto businessman who led the club's ownership group, sat down to draw up a wish list.
"Literally we were writing down our hopes, our dreams, our visions for the Raptors. And one of the dreams was to play the first international all-star game outside of the U.S.," Thomas said. "That first year, we were just hiring staff, bringing people in, we hadn't even brought in players, and we were talking about the all-star game.
"It's remarkable to see the energy now around town, it's remarkable to see the evolution of the sport, and the explosion of the sport that has taken place here," he added, during a break at an NBA fan event at the University of Toronto.
Both the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies played their first game in 1995. But while support for the Grizzlies fizzled in Vancouver – the franchise eventually moved to Memphis after the 2000-01 season – the NBA has flourished in Toronto.
The Raptors have sold out 63 consecutive games at the Air Canada Centre. Co-captains Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will suit up for the East in Sunday's 65th annual all-star game. The No. 2 Raptors are chasing the Cleveland Cavaliers for top spot in the Eastern Conference.
And a generation of Canadian kids that grew up on a steady diet of highlights from high-flying Raptors superstar Vince Carter can be seen in reigning rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky Wildcats star Jamal Murray.
"We're at that point where kids like Drake, who grew up on the sport, they're now grown men, but they fell in love with the sport and they're spreading the word about how good the sport is here," Thomas said. "To see the evolution and the explosion of basketball across Canada, and to have the kids growing up and becoming lottery picks and becoming MVPs of the league, it's pretty phenomenal what's going on here."
Three Canadians – Wiggins, Dwight Powell and Trey Lyles – will play for the World Team versus the Unite States in Friday's rising stars game.
"To see the Jamal Murrays and the latest wave of Canadian players, and who knows who's behind that wave, that's exciting for Canada, and speaks well for the development that's going on here," said Glen Grunwald, who spent seven years as the Raptors' GM.
And the Canadian influence on the game can be felt outside the boundaries of the basketball court, Thomas pointed out.
"Every time you talk about basketball nowadays, there's some type of Canadian influence, whether on a team, or a coaching staff [think Jay Triano in Portland, or reigning NBA D-League coach of the year Scott Morrison], or in management," said the 12-time NBA all-star. "It's permeated the NBA."
While the all-star idea was moved to the back burner from those early pencil-and-paper days of the Raptors, it re-emerged in the Bryan Colangelo era. Toronto was awarded the all-star game in 2013, and this week the city will roll out the red carpet for the game's biggest stars, along with countless celebrities and more than 330 international journalists from 40 countries.
Raptors president and GM Masai Ujiri is looking forward to playing host to the league's biggest party.
"We just want to show who we are," Ujiri said. "Beautiful people, beautiful city, great restaurants, it's a great festival.
"Beautiful weather," he added, laughing. Temperatures are expected to plummet to –22 C on Saturday.
While the Grizzlies are long gone from Canada's west coast, the game has continued to grow, not just in Toronto, but across Canada. Viewership of NBA games in Canada has doubled over the past three seasons according to NBA Canada, and last October played to either sellouts or large crowds in preseason games in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Winnipeg.
The Raptors take pride in being known as Canada's team. They wear it in the red of their uniforms.
"[This all-star game] just continues to grow the game in Canada, and it gives Canadian fans the chance to experience the spectacle, the NBA spectacle, and we've witnessed it in the last several years," said Wayne Embry, a five-time all-star and senior adviser to the Raptors. "The world should recognize that Dr. [James] Naismith is Canadian, and he invented the game of basketball. It's a global game, and Canada deservedly must have a place there."
Some of the Raptors' current culture, meanwhile, is a throw-back to those very early days. The circular locker-room, meant to give the players the impression of being in a huddle, has existed since Day 1. So has the Raptor mascot, and the way he drives the team flag into centre-court at the beginning of each game "to basically put the stake in the ground like 'We're here,'" Thomas said.
"To see people feeling it now, emotionally and energetically, it's precious," he added. "When people see the excitement and the energy and what's really going on here [at this week's all-star festivities], you can't help but fall in love with what's taking place and what's been done. There's no denying it."