HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Chances are good next June that for the second consecutive year, the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft will have honed his skills and built his street cred on the asphalt courts of … Toronto, Ontario. And with Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins as a favourite to take the maple-leaf baton from UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, we might want to refer to the heated jockeying for position among likely lottery teams as tanquing, for this season anyway.
A rising interest in Canada in the NBA is the primary reason behind tonight’s game in Montreal, when the Boston Celtics (with first-round pick Kelly Olynyk, a 7-footer from Kamloops by way of Gonzaga) face the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Bell Centre. A year ago, the NBA staged its first-ever NBA Canada Series preseason games in that country (Knicks-Raptors in Montreal, Pistons-Timberwolves in Winnipeg) and the only thing surprising about that was that it took so long.
The Raptors, obviously, have been playing preseason games there since they entered the league via expansion in 1995. So did their newbie cohort Vancouver Grizzlies for six seasons, until their move to Memphis in 2001.
The NBA’s and basketball’s roots in the nation are undeniable. The man who invented the game in 1891, Dr. James Naismith, was a Canadian, after all. And what is accepted as the NBA’s inaugural game was played at Maple Leaf Gardens between the New York Knicks and the Toronto Huskies, who lasted one season in the precursor BAA.
Sixty-seven years later, the NBA has just the Raptors’ as its single toehold in Canada, and it stages its preseason games there much as it does in exotic lands like Taiwan and Brazil, with a missionary zeal that creates festivals of NBA basketball, stirring casual interest rather than relying on hardcore devotees of the league. The Grizzlies are gone, and expansion even in U.S. cities appears to be low on commissioner David Stern‘s or presumptive replacement Adam Silver‘s lists of priorities.
Beneath the surface, however, there may be something building.
Talent pipeline is gushing
“Right now, the game up here is exploding,” said Dan MacKenzie, vice president and general manager, NBA Canada. “There’s never been a better time. There’s a pipeline of talent coming into the league. … The talent in college is deeper than it’s ever been. We can see a day in the next five years when there could be between 15-20 players in the NBA from Canada.”
Former NBA players who were born or grew up in Canada include Steve Nash (Vancouver/Victoria), Bill Wennington (Montreal), Todd MacCulloch (Winnipeg) and Rick Fox (Toronto). Center Joel Anthony of the two-time champion Miami Heat is from Montreal. Toronto is the hotbed now, though, as described earlier this month by Eric Koreen in the National Post:
While there are pockets of talent elsewhere across the country, Toronto is the epicentre of the Canadian basketball boom. Ten of the 18 players invited to the men’s senior national team training camp this summer — and eight of the 12 who played in the FIBA Americas tournament — grew up within a 45-minute drive of Toronto. (That does not include the injured Bennett, the Kansas-bound Wiggins or the likes of Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos, Michigan’s Nick Stauskas or Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis, who figure to be fixtures of the program in the future.) Four area products — Bennett, Tristan Thompson (Brampton), Cory Joseph (Pickering) and Andrew Nicholson (Mississauga) — have been first-round picks in the last three NBA drafts.
Among less-elite athletes, basketball is taking hold in part because the Great White North is becoming, well, less so.
Said MacKenzie: “On the grass-roots side, we’re seeing an explosion of participation. A lot of that is driven by demographics and immigration. The countries that newcomers are coming to Canada from are countries where basketball is very popular, if not the No. 1 sport, like China and the Philippines.”
So while hockey remains king by a wide margin, basketball is gaining. The NBA doesn’t need to apologize, certainly, for its one-and-done in Toronto – remember, MLB went from two franchises to one in Canada as well, when the Montreal Expos relocated and became the Washington Nationals. But it’s possible that tastes, passions and market demand might change some day and bring the Raptors some company.
The Montreal game, while technically not part of the preseason Global Games series, will be the NBA’s last out-of-country, non-league-market event this month. Already in October, teams met in exhibitions in Turkey, Spain, England, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brazil and China (Beijing and Shanghai). On Dec. 4, Minnesota and San Antonio will play a regular season game in Mexico City, with Atlanta and Brooklyn traveling to London for their Jan. 16 game at The O2 arena.
Why not down under?
By the end of 2013-14, the NBA since 1978 will have staged 148 preseason or regular season games in 20 countries and territories across Europe, North and South America and Asia. Still waiting their turn – to answer the many emails we get here at HTB – are Australia and New Zealand.
Scott Levy, senior vice president and managing director, NBA Asia, acknowledged the heavy interest in the NBA in those countries. Past and present players have hailed from there, including Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Luc Longley, Sean Marks, Shane Heal, Chris Anstey and Nathan Jawai. Oklahoma City’s first-round pick Steven Adams is from New Zealand and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving was born in Melbourne.
Participation is high, Australia ranks No. 1 in subscribers to NBA League Pass International and in NBAstore.com’s international revenue, and the country certainly has the sports facilities and culture befitting a possible preseason destination.
“Australia is an important market for the NBA in the region and we enjoy a great following from our fans,” Levy said. “We have conducted several NBA events in the country, including the 2011 Asia Pacific Team Camp featuring the top youth basketball players from Australia, New Zealand, China, and South Korea. There have been discussions around many different programs from grass-roots clinics, development programs, mass participation events, and a preseason game, but nothing is definite at this point.”