TORONTO – Who would have thought that the only thing that really went wrong with Canada hosting NBA All-Star Weekend would be the anthem?
The Canadian anthem, which Victoria, B.C., pop star Nelly Furtado made almost unrecognizable with her very loose interpretation.
As for Sting?
Hey, he’s no Drake, whose role was limited to vaguely assisting with the player introductions, but Sting did all right as the from-left-field choice for a halftime act. He played some Police hits that most people seemed to recognize even if the man himself was unrecognizable in his Santa beard. There were no sad saxophone sounds from his solo career, which was everyone’s greatest fear.
But it was all fun if you enjoy a little collective social media outrage once in a while.
Near perfect and Canada and Toronto now have their own little piece of fabric in NBA and basketball history.
Sure, the fabric might be a Hudson’s Bay blanket that visitors and locals alike could have used to ward off three days of weather that could only be described as a beyond category cliché, but everyone survived.
“To the people of Toronto, Canada, and all of Canada as a country, thanks for welcoming our league with open and warm arms,” said LeBron James, who knows Toronto as well as any NBA player. “Even though the weather wasn't as warm, the arms and the love from everyone here has been well received.”
What will matter is that for the first time we were in the middle of things. It’s been a long time coming – 21 years – and that’s what this weekend has been about and will be remembered for when it gets dialed up on YouTube or featured in future highlight videos and tribute compilations.
We are part of the NBA’s permanent digital tattoo and collective memory.
The first NBA All-Star Weekend held outside the United States will be remembered for the best dunk contest since Vince Carter himself was putting the Raptors on the map in 2000, with Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon dunking over a mascot spinning on a hoverboard earning consideration as one of the greatest single dunks of all time.
And it will be remembered for Kobe Bryant’s long goodbye; the place where the 20-year NBA veteran played the last of his 18 straight all-star games, the weekend turning into a 72-hour reflection on his status as one of the most influential players of all time and icon to his peers. Every media appearance by every player turned into a mini-referendum on the Los Angeles Lakers star’s place in the game (to the point where New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis asked, bemusedly: “Is every question going to be about Kobe?”)
Sorry Anthony, only most of them.
The answers, universally, were some version of ‘front-and centre.’
For Raptors fans it will be remembered as the weekend when the kind of alienation that fuels the potent We The North call to arms melted, if only briefly.
For the city, or the country, it was one of those full-circle moments. Forever it seemed the easy way to look at Canada (and Toronto) and dismiss basketball was simple: they like hockey there, there isn’t a huge college basketball infrastructure and there was no NBA team – and that was after there was an NBA team. By those measures basketball didn’t exist and in the eyes of the U.S., the epicentre of the sport, basketball here didn’t really exist.
It was never really true. Basketball has always mattered here, but it was a niche and there were limited ways for those who cared to express how deeply it mattered to them and be heard if they did.
That’s what makes We The North ring so true: it taps into that sense of alienation Canadian basketball fans have felt both within their own country and as Canadians facing the big brother to the south, largely oblivious to what’s happening up here.
That’s why the call to embrace what makes being a Raptors fan or a Canadian basketball fan different, rather than feel inferior for it, has been so powerful.
But for 72 hours Toronto and Canada could feel like they were on the inside; part of the basketball establishment. We The North belonged.
The iciness melted, if only metaphorically, given the record low temperatures that arrived just in time to guarantee maximum focus on how cold Toronto can be in February.
DeMar DeRozan (18 points) who – along with fellow Raptor Kyle Lowry (14 points) – played the role of unofficial host did his best to change the conversation early in the week, but he was shouted down.
“No, nobody believes me,” he said about trying to explain how mild the winter has been to this point. “They think it's cold like this all the time. But that's not the truth. You've got to take the good with the bad. We've got an all-star weekend here, everything's here, we can't complain.”
But by the time the ACC filled up and the crowd – even as corporate as an all-star game crowd inevitably is – got rolling, what happened outside the building mattered less. A lot less.
“I think everybody got the feel of the energy that we witness every single night when we play as Raptors players,” DeRozan said. “I think all the guys really got insight on how in tune the city of Toronto and all of Canada is to basketball. So I think just the energy. I think all the guys really enjoyed it.”
Said Lowry: “I think tonight it capped a great weekend; the Slam Dunk, Three-Point Contest, tonight being Kobe's last all-star game, record set by Paul and Russ getting back-to-back MVP. But Toronto, I think we put ourselves on the map a little bit around the world.”
And the reality is, the weather doesn’t matter much, if at all. All-Star is bigger than that and the players were happy to have their moment in Toronto.
“This is the NBA, it's our biggest stage,” said James. “It's the most media coverage that we're going to get. We have all the greatest athletes and greatest fans
here in one venue, and it's always an honour to be here.
“I'm going to enjoy the city,” James said as the weekend got underway. “It's an unbelievable city. I love being here. I've always enjoyed being here. So I'm going to enjoy it, and then get ready for the second half of the season.”
But did anything change this weekend?
“I don’t think you can say that, and that’s a good thing. Toronto didn’t need the all-star game to announce itself to the league. The league knows all about Toronto and has for a while.”
James will almost certainly never end up playing for the Raptors, but it’s no reflection of his views of the city. It’s been part of his itinerary for years. The documentary of his high school career premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; James and his high school friends watched in tears. They’ve returned in the summer many times, usually at the behest of Drake. Consider that the most sought after free agent in the NBA this past summer was LaMarcus Aldridge, who ended up signing with the San Antonio Spurs, but only after giving some meaningful consideration to a pitch from Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri.
And then consider what Aldridge has done in Toronto for his entire NBA career: “I never leave my hotel when I come here,” he said when someone was quizzing him if he’d heard of Tim Hortons, one of the city’s ‘finer restaurants.’
“I always order room service. My favorite dish is room service.”
Aldridge considered playing in Toronto not for shops or restaurants or because he liked the city. He considered it because he thought the Raptors had a chance to win.
That’s what really matters. That the all-star game is here and it put the city at the centre of basketball internationally for a few days is a function of all the things that have gone into winning: stable ownership; solid management and coaching; players that compete and care.
The perception of Toronto as a basketball place has changed, but not because of this weekend.
These few days are simply a symbol of everything that has led to this moment, a moment that will remain frozen in time.