For two mesmerizing weeks at the start of June, the Toronto Raptors turned basketball into mono-culture for a hockey-obsessed country.
Jurassic Park viewing parties sprung up from coast-to-coast to watch NBA Finals games; merchandise sold out as soon as it hit shelves; what felt like an entire city attended a championship parade.
It was a wave that crescendoed into a high-water mark for the sport north of the border and elevated it into the national discourse — something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Canadian players who grew up in that hockey-obsessed atmosphere.
“The Raptors, to begin with, obviously they’ve completely changed the complexity of what people think about basketball in our country,” WNBA star Kia Nurse said on Prime Time Sports.
“I’m glad the country is now being able to grow the sport, people are talking about it, people want to be a part of it, people want to make more noise about the city taking down nets. That’s important to me because I think that’s giving young kids an opportunity to fall in love with the sport and I’ve fallen with it and gotten so many opportunities out of it, that I think it can happen for other people.”
Nurse, a 23-year-old point guard for the WNBA’s New York Liberty, grew up in Hamilton, Ont., and began playing basketball at the age of four. By seven, she was playing in competitive leagues. By the end of high school she had already been invited to the training camp for Canada’s national team. She continued to impress at the University of Connecticut, winning back-to-back NCAA championships in 2015 and 2016.
While the Raptors’ run offered an indelible summer for fans of Canadian basketball, both new and old, Nurse sees the basketball-fever it induced as something that could continue to be built upon, not a summit that’s been reached.
“I think bringing a WNBA team to the city would do the exact same thing [as the Raptors’ playoff run], continue to grow the game, continue to give young people — especially young girls — an opportunity to see people who look like them, because representation matters, and think ‘oh, I could do this one day, I could have a career in basketball if that’s something I wanted to do.'”
It’s a process that’s already being explored. Recently, news broke that a pair of Canadian entrepreneurs were launching a bid to bring Toronto a WNBA franchise. Not long after that it was announced that Sportsnet, NBA TV and TSN would be airing 53 live WNBA games this season including the WNBA All-Star game — unprecedented Canadian television coverage for the league.
While a Toronto-based WNBA future may still be far away, for now, the television foothold still carries a special significance for Nurse.
“I think the last game that was shown on Sportsnet, it was really funny because my mom always texts me ‘good luck’ every day before my games and she sent me one that was like ‘[good luck] and it’s on Sportsnet tonight,’ and I was like ‘no it’s not,'” Nurse joked.
“It was really amazing to see that. I’m one of the very fortunate people to have all four of my grandparents still at my age and now they can finally watch me play in the WNBA and that’s something that’s extremely special to me. I’m really fortunate to be able to have family and friends and aspiring young women be able to see us play at our top-level.”
Increasing national television coverage, though, isn’t the only way in which women’s basketball is finally being given a bigger presence. Jordan Brand, a subsidiary of Nike, has begun signing WNBA players to sponsorship deals — an encouraging step for a league whose players are often forced to play in Australia during the off-season because it’s more lucrative than staying home. Nurse was one of the first three to ever receive such an offer.
“It’s great that brands are really starting to pay attention. The Jordan Brand, I’m extremely fortunate to be one of the second or third women to ever sign to that brand, but the things that they do on and off the court for women is amazing.”
Beyond television exposure, beyond shoe deals, the increased presence of the WNBA can be felt in the NBA stars who’ve publicly shown their appreciation for the game.
The reasons for their support, in Nurse’s estimation, run deeper than publicity or fandom. It’s more elemental than that. It’s about ensuring everyone, their children included, can dream of a future where they inspire Jurassic Park-esque Finals viewing parties, their names appear on the back of sold-out jerseys and cities join them to celebrate.
“I think the best part about it is, especially these NBA players, they all have really young daughters now. They want their daughters to be able to see us,” Nurse said.
“There’s so many different people who are trying to make sure we’re paying attention to women’s sport because they’re raising their young daughters and want them to grow up seeing that they matter. If they want to have a dream, if they want to stand in front of their teacher and say ‘I wanna be a WNBA player,’ … then their teacher can look at them and say ‘Oh yeah, you can do that. So-and-so does that.’
“… Now you can see it. Brands pick up on it and they give us visibility, they give us representation. All these young girls can have the opportunity to play sports, learn the life lessons from it and whether they finish off as a professional or not, that accountability, that team work, that hard work that they all learned, they put that into their real-life and they’ll be alright.”