TORONTO — Basketball’s towering personalities and their larger-than-life celebrity friends are making Toronto party central as the NBA all-star weekend takes hold with a barrage of glitzy events.
Nearly every corner of the city will get some piece of the action, as restaurants dish out special menus, local clubs lure famous guests and a long list of retailers capitalize on the three-day wave of basketball fever.
It’s the first time the NBA has taken its high-profile annual event outside the borders of the United States and anticipation is high for local sports fans and partygoers.
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Toronto has hit its stride on a global scale with the Toronto International Film Festival, last year’s Pan American Games and the local music scene’s explosion on the Billboard charts, led by rapper Drake and the Weeknd.
"Toronto is becoming an international hub and this is just making it more so," said Ainsley Kerr, a local party expert who plans to hit the town with her friends in search of the biggest events. "We have so many people coming in from around the world."
Festivities officially begin Friday night with the all-star celebrity game. Drake will coach the Canadian squad while comedian Kevin Hart leads the U.S. team.
The main event is Sunday night at Air Canada Centre where 18-time all-star Kobe Bryant will take his final bow in the marquee matchup before retiring at the end of the season. The Lakers legend takes to the court alongside hometown favourites Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan of the Raptors and fellow NBA stars like LeBron James and reigning league MVP Stephen Curry.
Timed around the NBA showcase is a dizzying lineup of club nights and concerts. Some tickets won’t come cheap, however.
A weekend pass for the Truth North venue, which gives fans access to a number of concerts including Usher and Gwen Stefani, costs $1,750 per person for the "VIP experience."
Across town, men’s magazine Maxim will host one of the more ambitious club parties with its lofty promise of "500 of the hottest girls next door" handpicked through a recent contest. Those tickets will set you back $750 for the "VIP Baller" experience, which comes with a special coat check and an open bar.
"It will be a jam-packed evening of fun and frolic, I guess," said Joel Hock, president of Maxim’s Canadian events.
The centrepiece of the wonderland will be a giant mirrorball slam-dunking into a 40-foot basketball hoop, Hock said, while host Shaquille O’Neal and Snoop Dogg (performing under his DJ name Snoopadelic) headline as the main celebrities.
Six staff members will be on site to welcome other "VVIP" — the very, very important people who might appear unannounced to the delight of partygoers.
"It’s a smorgasbord of celebrity visuals," said Hock.
Other celebrities also expected around in town include Rihanna, Ben Affleck and Olivia Wilde.
The weather could put a damper on the festivities as temperatures plunged Thursday and were expected to dip close to -20 C by Saturday.
NBA players will be staying at the Thompson Hotel, the official base of the National Basketball Players’ Association.
Plans for the event have been underway for nearly a year. The hotel has even brought in super-sized bathrobes and slippers for their larger guests.
The hotel has also stocked up on Remy Martin Louis XIII, which it sells for $295 an ounce or $6,500 a bottle, said hotel manager Jeff Waters.
"Close to 200 bottles of champagne we’ve brought in and we’ve created a number of different cocktails we think will be appealing to the players and guests here over the weekend," Waters said.
Local restaurants are also getting into the spirit.
At the Real Sports, across from the ACC, the Ciroc Slam Dunk is a mixture of Ciroc Ultra-Premium, ginger ale, lemonade and a lemon garnish that costs $13.50.
Financial district mainstay Jump restaurant is serving up the Sir Charles burger, a towering feast of flavour inspired by Charles Barkley. The six-ounce burger is stuffed with pulled pork and topped with crispy pancetta, an onion ring and cheddar cheese.
Alongside a serving of fries, it will cost diners $34, a price pinned to Barley’s number.
Retailers are also capitalizing on the attention.
In the heart of Toronto’s tourist area, Michael Jordan’s persona canvases a new Jordan Brand store. Doors will stay open around the clock all weekend.
Nike has created its own unique experience by renting a streetcar and turning it into a mobile sneaker store.
Toronto is expected to bring in somewhere between $90 million and $100 million this weekend, according to estimates from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment based on the impact of previous all-star games.
"It’s going to be one of the busiest weekends of the year in the city and that doesn’t usually happen in the middle of February," said Andrew Weir, chief marketing officer of Tourism Toronto. "It’s very much a pop culture event … about that connection between Toronto and celebrity — (that’s the) lively urban vibrancy and impression we want to create."