Insulin. The zipper. The telephone. The electric wheelchair. The pacemaker.
Canada has been at the forefront of some of the most important innovations in modern history. Also: Basketball.
Today marks the 125th anniversary of the invention of basketball, the game conceived by Canada’s James Naismith on Dec. 21st, 1891. That was the day that the original 13 rules of the game were first written by a then-30-year-old Naismith, a phsyician and educator from Almonte, Ont., who was working at the YMCA Instructional Training School in Springfield, Mass (do yourself a favour and check out the Canadian Encyclopedia to learn Naismith’s full story).
In the years that followed, the popularity of the sport grew immensely, and though that growth was seen mostly in the United States at first, today the sport is considered the second-most popular across the globe.
While it’s always been a part of Canadian culture, in recent years basketball has taken a stronger hold across Canada—particularly in and around city centres—rapidly gaining both participants and fans from the grassroots level all the way to the pros.
Currently there are more NBA players from Canada than any other country outside the United States, and with a steady stream of jaw-dropping talent being produced that number is only headed in one direction.
Which is to say that, in five or 10 years time, the following will have to be amended to make room for the defining moments that lie ahead. Without further ado, in honour of basketball’s birthday, here, in no particular order, are the ten most iconic moments in Canadian basketball history.
1. Canada’s shocking victories at the 1983 World University Games
A team coached by Jack Donahue and featuring the likes of future national team and Toronto Raptors coach Jay Triano, Greg Wiltjer (father of current Houston Rockets forward Kyle), and future NBA champ Bill Wennington pulled off a pair of unbelievable upsets at the ’83 World University Games.
Playing in front of a hometown crowd in Edmonton, the plucky Canadians first knocked off an American team that starred Charles Barkley and Karl Malone (…you may have heard of them) in the semi-finals before beating a Yugoslavian team led by Drazen Petrovic to capture gold in an outcome that, needless to say, few could have predicted.
2. Steve Nash goes back-to-back
While we had seen a handful of Canadians on NBA rosters over the years, few, if any, had reached “star” status like Nash, whose shooting touch and court vision made him one of the greatest point guards of his era. The pinnacle of his career came as the catalyst of the “Seven Seconds Or Less” Phoenix Suns teams on which he orchestrated a fast-paced offence and led a perennial contender to the top of the Western Conference standings.
For his work, Nash earned consecutive MVP awards in 2005 and 2006, joining Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Steph Curry, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Moses Malone, and LeBron James as the only players to win the NBA’s most prestigious individual award in back-to-back seasons. Not too shabby.
3. Kia Nurse and Pan Am gold on home soil
In the summer of 2015, 19-year-old Kia Nurse scored 68 points across five games to help lead Canada to a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto. Her 33 points in the championship game sealed the deal over a heavily favoured US squad. Nurse also took home an NCAA championship earlier that year with the UConn Huskies and would go on to star for Canada in the Rio Olympics, cementing her status as Canada’s next great female basketball star.
4. Naismith writes the rules
Hey, we were just talking about this! December 21, 1891 is considered basketball’s birthday, the day James Naismith’s rules of the game were first drafted. While the sport as we know it has greatly evolved, those of us who grew up in Canada will always recall the origins of “basket ball” thanks to this iconic Heritage Minute:
5. Vince Carter puts on a show
Sure, Carter hails from Florida and has spent the vast majority of his life in the United States. But for seven years—including the prime of his career—the future Hall of Famer called Canada home as the star of the Toronto Raptors. While his tenure north of the border produced a dizzying number of awe-inspiring highlights, none held a candle to his performance at the 2000 NBA Dunk Contest.
Yes, Carter left Toronto as a highly divisive figure, but ask the legion of current-day Canadian NBAers why they pursued basketball and, to a man, they’ll point to Carter and his electrifying performance that put the Raptors on the map as an integral moment in the growth of the game in our country.
For more, check out the complete oral history of Vince Carter at the 2000 dunk contest.
6. Mike Smrek: NBA champion
In his two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers between 1986 and 1988, Welland, Ont.’s Mike Smrek only started five games and averaged 7.9 minutes per. But the seven-year NBA vet also won two titles in that span, becoming the first Canadian to earn a championship ring. The feat has since been accomplished by five others—Bill Wennington, Rick Fox, Joel Anthony, Cory Joseph, and Tristan Thompson. But Smrek will always be first.
7. The Edmonton Grads re-write history
Though women’s basketball wasn’t recognized as an official Olympic sport until 1976, the Edmonton Grads had already been dominating international competition for decades at that point. With a talented roster featuring Dorothy and Daisy Johnson, Noel Robertson, Winnie Martin, Eleanor Mountifield, Nellie Perry, and Connie Smith, the Grads may not have been able to officially take the podium, but they won four straight Olympic titles between 1924 and 1936, decimating opponents by a total score of 1863-297.
With an all-time record of 502-20, the Grads are believed to boast the highest winning percentage of any North American sports team ever. In 1983, all 38 members were inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame.
8. No shame in second-place
In 1936, in a game played outside on a dirt court in the rain, Canada took home a silver medal, dropping the championship game to the United States 18-9. It remains Canada’s best result at an Olympic Games.
9. 1999 FIBA Americas
In the beginning of a triumphant two-year stretch for the Canadian men’s national program, Steve Nash was named tournament MVP as Canada qualified for the Olympics for the first time in more than a decade thanks to a victory over Puerto Rico in the semi-finals of the ’99 FIBA Americas. In the 2000 Sydney Games that followed, the Nash-led Canadians managed to reach to the quarter-finals. The Canadian men’s team is still awaiting its next trip to the Olympics.
Tristan Thompson made history as the highest-drafted Canadian when he was selected fourth overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. But in 2013, the basketball world was shocked when Anthony Bennett became the first-ever Canadian drafted first overall. While Bennett’s pro career hasn’t panned out as hoped, there’s no doubting the significance of the achievement.
To cap it off, in the following draft, Vaughan, Ont.’s Andrew Wiggins was also selected first overall, an unprecedented achievement in Canadian hoops. And you better believe that if this list were longer, Wiggins’s stunning poster dunk on Javale McGee from earlier this month may have come in at No. 11.
Happy birthday, basketball!