EDMONTON — My 23-year-old son went to a sports bar in Edmonton to watch Game 1 of the NBA Finals the other night. He’s been a devoted Raptors fans for several years and texted “Greatest night of my life,” to me when the Raptors defeated Milwaukee. He can reel off the names of starters on various NBA teams in a way that dwarfs my own knowledge of the league.
Anyhow, he arrived at the bar with some friends, well before game time, and the person at the door asked him, “Do you have a reservation?”
Of course, he did not. It’s a sports bar. Who makes reservations?
What he did have however, was a tangible entry point into the conversation that begins with the question: “Do people across Canada really care about the Raptors?”
They care enough that in Edmonton, Alberta, sports bars are taking reservations on the evenings of Raptors games. Or, some of them, at least.
“It’s galvanized an entire country around basketball. Everywhere you go, it’s basketball,” said Lee Genier, the President and Chief Operating Officer of Western Operations for the fledgling Canadian Elite Basketball League, which includes the Edmonton Stingers. “It’s been a great time for us to launch.”
The CEBL is a new pro league that hopes to “bring Canadians together through a new basketball experience.” It is similar to the Eastern-based National Basketball League of Canada, and has teams in Abbotsford, B.C., Edmonton, Saskatoon, Hamilton, Niagara, Ont., and Guelph, Ont..
That it is navigating its maiden voyage at a time when the Raptors run is captivating fans — both old and new — across Canada is surely good fortune. But the league’s timing isn’t all about luck. Timing is everything, and basketball finds itself at a moment when a changing sports demographic demands less expensive sports than what our parents were able to afford.
“Canada is becoming more diverse,” Genier said. “If you grew up in Canada like I did (in Sturgeon Falls, Ont.), you grew up watching hockey and football. But the diversity is changing so much, people who grew up across the sea grew up watching soccer, or basketball. And they played it.
“Our culture is changing a little and that’s reflective in the growth of our sports.”
Slowly, Canada’s best athletes aren’t simply falling into hockey by default. Or they come here from soccer nations, the way Alphonso Davies arrived in Edmonton as a toddler born in a refugee camp as his parents made their way here from Liberia. Today, Davies plays for Bayern Munich.
As Canada’s demographics shift with immigration, hockey is pricing itself out of the households of many new Canadians. Basketball is the new soccer, where all you need are a pair of shoes and a ball. Most schools have outdoor basketball hoops that require no renting, parental supervision, or organized structure.
A generation ago, new Canadians would have had to take up skating to mesh with the rest of the kids on the schoolyard. Today, in a town like Edmonton, they’re talking about last night’s Raptors game on that same schoolyard — and all the Canadian NHL teams were toast after Round 1.
“If you stop in at the Saville Centre at any point during the spring time there is always a tournament going on, with 80 to 100 teams in the building,” said Jordan Baker, a player for the Stingers and an assistant coach for the University of Alberta Golden Bears basketball team. “Every single week night there are leagues running and kids playing. There are just more and more people playing the game.
“I don’t know if Canada will ever not be a hockey nation, but something’s got to take that No. 2 spot, so hopefully it’s basketball.”
All you have to do is watch the player introductions prior to a Raptors game to see where the allure lies for today’s teenagers. Players are dancing, doing push-ups, showing some flash and style… Then switch over to an interview with a hockey player.
Out West these days, the Raptors are as much ours as they are Toronto’s.
“People are getting excited about basketball in our country, and the Raptors are … hyping the sport in our country from coast to coast,” Baker said. “The whole country is behind them.”
You show me someone who won’t cheer for the Raptors because they come from Toronto, and I’ll show you a hockey person who is over 40 years of age. Today, basketball transcends that Maple Leaf stigma, kind of the way the Blue Jays have over the years. But kind of not.
Baseball is a bit yesterday. Basketball may just be the next soccer.
Cheap, fun, and not afraid to give Drake a courtside seat. And in an ever-changing Canadian culture, the Raptors are providing a dream that everyone can aspire to.
“The barriers are different now,” Genier said. “Hockey is a very expensive sport.”