Raptors title run the latest major turning point for basketball in Canada

Kyle-Lowry-parade-trophy

Kyle Lowry holds the Larry O'Brien Trophy up for the fans during the 2019 Raptors championship parade. (Frank Gunn / CP)

TORONTO – On Feb. 12, 2000 Toronto Raptors star Vince Carter stunned the capacity Oakland Arena crowd with a dunk competition show for the ages, famously declaring “it’s over” after taking a Tracy McGrady bounce pass between his legs and slamming it through in one of the most iconic and lasting images in NBA history.

This signature moment – and Carter’s entire memorable run with the Raptors – has been credited for beginning this explosion of impactful Canadian hoops talent that we’ve seen filter into the NBA since 2010, with names such as Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph citing Vinsanity as a primary reason why they started playing hoops in the first place.

Flash-forward exactly 19 years and four months to the day of that 2000 dunk contest that started it all for many a Canadian hooper and we saw on the very last day of operation of that same Oakland Arena building – renamed Oracle Arena – one Kawhi Leonard jubilantly raise both his arms up as the final 0.9 seconds expired between the Raptors and Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals indicating that Toronto had won its first-ever NBA championship.

And like Carter did before with his high-flying act, the title run Leonard and the Raptors just went on may have inspired the next wave of great Canadian basketball talent.

“What the Raptors accomplished this year is gonna trickle down to every level of the game and there should be considerable excitement in this country about the game of basketball and about the kinds of athletes we’re producing,” said University of Calgary head coach Dan Vanhooren on Wednesday morning.

While millions of fans took to the streets of downtown Toronto on Monday to celebrate with the Raptors on parade day, Vanhooren was hard at work at Humber College with Canada’s under-19 men’s national team preparing for the upcoming FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup, starting June 29 in Heraklion, Greece.

As a man who has spent a large majority of his life coaching university-aged athletes, Vanhooren understands the importance of the growth of basketball at the grassroots level and sees this Raptors championship as a key catalyst for needed groundswell support of the game at the youth level to take it to a whole other level.

“You have a humble group of guys – even their superstar is humble – who worked hard and now they win a championship,” said Vanhooren. “They generate that kind of momentum across the country and there’s a whole generation of kids that watched that. So they’re all gonna jump in and play basketball.”

It also can’t hurt that coming on the heels of that title, the man at the helm of those championship Raptors, Nick Nurse, will also be coaching the Canadian senior men’s team at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup beginning Aug. 31 in China.

“It’s just about done and something I’m looking forward to,” Nurse said during his end-of-season press conference Sunday of reports that he would be coaching Team Canada at the World Cup.

With the now very-recognizable Nurse taking the reins of the national team, this is a prime opportunity to get those same young fans whose imaginations were captured by the Raptors across the country to become just as enamoured with the national program as a whole, and possibly get fans just as excited to cheer on Canada in basketball as they do in hockey.

“I think that ‘We The North’ is something that took off — this campaign with the Raptors — because we are the north, we are distinct,” said Rowan Barrett, Canada Basketball’s senior men’s team general manager Tuesday on Sportsnet 590 the FAN. “I’m excited and I hope Canadians will be excited as they watch our team stand on guard for the country.”

The roster Barrett’s assembling at the moment is expected to feature the second-most NBA talent only to the United States, a fact that makes you wonder about the possibilities of Team Canada going on a Raptors-esque run of its own.

“I think there are some really good players,” said Nurse. “There are some really good players.”

The FIBA World Cup is still about two months away, however, and as much as Barrett may want to try to keep momentum going from this Raptors run to the start of the tournament it’s rather infeasible to believe that will happen given the length of time between the two events.

A good stopgap, however, might by Thursday evening’s NBA Draft, where Barrett’s son, R.J. is expected to be taken third overall by the New York Knicks.

And it doesn’t just stop at R.J. as at least four more Canadians are expected to be drafted, with the possibility of maybe even more.

“I think this is going to be a great draft, we have so many guys. This is another win for Canada.” Rowan said. “Potentially four in the first round. If that’s not a win for Canada, I don’t know what is.”

The previous record of Canadians taken in an NBA draft was four in 2014, so Thursday night has the potential to be truly historic for Canadian hoops.

Will it inspire a nation the way Leonard and the Raptors’ remarkable accomplishment did a week before? Probably not, but it can certainly compound it.

And, really, that’s what it’s about.

Remember, although Almonte, Ont., native Dr. James Naismith is the man credited with inventing basketball in 1891 it really wasn’t until Carter’s arrival in Toronto 107 years later that the game really found its footing in Canada.

And now, in 2019, with the team’s lone NBA team finally winning a championship, it seems that basketball truly has come home for everyone across the country.

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