One small game for Winnipeg, one thunderous slam-dunk for NBA in Canada Raptors-Grizzlies clash for Naismith Cup helped grow game north of the border
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/10/2020 (659 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Before Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, Kyle Lowry, and Kawhi Leonard became household names to Canadian basketball fans, there was the Winnipeg Arena.
The year was 1995 and in an effort to grow the game north of the border, the NBA added two Canadian expansion teams, the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies, into the fold.
The arrival of the Raptors and Grizzlies also saw the birth of a new tradition. The two clubs, playing in opposing conferences, tipped off in an annual exhibition game in a neutral Canadian city for the Naismith Cup. The game raised funds for Basketball Canada, allowed fans across the country to get a taste of NBA action and honoured Dr. James Naismith, the Canadian who invented the sport in 1891.
The inaugural Naismith Cup was played 25 years ago Wednesday in Winnipeg at the old barn on Maroons Road. It also happened to be the very first time the two NBA teams from the Great White North squared off against each other.
Now there’s a fun fact for your next sports trivia night.
So, why Winnipeg? Brian Cooper, the Raptors vice-president of business development and operations at the time, told the Free Press before the game that the Manitoba capital was chosen because the city was already a professional basketball town. When the Winnipeg Thunder folded in 1994 after three seasons, the city was introduced to a new team in 1995 — the Winnipeg Cyclone of the International Basketball Association. The Cyclone would play their last season in 2001, which also happened to be the same year the Grizzlies left Vancouver for Memphis.
But anyway, back to the game.
Adam Wedlake has been Basketball Manitoba’s executive director for the past 25 years. His first day on the job was the day the Raptors and Grizzlies game in Winnipeg was announced.
“My very first day on the job was a chance to go to be a part of a significant NBA announcement. I thought, ‘Wow, this is what the job is like every day. We’ll have some major NBA thing happening.’ But obviously not,” Wedlake says with a laugh.
Most of the fans paid little to be inside the building. Local Shoppers Drug Mart locations ran a $5 ticket promotion.
Like most, if not all, pre-season games, the action on the court was rather forgettable. The Raptors prevailed with a 98-77 victory led by veteran guard Alvin Robertson, who scored 20 points in front of 11,203 fans. Neither team was all that sharp; Vancouver shot 26.7 per cent from the field. Forward Blue Edwards led the Grizzlies with 17 points.
But by no means does that mean it was a forgettable event. For Wedlake, one of the highlights was picking up Stuart Naismith — grandson of the game’s inventor — from the airport before the game.
“When you think of picking up somebody’s grandson at the airport, you’re thinking of some little kid and whatnot, but he’s coming down the escalator with a walker and he can barely move himself. It shows how long the game’s been around,” Wedlake says.
“It was definitely neat to talk to him. He had a couple of interesting and neat stories about his grandfather, about how modest of a guy he was even though he brought the world this game that changed lives for so many and continues to do so. It was neat to see him be a part of it. He was there to throw out the ceremonial jump ball. He’s this tiny little guy and Big Country (Bryant Reeves) is there, the centre for Vancouver, and this guy is literally at his waist.”
The contest was broadcast across the country on CTV and marked the first time Leo Rautins and Rod Black, a Winnipegger who honed his skills in Red River College’s Creative Communications program, called a game together. Rautins, who was drafted 17th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1983 NBA Draft, has been a colour commentator and studio analyst for the Raptors ever since. Black did play-by-play for the Raptors for years and is now the studio host for the team’s games on TSN.
Rautins and Black have seen countless games, but a pre-season tilt in Winnipeg a quarter-century ago left a lasting impression on both of them, although, for different reasons.
“It was cold. It was ridiculously cold,” Rautins tells the Free Press.
“I remember there were a few events going on around (the game) because it was kind of a big deal in town. And what’s that centre of Winnipeg where it’s supposed to be the coldest street or whatever they call it?”
Does Portage and Main ring a bell?
“Yeah, yeah,” says Rautins, who also coached the Canadian senior men’s team from 2005-2011 and now lives in Florida.
“We were at some party there and I remember walking out the night before the game and going, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna die.’ But no, it was exciting. This is what you’ve been waiting so many years for. To have not one, but two, teams in Canada…. It’s always great when you play these games and you expose the game in different parts of the country.
“Being out in the midwest and having this game, it was exciting. It was a lot of fun. I don’t necessarily remember a lot of the details of the game, but I remember the fact that for Rod and I, that was our first game together of many. As I told Rod earlier today, I said, ‘It was the beginning of the end for us.'”
Black, who played basketball at Transcona Collegiate and one season at RRC, grew up a hoops junkie who idolized Martin Riley, a Winnipegger who made the Canadian national team out of Sisler High School in 1973 and also represented the country at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. A former host of the Winnipeg Jets’ 1.0 broadcasts on CKY-TV, it was a surreal feeling for Black to return to his old stomping grounds and sit behind the mic for a monumental moment in Canadian basketball history.
“I was five years into my job in Toronto and, honestly, the NBA comes to Canada and I had always dreamed of being an NBA player or even being a Globetrotter. I played a lot of high school ball and a little in community college. I had scholarship offers and I just didn’t do that, as it wasn’t the direction that I wanted to go. So, it was cool,” he says.
“Did I ever dream we’d have NBA basketball in Canada growing up? I don’t think so. I didn’t think it was possible, and then all of a sudden we do and then we have this exhibition game in my hometown and the fans were very receptive. It was special.”
Black remembers turning to Rautins during the game and commenting on how impressive Raptors rookie point guard Damon Stoudamire looked. Stoudamire went on to become the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and was one of the lone bright spots for a Raptors team that went 21-61. The Grizzlies, who had an impressive rookie in Reeves, were even worse, finishing dead-last in the NBA with a record of 15-67.
Black also recalls players being more concerned with the massive portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hanging in the rafters than winning the game itself. But the picture of the Queen obviously wasn’t new to Black, or Rautins for that matter, as the pair met inside the Winnipeg Arena years prior.
“Back in 1983, it was my second year as a broadcaster with CKY, it had to be the fall of 1983. The Philadelphia 76ers played the Denver Nuggets at the Winnipeg Arena. The NBA had been to Winnipeg before with these exhibition games and my hero was Dr. J, Julius Erving, growing up. I remember having a chance to interview him,” Black says.
“And I had a chance at that time to interview Leo Rautins, who I was looking up to. We were about the same age and I was going to some national camps and trying out and this dude was the superstar in Canada. That was the first time we kind of ever met and we forged a friendship through the years.”
Calgary, Halifax, Edmonton and Ottawa would host the Naismith Cup in the following years, although the game never grew into a must-see event. Vancouver won just once in those five seasons before the final all-Canadian battle for the cup took place in Ottawa in 2000. The Raptors brought the Naismith Cup back in 2003 and defended it on an annual basis against European clubs until they lost 105-103 to Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv of the Israeli Premier League in Toronto in 2005.
If the Raptors decide to revive the tradition again, they’ll need a new trophy; nobody knows where the original one went. NBA Canada claims it got the hardware back from Maccabi and turned it over to the Raptors, but the current whereabouts of the trophy are unknown.
Luckily for the Raptors, they were able to win a bigger and better trophy in 2019 when they defeated the Golden State Warriors to win their first NBA championship in franchise history. Bell MTS Place opened its doors to Winnipeg basketball fanatics for Game 6 of the 2019 finals and 3,500 fans showed up to watch Lowry and Leonard go to work on the big screen.
The Raptors, and basketball in Canada, have soared to heights that were unimaginable in 1995.
Now it might be a bit of a stretch, but you could argue the first step towards getting basketball in Canada to where it’s at today took place in Winnipeg.
“Canada is a hockey nation, but I will tell you we’re a big nation and there is a lot of love for other sports like basketball. If you talk to teenage kids out there, that’s top of mind, man,” Black says.
“As much as I love hockey and everybody loves hockey, that’s top of mind. For whatever reasons, there are tons of them. The culture, musicality, star power, the game, basketball has become front and centre for so many kids. Does it put a dent in what hockey is in Canada? I’m not sure about that, but I will tell you it certainly has a big place in it. It’s come a long way from that first exhibition game, the Naismith Cup, between two Canadian teams in Winnipeg back in 1995.”
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