November 14, 2019

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Raptors create cultural moment that transcends sport

Editorial

The NBA final tips off Thursday, and fans throughout a country famed for a sport played on ice will be praying for a miracle on hardwood.

For the next two weeks, millions of Canadians will be glued to their TV sets in hopes the Toronto Raptors can upset the heavily favoured Golden State Warriors, who are chasing their third straight NBA title.

The Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard (right) has been the best player in the playoffs. (Morry Gash / The Associated Press files)

The Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard (right) has been the best player in the playoffs. (Morry Gash / The Associated Press files)

The Raptors are battling to become the first Canadian team to win a big-league North American championship since 1993, when both the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays turned the trick.

If they can defy the odds and bring glory north of the border, it will not only be a defining moment in Canadian sports history, but also a celebration large enough to stun casual observers in a traditionally hockey-mad country.

Hockey remains the king of sports in Canada, but basketball is quickly becoming the crown prince, thanks to the Raptors, Canada’s changing demographics and the sensibilities of a massive millennial generation. The Raptors’ ascent has become more than a sports story; it has assumed the status of a Canadian cultural moment.

"Within 10 years, the Raptors are going to be the most popular team," Tim Leiweke, then-president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, predicted in 2014. "They will be more popular than the Leafs in Toronto. Promise you."

A bold forecast, to be sure, but there was logic behind Mr. Leiweke’s words. Since Toronto joined the NBA in 1995, basketball, an inexpensive sport that requires little more than a ball, has been booming at the grassroots level.

According to Basketball Manitoba executive director Adam Wedlake, the number of local participants outside those playing in school has rocketed from a few hundred in 1995 to more than 12,000 at last count.

In terms of eyeballs glued to TV screens, Sportsnet reported an average audience of 3.1 million Canadians — with a peak of 5.3 million — watched the Raptors eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final, by far the largest audience for an NBA game in Canadian history.

Hip-hop star Drake has been a fan for years and has courtside seats. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press files)

Hip-hop star Drake has been a fan for years and has courtside seats. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press files)

Today, an entire generation of Canadians has grown up not only with the opportunity to cheer for a Canadian NBA team, but to revel in the sight of a wave of top-shelf Canadians taking the league by storm.

This past season, 13 Canadians were listed on NBA rosters, the most of any country outside the U.S. Two Toronto-born players, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, made history as the No. 1 picks in the 2013 and 2014 NBA drafts, respectively.

But there is more to basketball’s rapid growth than the rise of the Raptors and the performance of homegrown NBA players. A recent report by Solutions Research Group, a Toronto-based consumer research firm, found basketball is the second-most popular sport to follow among Canadian millennials, behind hockey.

Further fuelling the hoops craze is the fact relaxed immigration rules in the 1970s eased access for non-European immigrants, including newcomers from Asia and Africa, where basketball is hugely popular.

News reports estimate around 250,000 people immigrate to Canada every year from China and the Philippines, two countries where basketball is considered the No. 1 sport. In Winnipeg, there are more than 5,000 youth players from Africa.

It remains to be seen whether the Raptors can dethrone the Warriors, but it seems like a safe bet the sound of swishing nets and squeaking sneakers will soon give slapshots and skate blades a run for their money.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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