The bandwagon may be overflowing with new, fair-weather arrivals, but there's no denying the Toronto Raptors are an important success story that extends well beyond the so-called centre of the nation's sporting universe.
Regardless of how you might feel about Kawhi & Co., and whether you view them as "Canada's Team," this run to the NBA Finals is going to usher in a boom period at the grassroots level for the game. And that includes right here in Manitoba, where you can bet more eyeballs than ever will be watching as the Raptors open up the best-of-seven series Thursday against the powerhouse Golden State Warriors. (For those of you who haven't been paying attention, Kawhi Leonard is the all-star Toronto forward who was traded to the team before the start of the season and cemented his legend in basketball lore when his last-second shot in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Philadelphia 76ers bounced off the rim four times before going in, giving the Raptors a 92-90 victory.)
I'm heading to Toronto this week to bring you daily dispatches for the Free Press on what should be a raucous atmosphere both inside and outside Scotiabank Arena during Games 1 and 2 on Thursday and Sunday. It's the first time a Canadian team has reached a championship final in the three major North American sports leagues Canadian teams participate in since 2011, when the Vancouver Canucks came up short against the Boston Bruins in their bid for the Stanley Cup.
Yes, dinosaurs may be extinct, but the Raptors are breathing new life into a sport that was already rising in popularity. That was apparent as I chatted Monday with a positively giddy Adam Wedlake, the executive director of Basketball Manitoba, who is enjoying this magical ride as much as anyone.
"Having this happen with the Raptors is really the icing on the cake," said Wedlake.
The numbers don't lie. Since Toronto joined the NBA in 1995, Wedlake said the number of local participants outside of those playing in school has gone from a few hundred to more than 12,000 at last count. The majority of those are at the club level, an option that didn't even exist a couple of decades ago.
Here's another number: Sportsnet is reporting an average audience of 3.1 million Canadians, with a peak of 5.3 million, tuned in to see the Raptors eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday night. Those are ridiculous numbers, by far the largest national audience to view an NBA game.
Just like the Toronto Blue Jays reinvigorated baseball in this country with back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993 — the last time a Canadian team won it all in big-league sports — Wedlake expects a similar surge in basketball, thanks to the Raptors.
"The buzz is real right now, and that's certainly percolating through the community. Obviously that's more of a fan base. Where this will go in the long term, I know it will have a positive impact in generating more people who want to get involved, not just as a fan, but as a participant, as a coach, a referee, a volunteer," he said.
"There's that old saying of success breeds success. We'll definitely look at this as a high-water mark, just like when the Raptors came into the league, where we look back and say 2019, remember when..."
On a local level, how about this for good timing?
Winnipeg is set to host Canada's national men’s basketball team Aug. 9 in an exhibition game against Nigeria at Bell MTS Place. It will be their final tuneup before the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China, which begins Aug. 31.
The rumoured, yet-to-be announced head coach of the Canadian club is none other than Toronto bench boss Nick Nurse.
In a similar vein, Raptors player Danny Green is hosting a youth skills clinic July 2-3 at the Canada Games Sport for Life Centre. He'll work with boys and girls ages 8-16. I'm guessing the excitement level for that has been kicked up a few notches.
"If we fast forward 20 years, I think we will definitely look back at this time and say, 'Remember where we were then?'" said Wedlake "Every day for the next two weeks (during the NBA Finals) is going to be something new and different. The short-term impacts are important, and the long-term impacts of what we do here will make it that much more effective or that much more easy to engage people in the game."
"It just allows that current generation and future generations to grow up around the game."
The biggest growth has come from new Canadians, said Wedlake. Winnipeg is a melting pot of cultures, and the sport is playing a big role in breaking down barriers.
"It really adds to the diversity, similar to what soccer experiences. A true global game. Using our sport as another way to get people involved in the culture and make their transition to Canada from another country that much smoother," said Wedlake.
Nobody knows that better than Mandela Kuet, the president of the Manitoba Basketball African Association. His organization just held its largest annual tournament, the 2019 African Cup — in the city over the May long weekend; Winnipeggers of African descent represented 10 different national teams.
Overall, there are more than 5,000 youth players in the city from Africa.
"Sports is a unique and powerful way to bring people together. Even if you don't have the language or culture connection, all you need to have is a basketball around and it gives you a sense of belonging. It's one of the easiest ways to build relationships with people. We find it an extremely positive way for young people to be inclusive," Kuet told me Monday.
And the Raptors, he said, are a major reason.
"They've done something we're all proud of. The Toronto Raptors have definitely given motivation to a lot of these young people to think they can one day make it to the NBA," said Kuet.
A player like Serge Ibaka, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is an especially popular role model for local hoopsters.
"We've seen a big shift, even from a lot of kids going from soccer to basketball. You can see how much basketball has changed in the community. And it's producing really high-calibre players," said Kuet.
"A lot of people are talking about that, seeing the Raptors make it. Canada has a chance to win an NBA championship. Canada's team. That will definitely bring a lot of more kids to the sport and engage them."
Beating the Warriors is no slam-dunk, but regardless of how this final chapter ends it's clear the Raptors have already won over countless new supporters and helped shape the bright future of the sport in Canada.
And that's a story well worth writing about.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.