We The North

You’d never call me a Raptors fan, but I’m glad they won … and I’m particularly happy for their fans. It’s a lot of fun when your team wins. As Nuke Laloosh says in Bull Durham (a movie Barbara loved, and a line we quoted often) “It’s, like, better than losing!” So, good for the Raptors, and good for basketball fans all across Canada.

I admit, I was a doubter pretty much right up until they won it in Game 6 last Thursday. (I’m not so disinterested that I don’t know their past history of playoff defeats!) I’d been watching a little since the Philadelphia series, but not very closely. In fact, the championship game is now the only Raptors game I’ve ever watched from start to finish … including the one I attended many years ago.

The crowd at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square is reflected in the
Larry O’Brien Trophy and Kawhi Leonard’s NBA Finals MVP Trophy.

I think the Raptors just came along too late for me. I used to really love basketball. Though I never actually saw them live, I remember the Buffalo Braves and their games in Toronto when I was a kid. I knew who Bob McAdoo was when he was winning scoring titles. I really started paying attention as a teenager, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the NCAA championship in 1979 and was hooked when their Lakers and Celtics teams were battling for titles throughout the ’80s. But by the time the Raptors entered the NBA in 1995, it was too late for me. I was with Barbara and helping to raise Amanda. It was nothing they did. I still watched a ton of baseball, and hockey was becoming my regular “day job.” I was happy — and I didn’t have any interest in more sports or another team.

Amanda and Barbara were happy to be Blue Jays fans, though they didn’t care much about the Leafs. I did take Amanda to the Raptors Fanfest in January of 1999 after the NBA lockout … but that was pretty much it for basketball.

Although I’m not really a Raptors fan, I’m not truly a basketball band-wagon jumper either. So, I think that I’m allowed to say that it annoys me that so many American commentators seem to think that basketball in Canada didn’t exist before the Raptors! That used to bug me about the Blue Jays too. We had the Maple Leafs baseball team in Toronto from 1896 to 1967. My parents – especially my mother – grew up as huge baseball fans! As for basketball, we had a hoop in our driveway 40 years ago, and I played on a team in Grade Six. (I was terrible, and never played for our school teams in Junior High or High School, but we had them!) I know my Uncle Gerry, who recently turned 90, played basketball when he was in high school. (When Jews were inner city kids, basketball was a Jewish game!)

The Bond Purple Raiders from Owen Sound were Provincial basketball champions.

Everyone seems to know that James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891, was a Canadian. And many know that the first NBA game in 1946 (when the league was actually called the Basketball Association of America) was played at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knicks. That’s really it for pro basketball in Canada before the Raptors, but it’s not like the sport was unknown here! It was played by boys and girls, men and women, in clubs and in schools, since the very beginning. Google the Edmonton Grads, if you’ve never heard of them.

One of my favorite images in the Ross family collection is this picture of
Art Ross with the Crescent basketball team, senior champions of the
Westmount Amateur Athletic Association in Montreal during the winter of 1902–03.

With that in mind, I was agreeable when a producer from CTV News Channel asked me to talk about the historic significance of the Raptors’ victory. Perhaps you saw it? (But probably not!) Anyway, three or four minutes on TV go by so quickly, I barely had any time to discuss anything beyond the comparisons with the Blue Jays winning the World Series. So, if you’re interested, you can read this (slightly bulked up) exchange below between me and the producer to get a sense of what I really hoped to talk about…

(Oh, and by the way, I was disappointed that I didn’t mention the Women’s World Cup and Canada’s team when Marcia MacMillan asked me what was worth watching now. Barbara never followed anything in sports the way she was briefly hooked on Christine Sinclair and the Canadian women’s team after watching that epic semifinal game with the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics.)

Hi Eric,
Here are some talking points ahead of tomorrow’s interview at 10:45 AM EST
1.  How monumental is this victory?

It’s huge. As the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. Though the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that. The big thing is, how much does this do for basketball in Canada going forward… (See more in the “Where does it rank…” question.)

2.  How does it compare to other Toronto titles of the past?  The Leafs in 67 and the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993?

The Leafs in 67 has become much bigger in retrospect than it was at the time, although upsetting Montreal in the Centennial year was noteworthy. Very similar to the Blue Jays (see below). But the next Leafs victory — if it ever comes — will be the big one! Though, of course, while the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that, as I said.

3.  Where does it rank amongst Canada’s greatest wins?  (please provide specific examples)

The most obvious comparison is the Blue Jays. I think this is at least as big as that. Possibly bigger. As I already said, as the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. And basketball is such a global game. No Grey Cup team has a shot at that, and, really no NHL team either.

The birth of the Blue Jays, and then the World Series win, increased interest in baseball all across Canada, and we’ve seen record numbers of Canadians in the Majors in recent years. The birth of the Raptors, and the success of Steve Nash, has already led to more and more Canadians making it to the NBA. This should only increase that in the years to come…

Other examples are the Canadian Olympic hockey wins for the men’s team both in 2002 and, especially in Vancouver in 2010. And, of course, Paul Henderson’s goal in 1972. But those only confirmed that we’re a hockey-crazy country. Just having a women’s national team that competes for World and Olympic titles (and often wins them) has been a huge boost for women’s hockey. More and more girls are playing … but it hasn’t done much to help the women’s professional game. 

Donovan Bailey, and the 4 x 100 relay team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Perhaps there’s no Andre de Grasse without that. (Ben Johnson would have been HUGE). Another historic comparison would be Mike Weir winning The Masters … though I think the Raptors and Blue Jays are bigger. Still, is there a Brooke Henderson without that?

The only other examples are really extremely old. There’s the Paris Crew, four rowers from New Brunswick who won Canada’s first World Championship in any sport when they won in Paris, France in 1867. (There was a Heritage Minute about that) Rowing was a huge sport internationally then, and during the 1880s, Toronto’s Ned Hanlon became a world champion and was probably the most famous athlete in the world.

4.  What do you think James Naismith would think about the Raptors success?

I’m sure he’d be pleased. But he’d probably wonder what took so long! Naismith (1861-1939) lived long enough to see how popular his sport became all around the world. In fact, basketball became hugely popular very quickly, even in Canada. Canada won bronze in the first official Olympic basketball tournament in 1936, and the sport was very popular in pockets of the country (particularly Windsor, ON and Victoria BC) much as hockey has always been popular in parts of the United States.

9 thoughts on “We The North

  1. Very interesting, Eric. I was never a basketball fanatic, and in high school, the girls’ rules were horrible, (could only use 2/3 of the court, and three dribbles, etc., and being one of the shortest in the class, were all challenges to me). But I have a friend who loves to watch the game, and he and I did watch a few games on TV, and I was hooked by the team play of the Raptors. The odd game I had watched seemed to be filled with those who hung on the rim, and it was all about one great player, and the rest of the team were just guards. I admired the way the passing was done so beautifully and how the team came together to support each other. No, I was not one of those who attended the party yesterday, but I did enjoy the series, with the excepton of the last .9 seconds of the winning game!! By the way, I remember showing a film to my grade 5 students about Canadians in sports. The best was about Naismith who used a basket for harvesting peaches, for his first basket ball game. Rules were made up as the game proceeded, and when the ball went into the basket, a ladder was near by to climb to retrieve it. Don’t remember who got the idea of cutting out the bottom of the basket!!
    Another reason I enjoyed the games is that it was always moving, not like football, or even baseball. I also enjoy a good soccer game for that same reason. Hockey, well, maybe next year. I still remember 1967, that was a good year for the Leafs!!

  2. Eric,
    I am even less of a basketball fan than you are. Our high school was so small that it didn’t have a gym… so no chance even to play. But, any time a Canadian team… especially a Toronto… wins a championship, I am glad.
    It’s interesting that Naismith’s home town was Almonte, just south of Arnprior where I was a pastor for 4 years. It was a big deal for a village like that to have one of its native sons put the place on the map.
    You mentioned the Maple Leaf ball team. When I was about 18, the baseball team I played for actually went by bus to see them play. In fact, as I recall, it was double header.
    The team paid for the tickets and a restaurant meal afterwards. You probably were not even born then… it was 1952 as I recall.

    1. Speaking of Almonte, Barbara and I were there in December of 2015 (she’d had family living there when she was growing up in Ottawa) around the time that an old audio recording of James Naismith was unearthed. Global TV was doing a story. It’s pretty interesting… and check out the surprise face around the 2:30 mark of this 2:58 clip!


  3. Eric how big do you think the parade would be if the Maple Leafs won? And would it be celebrated all across Canada? Basically are the Maple Leafs more popular across Canada than the Blue Jays and Raptors? Would like to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. I would never have thought that a Raptors celebration could ever surpass a Leafs celebration … but now I’m not so sure. (Of course, I also remember people debating if Toronto had become a “Baseball Town” more than a “Hockey Town” in the Blue Jays glory years, and I think we’ve all seen — even if it might have been true, briefly — that that wasn’t the case.) Still, I’m not sure if young people (20 or 30-somethings) follow the Leafs in the same way they follow the Raptors. Not to mention those from different cultures, who certainly seem more likely to be basketball fans than hockey fans. It takes a lot of money to play hockey, and even to be a hockey fan. More than it takes for basketball or baseball. Maybe the young and diverse fans would jump on the bandwagon if the Leafs are ever to go on a playoff roll again and win the Stanley Cup … but I wonder if the Raptors may have already stole their thunder? If the Leafs were to win next year — a BIG if! — or even within a couple of years, would these fans feel like, “been there, done that?” It could be.

      And as for the reaction in the rest of the country… Yes, the Maple Leafs have fans everywhere … but I don’t see viewing parties in 60 different cities! (Certainly NOT in Montreal!) The Raptors, and the Blue Jays, are the only Canadian teams in their sports. That certainly makes it easier for basketball and baseball fans to put aside everything else they all seem to hate about Toronto. I know there are plenty of Leafs fans in Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, but would Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg put aside all allegiances to the Canucks, Flames, Oilers and Jets? Some would … but would the teams officially get behind that (which is what would be needed to open up the arenas)? The Leafs may well be more popular when it comes right down to it, and I’m sure the TV ratings would be HUGE. Probably even bigger than the Raptors, but would entire communities rally around the Leafs in the same way? I don’t think so… But, maybe some day, we’ll actually get to find out!

  4. Eric, here’s another piece of local “Toronto” basketball trivia. My mother’s cousin was the late Irv (Irving) Salsberg. Irv was a high school and gym teacher at my high school, Forest Hill Collegiate, and was also the coach of the FHCI Falcons basketball team. After Irv passed away ( 1983/1984 ), within the Toronto area high schools, a new basketball championship tournament & trophy were established in his honour/memory.

  5. Another very interesting article!
    I saw you on TV and thought you did very well! I’ll have to get your autograph!

  6. I knew Irv Salsberg very well. He was best friends with my brother, your uncle Gerry. I worked for him one summer in the camp where he was the director. He was a very nice person, as was his wife, Kitty. I did not know about the basketball tournament and trophy but thoroughly understand it being established in his memory.

  7. Great article Eric! I was never good at playing basketball…too short! And I just can’t watch on TV….
    Unless it is Harlem Globetrotters! Not sure if they count!!!
    Winning is always better than losing 😉
    Sherri-Ellen T-D.

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