by Jeff Fox
The Raptors—or whatever their new name turns out to be—might be young in the scheme of things, having only joined the League in 1996, but pro basketball has a rich history in Toronto that far pre-dates the Purple Dinosaurs. As a matter of fact, the first NBA game ever took place in the city—only fitting considering the sport was invented by a Canadian—on November 1, 1946. That fall day, the visiting New York Knickerbockers edged past the Toronto Huskies, 68-66, in legendary Maple Leaf Gardens in front of 7,090 well-dressed spectators. And, unfortunately, the home team’s luck hasn’t gotten much better since that day.
The Huskies only lasted one season, after which the city was an NBA orphan for another 50 years. And since its return, there hasn’t been too much to cheer for, either. An inability to attract elite free agents north of the border, coupled with the constant, premature migration of its stars down south—Tracy McGrady, Damon Stoudamire, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, to name a few—has made the Raptors a bit of a flaccid franchise. In their 18 seasons, the Raps have only made the Playoffs five times and have never advanced past the second round. Despite the lack of success, the stands at the Air Canada Centre (and the team’s former home, the SkyDome), have remained relatively packed, with the team ranking among the upper half of the League in attendance 12 out of its 18 years. Luckily this fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by all Raptors players.
“I love playing in Toronto,” says four-year vet DeMar DeRozan. “The city is beautiful and the fans are great—they know the game of basketball. I entered the League as a 19-year-old kid and I’ve basically grown up in front of the Raptors fans. They’ve always been supportive and that’s one of the main reasons why I committed to staying in Toronto. I want to be part of something great with the Raptors.”
The Raptors organization is hoping that new management, a possible name change and a roster full of young, eager and hungry players like DeRozan will make their future as bright as the lights on Yonge St.
The city also hasn’t had much more luck producing homegrown NBA pros—yet. The best of the bunch has been Eastern Commerce grad Jamaal Magloire, who played in one All-Star game. All of that is about to change, though, as a young contingent of NBA-level, heck, All-Star level, talent from the city is coming of age, led by current pros Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. They’ll be joined in the L this fall by fellow Torontonian and 2013 No. 1 Draft pick Anthony Bennett, Kelly Olynyk and (most likely) Myck Kabongo. And that number is only going to grow, as an unprecedented level of young talent is on its way.
On the female side of the ledger, area native Tammy Sutton-Brown is sitting out this season after playing the last 12 in the WNBA, making two All-Star teams and winning a chip last year with Indiana.
BIG MEN ON CAMPUS
Not surprisingly for a city its size, Toronto has a ton of college basketball teams. There are three university teams (Toronto, Ryerson and York) that compete in Canada’s highest collegiate athletic league, the CIS, and another six community colleges that compete in their own league. And while these teams routinely play—and win—exhibition games versus NCAA DI teams every year, the best college hoops talent in Canada tends to head down south to the free rides of the NCAA.
The most talented of the Canadians currently balling for US colleges is, of course, none other than “Canada’s LeBron,” Andrew Wiggins. The GTA (Greater Toronto Area) native is expected to be the first pick in next June’s NBA Draft. First, though, he’ll attend Kansas. Ultimately, before all is said and done, he may go down as the greatest player the country has ever produced, which is saying a lot considering two-time NBA MVP and future HOFer Steve Nash is also a proud Canuck.
But Wiggins is just the icing on the cake of the best Toronto NCAA freshman class of all time. Joining Wiggins in the NCAA this fall are top recruits Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Xavier Rathan-Mayes (Florida State). And the GTA’s NCAA incumbents aren’t too shabby either, with veterans Dwight Powell (Stanford), Nik Stauskas (Michigan) and Melvin Ejim (Iowa State) leading a group of close to 50 GTA ballers currently playing in DI (not to mention around 20 GTA women playing DI as well).
The best prep talent in Toronto (and Canada in general) usually bounces down to the States in the early stages of their high school careers. That wasn’t always the case, as local legends Leo Rautins (Syracuse, then the NBA), Magloire (Kentucky, then the NBA), and Denham Brown (111 points in a high school game at West Hill before attending UConn), among others, stayed home for school before going down south.
One current player bucking that US exodus trend, at least for the time being, is top-50 Class of 2015 prospect Chris Egi, who is currently playing for his hometown school St. Andrews College in the Toronto suburb of Markham. He’s actually joined in 2015’s top 50 by GTA native Montaque Gill-Caesar, who is playing at Huntington Prep, in West Virginia.
The Class of 2014 isn’t quite as stacked as 2013 or 2015, but it does contain GTA talent Jabari Craig (Tucker High School in Georgia), who is a top-150 recruit.
As for the players who do stay home to play in the GTA, they’ve dominated Ontario’s provincial (state) championships, winning 14 out of the last 26 titles, including three out of the last four years.
Despite the popular myth, it doesn’t always snow in Canada, and everyone doesn’t live in igloos, so there is actually a vibrant streetball scene in the T.O. And if you are looking for the best runs, the Harbourfront court on Queens Quay is the place to be. Weekend warriors, streetballers and returning local pros all get a sweat going on this outdoor court, which offers a beautiful view of Lake Ontario. And if it does happen to snow, the game just moves indoors to the adjacent Harbourfront Community Centre.
When the snow does come, there are plenty of indoor runs in the GTA. For that, we turn to SLAM contributor and T.O. native Ray Bala as our tour guide.
“If you’re thinking pick-up indoor, I’d say the Metro Central YMCA,” Bala says. “It’s the biggest one in the GTA with two full courts and with at least one side always open, you get a run in. The run quality may vary from day to day, but I’ve been playing inside there for about 10 years and outside of the regular guys just trying to get a good sweat in, I’ve seen the likes of local university and returning NCAA ballers to pros playing overseas to random celebs dropping in for a run.
“Other than that, the Hoopdome in north Toronto is a great indoor facility that has four college fullcourts and a set of smaller side rims,” Bala continues. “It’s a trek from just about anywhere since it’s a little out of the way in an industrial park, but the courts are nice and the runs are decent. You’ll usually see high school or college kids getting worked out day or night, and it was actually the place that my friend Kyle Julius worked out Andrea Bargnani for a month a couple of years back. The Hoopdome also hosts various tournaments in the summer and ID camps but can be really humid and sticky since it’s located inside a former airplane hangar.”
See? It does get humid and sticky in Canada…sometimes.
How We Do
The GTA is a sprawling, diverse area where most top players depart for down south in their early teens. This makes it tough to describe a prototypical Toronto baller, but one of the city’s brightest young talents takes a stab at characterizing what type of players the area produces.
“I can’t really generalize all of us,” says Tyler Ennis. “But I’d say players out of the GTA are always hungry. Sometimes laid back, but always playing to prove themselves.”
You could describe T.O. ballers as conquerors. Led by Wiggins, Thompson, Joseph and the like, Toronto is about to make its mark on the basketball map. Or, to quote another Torontonian, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.”