Photo credit: Trung Ho / TrungHo.ca
It was just over an hour past noon on Sunday when all hell broke loose on Toronto social media. Word got out that prized free agent John Tavares would be signing with the Maple Leafs, and as you can imagine, a city yearning for a championship for its most famous team, began dreaming their biggest dreams.
As the press conferences played out, talk heads gave their takes, and writers filed their stories, there’s probably one image that has become tattooed to memory (at least mine anyway) more than any other.
Tavares, lying in bed as a child about a couple of decades ago, smothered by a Maple Leafs pillow, blanket and sheets.
Not everyday you can live a childhood dream pic.twitter.com/YUTKdfMALl
— John Tavares (@91Tavares) July 1, 2018
It’s an image all sports fans can relate to, not just athletes. The undying passion for your favourite sports team. Sure, the Leafs haven’t won a championship since 1967, but it’s the love of the game that has fueled the Canadian talent pool we’ve seen in ice hockey for generations.
On Friday in Toronto and Monday in Ottawa, basketball showed that it’s starting to take a similar path. The number who have given to the sport over years in the hope that it can one day make a meaningful difference has steadily grown, with the presence of Canadians never felt more than it is today. Outside of the United States, it is the most well represented country in the league.
Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins are still very young, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph have championship rings. Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles continue to expand their contributions, while Dillon Brooks is looking to build on a strong rookie campaign. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Justin Jackson will look to follow in his footsteps.
Some of those players were named to the Team Canada roster to help qualify for the FIBA World Cup next year, and they were given the rare opportunity to represent their country on home soil.
“It’s awesome, we know that that opportunity doesn’t come very often,” Olynyk said after a resounding 97-61 win over Dominican Republic that allowed them to take complete charge of their group. “Hopefully it’ll come more often now, with the changes in the format and stuff. Just to bring this back to the city where a lot of us grew up and are from, even the country that we’re from. Give back to these fans who’ve supported us our whole lives, give back to the country that’s given us this opportunity to do what we do away from it. It’s special.”
Basketball’s international governing body, FIBA, implemented the changes since 2017 to provide fans the opportunity to see their national side play. Now, it would help if national broadcasters would actually pick up the rights to showcase the team for those who don’t make it out to the arena, but that’s a topic for another day (shouts to DAZN for streaming it for free).
Olynyk’s words bled loyalty to a country, but one can’t help but wonder when that loyalty will spill over on a franchise level, and the chance to represent the Toronto Raptors. After all, they are the only NBA team in the country, and the idea that at some point some kid will be draped (if he isn’t already) in nothing but Raptors gear and hopes to be the difference maker for a franchise looking for its first championship doesn’t seem too far fetched.
Steve Nash is the best player to have ever come out of this country, and while he never played for the Raptors, he did come close, even if it was in the latter stages of his career. Joseph may not have quite the game or resume that Nash does, but he’s spoken on multiple occasions about how much playing for the Raptors has meant to him. FIBA qualifiers, whether it be the World Cup or Olympics, will provide NBA players with very limited opportunities to play on their home court, but the Raptors, that’s a different story altogether.
American kids long grew up wanting to play for either the Celtics or Lakers. Even the Knicks of yore had their appeal. The best player in the league for almost the past decade felt obligated to bring a championship to his city and break a 52-year drought. Sure, player power is at a new height where loyalty seems to be the last thing on their minds, but that’s where being Canada’s only team could come in handy.
The basketball following in the country, though still relatively small, is growing. The improvement in talent and — above all — winning is what will inspire kids to continue the tradition.
“It’s definitely night and day,” Olynyk said about Canadian basketball. “We’ve come a long way, but you wouldn’t be here without going through all the stuff you went through when I was starting the program 10 years ago, it’s big. The success of the women and the younger guys is unbelievable to see. Basketball in this country is still on the rise, we’re turning out products every single year.”
Arguably the hottest of those products is R.J. Barrett, who showed glimpses of his potential with several strong drives to the rim. He finished tied for the team lead in scoring against Dominican Republic and was third with 13 points in 19 minutes against the U.S. Virgin Islands. He will set off to Duke to take his game to another level, before making the leap to the NBA and playing for whoever is willing to #GrinandBarrett.
Does he hold a desire deep down to be the one who does something special for the Raptors? Maybe, maybe not. Others will come along who won’t be quite like him but with their own seemingly sky-high ceilings and as long as the Raptors are the only Canadian NBA team, that same hope will be maintained.
For years, the Raptors have looked feeble against the biggest free agent suitors but their winning culture has steadily seen them narrow the gap. Being unconventional with Drake as a global ambassador or just having one of the best cities the league has to offer has its perks, but being the country’s only team is as unique as it gets. If there’s one thing this Canada Day long weekend showed, it’s that there’s nothing these guys love more than playing in their own backyard.