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Inaugural Naismith Classic Encouraging for Toronto with Room to Grow

TORONTO– In the bowels of Scotiabank Arena last Saturday, you could find Greg Procino and his Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame team hard at work. 

It was the culmination of a grueling 16-month process. The Basketball Hall of Fame, in an effort to honour the legacy of Dr. Naismith, had successfully brought its Naismith Classic to Toronto, Canada. A triple-header of games featuring six NCAA Division I programs provided basketball fans in Toronto a glimpse of the future talent in the sport. 

“This is a new event in a new market for us,” said Greg Procino, Director of Events and Awards at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. “It is a new product that we are trying to grow and build. We are pleased with where we are today and certainly not discouraged.” 

The first matchup featuring Harvard vs. Buffalo featured three Canadians on the Crimson: Danilo Djuricic (Mississauga, Ontario), Luka Sakota (Etobicoke, Ontario) and Noah Kirkwood (Ottawa, Ontario). The three players combined for 26 points, despite losing to Buffalo 88-76.

The second game of Tennessee taking on Washington demonstrated highly-touted NBA draft prospects, including the Volunteers guard Jordan Bowden (18 points, six rebounds and three assists) and Huskies power forward Isaiah Stewart (14 points, 10 rebounds and one assist). Both Bowden and Stewart are expected to be drafted in the 2020 NBA Draft. And with Tennessee defeating Washington 75-62, both schools are currently ranked in the Top 25 of the NCAA Basketball Rankings. 

In the final contest of the day, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies, who were winless coming into Saturday, showcased an inspired, full-team effort, defeating Rutgers University 80-74. Despite having a total of 2,052 students enrolled at St. Bonaventure, Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt credits the school’s energetic fans, giving the team confidence to close the game out down the stretch. 

“I’m really proud of being the coach of Bonaventure,” said Schmidt. “Without the crowd support, we may not have won this game. We are proud to play in this type of event, given our history of Canadian players coming to play basketball at Bonaventure.”

When the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame considered having a Classic in Toronto, one of the factors was having schools with Canadian content. The Harvard Crimson fit this requirement, with head coach Tommy Amaker bringing Djuricic, Sakota and Kirkwood to the event. 

For Djuricic, the Naismith Classic was an opportunity to come back to his roots. Canada was the place that provided him chances to play competitive basketball. On Saturday, Djuricic could return the favour to friends and family present, giving a glimpse of his basketball talent to his home country. 

“I didn’t think I would have the chance to go back and play on the floor of Scotiabank Arena in my college career,” said Djuricic. “Having the opportunity to come back home and play for family and friends in a historic arena is something I will always remember.”

Djuricic played high school basketball at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. The Blue Raiders head coach Jeff Zownir recalls the first time he saw Djuricic compete at a club game at St. Mikes, propelling him to bring the young guard to the varsity team at just 14 years old. 

“At 13/14 years old, Danilo stood out to me,” said Zownir over the phone. “He wasn’t the most skilled initially but his aggressiveness and physicality made up for that. He just went over it at such a young age.” 

While many of the St. Michael’s players needed time to develop their overall character, Djuricic was wise beyond his years. Zownir believes that the maturity level Djuricic exhibited made him receptive to improve as a basketball player. It would lead him to become the captain of a Blue Raiders squad that won the OFSAA Championships in 2015 and 2017. 

“We were playing in the Burger King Classic in Erie, Pennsylvania,” said Zownir. “Down one point with five seconds left, we did an inbounds play to Danilo. He sank the three and we won the game. It doesn’t take a genius to get the ball to your best player. Danilo showed no hesitation when making that clutch game-winner.” 

Djuricic would end up choosing Harvard as his school to play competitive basketball and get a world-class education. His success following St. Michael’s includes making the NCAA Tournament with Harvard as well as winning the FIBA U-19 World Championships as a member of Team Canada. Against Buffalo at the Naismith Classic, Djuricic exemplified his great rebounding skills, ability to make the extra pass as well as his improved jump shot. According to Zownir, the legacy Djuricic leaves behind at St. Mikes speaks to the school’s ability to produce future NCAA Basketball talent. 

“Danilo was the poster child for everything we are about at St. Mikes,” said Zownir. “He was a gentleman and class-act on and off the court who did everything right. We have had so many Division I coaches in our gym and Danilo’s performance at St. Mikes inspires current students with the belief that they can go and play a high level of competitive basketball in the NCAA and potentially the pros.” 

It is easy to look at the attendance numbers and immediately draw conclusions about the Naismith Classic. Having between 7,500-8,000 fans in attendance over the course of three games is short of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s initial goal of around 10,000 people. 

But a college basketball event in a market not used to NCAA hoops does not become popular instantaneously. As Procino explained, whenever the Basketball Hall of Fame tests new cities, it takes a few years before the Classic becomes a staple event in that market. 

“We want to leave a good impression on an event that has competitive games and a good product that people have grown awareness of,” said Procino. “If everyone has good taste when they leave, from a fan, team, venue and organizer perspective, that is as good as we can ask for.

Awareness, advertising, and marketability are certainly the areas of improvement going forward. But there were positive facets to take away from the inaugural Naismith Classic. 

For starters, the crowd size grew from the first game to the last. When the St. Bonaventure/Rutgers game was happening, the lower bowl of Scotiabank Arena was at its fullest. Both of the schools’ fan bases were loud and raucous, emulating what a college basketball atmosphere is like south of the border. 

Given the multitude of American locations for the Naismith Classic, having the presence of NCAA senior leadership in Toronto on Saturday is significant. Dan Gavitt, Vice President of NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships, chose to come to Toronto for the Naismith Classic because of the rapid proliferation of Canadian NCAA players going to the NBA.

“It is fantastic for college basketball to be in Toronto,” said Gavitt. “It’s a passionate basketball area with a ton of young players coming to play college basketball and going to the NBA. It is such a global game and so many more kids are coming from other countries to play in the NCAA. Canadians have a unique opportunity when they are coming up to play against Americans in Canada or in the States. It makes perfect sense, given the proximity to Division I schools, to play in the NCAA.” 

Procino also stated the importance of relying on local partnerships and resources to increase the branding of the Naismith Classic in Toronto. Toronto Raptors Superfan Nav Bhatia was heavily involved in promoting the event, including partnering with the Aga Khan Museum to purchase 1,300 tickets for kids who couldn’t afford to go to Raptors games. When speaking with Nav courtside during the St. Bonaventure/Rutgers game, he sees great potential for this event to grow next year and beyond. 

“This has been a very successful event, “ said Bhatia. “Look at the excitement and energy of this event. Basketball is on the up and it is great to see people come and watch on short notice.” 

20 years ago, an NCAA college basketball event in Toronto would have been foreign and unheard of. Attempts to put together an event in Canada had only gone as far as Division I schools coming for exhibition games, like Duke University last year. 

But with the Toronto Raptors winning an NBA Championship, coupled with the rise in popularity of Canada Basketball, made last Saturday’s event possible. It is clear that the programs represented at the Naismith Classic love coming to Canada and playing basketball. 

“Any chance for the team to spend time together in one of the most beautiful cities in the world is a wonderful experience,” said Washington Huskies head coach Mike Hopkins. “We went to the CN Tower and had a wonderful meal as a team. It is a great event that provides our team with the opportunity to grow as a unit.” 

With data and a year of experience under their belt, the Basketball Hall of Fame will look at ways to improve a Toronto version of this event for the future. From enhanced advertising and marketing to potentially bringing big-ticket programs like Michigan or Syracuse, it will lay the foundation for a Naismith Classic in Toronto to continue to grow. 

“With three or four months to promote, I can assure you that we will get every seat in Scotiabank Arena filled with a body,” said Bhatia. 

While there are areas to improve, the excitement and energy from the Naismith Classic in Toronto should not go unnoticed. It is another step forward that epitomizes the energy and passion for basketball at all levels in Canada. 

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