TORONTO — Former Team Canada basketball star Sherman Hamilton has heard “O Canada” played at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, two FIBA World Championships and countless Toronto Raptors games. But whether it’s been sung in English, French or both, never did Canada’s national anthem sound as sweet as when the black Canadian heard it sung by The Tenors at the 2019 NBA Finals on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.
“I sang, and it was the first time I sang all season long,” the admittedly off-key Hamilton told The Undefeated. Hamilton is now a color analyst for NBA TV Canada. “It was special. For me, this is what it’s about. Since I was 10, it has been all about basketball. So to hear the anthem played at the Finals, Game 1 in Toronto, and the support was off the chart, it was a real moment for a person like me.
“It felt like this was a first and a moment I wouldn’t get back. I wanted to be part of it fully. There is a pride that goes along with it as well, knowing what this moment means for our country and this city.”
The game of basketball was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith, in December 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts, to condition young athletes indoors during the winter. The first NBA (then the Basketball Association of America) game was also played in Canada on Nov. 1, 1946, when the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knickerbockers at Maple Leaf Garden before an opening night crowd of 7,090. (The Huskies lost 68-66.)
But it took until 2019 before the NBA Finals were played on Canadian soil, with the Raptors beating the Golden State Warriors in Game 1, 118-109.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver paid respect to the history of the league in Canada before Game 1. “This is a homecoming of sorts for basketball in Canada,” Silver said.
The Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies joined the NBA in 1995. But after six struggling seasons, the Grizzlies moved to Memphis in 2001. The Raptors have been the only NBA team in Canada since then, and Silver said Thursday that expansion is not in the league’s plans.
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Even with its beloved hockey, Ontario eventually fell in love with basketball and stars Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and now Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors have distinguished themselves with the motto “We The North,” opening an outdoor viewing area outside the arena called “Jurassic Park” and featuring a roster that included the most international players in the NBA this season.
“The spirit is way different,” Bosh said. “Even me being back there and seeing how much it means to people here, it’s a little different. The passion and enthusiasm is way different, and they are going to try to use it to win this series.”
The Raptors’ presence in the Finals has given Canadian basketball its biggest profile since the country hosted the FIBA World Championships in 1994. These NBA Finals will be covered by 14 international TV and radio networks live on site and six international television networks remotely. And what viewers saw in Game 1 from the fans in the sold-out arena and outside at “Jurassic Park” was much more than the team colors of red, black and white. The worldwide audience witnessed people of many ethnicities cheering together for their beloved Raptors.
“It was amazing being here,” said actor, writer, producer and Raptors fan Simu Liu, a Chinese immigrant to Canada who stars in the popular Canadian television sitcom Kim’s Convenience. “We made history by being here, and tonight we made history again by winning. And we’re going to do it over and over again until we win.”
Denver Nuggets guard and Ontario native Jamal Murray, whose father is Jamaican, added: “It meant everything to the country.”
According to the 2016 Census, Toronto’s population is 50% white, with the balance being East Indian (12.7%), Chinese (10.8%), South Asian (12.3%), black (8.5%), Southeast Asian (7%) and Latin American (2.8%).
The Raptors’ most famous fan is the rapper-actor Drake, who is black and Jewish. Their second-most famous fan is the Indian-Canadian businessman Nav Bhatia. The team’s only public address announcer in its history is Herbie Kuhn, who is German and Guyanese. And the Raptors’ team president is Nigerian, with a roster that includes players from the United States, Canada, Cameroon, Spain and the Republic of Congo, plus the first Taiwanese American to make the Finals.
“Now we are seeing basketball at the highest level being supported by everybody,” Hamilton said. “Every color. Every age. For a basketball person, it’s a huge, huge moment in the history of our country. If you go into Jurassic Park, you even see more diversity.”
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Nik Stauskas, a native of Mississauga, Ontario, said what makes Toronto an amazing city is its diversity.
“You see Jamaican mixed with Asian mixed with European,” Stauskas said. “There are just so many different people here from all different backgrounds. That’s what makes it special, just having those different backgrounds.”
The Raptors completed the night to remember by defeating the two-time defending champs behind Pascal Siakam’s 32-point performance. But as memorable as the win was, the bigger victory might have been the world seeing the Canadian pride in its diversity.
“We’ve always been a melting pot and one of the biggest in the world,” Hamilton said. “So to see all of the rainbows of colors, we’re used to it. And we’re very proud of it.”