TORONTO — As his driver maneuvered around the passionate NBA fans filing into Jurassic Park before Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals, Isiah Thomas had a moment of reflection.
The memories took him back more than 25 years ago, when he was hired as the Toronto Raptors’ first executive vice president. Thomas recalled driving from one media outlet to the next, knocking on doors and trying to persuade people to give him an opportunity to sell the Raptors to a populace who viewed basketball as a foreign sport.
His task, even after the new team started playing games, wasn’t easy.
“You know where we stood just by turning on the news,” Thomas said. “The order of the highlights would be hockey, hockey, hockey, the Blue Jays, the Argonauts, tennis and curling.
“After curling,” Thomas added, laughing, “Then you’d get to the Raptors.”
In a country where hockey rules, the Raptors’ run to the Finals has provided Toronto with an extreme makeover. From fans wearing Raptors jerseys and “We The North” T-shirts to the sneaker store on West Queen Street celebrating the team with rotating murals to the artwork on the side of a house in the gentrifying Garden District proclaiming Kawhi Leonard as “The King of the North,” you’d be challenged during these NBA playoffs to find signs that the Toronto Maple Leafs even exist in this city.
An increase in the number of Canadian stars in the NBA (including Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins) and record-breaking television ratings are indicators of how much basketball has grown in Canada since the NBA expanded into Toronto and Vancouver 25 years ago.
It’s come a long way from the hostility those north of the border who long loved the sport had to endure to get to this point of acceptance. ESPN’s Mark Jones pointed this out in a recent tweet.
I’m thrilled for the Raptors success,the growth of hoops in Toronto.Can’t put the Genie back in the bottle now.
But the dirty little secret is that not everybody in Toronto wanted to see basketball succeed.
I’ve got receipts.I’ve been on the front line.
But Hoops won
— MarkJonesESPN (@MarkJonesESPN) May 28, 2019
Jones has firsthand knowledge. Long before he emerged as a versatile play-by-play commentator on ESPN’s coverage of the NBA, Jones was a local basketball star in Toronto in high school at Oakwood Collegiate Institute and later as an all-conference player at York University, where he and his older brother, Raptors radio announcer Paul Jones, are in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.
The Jones brothers are part of a diverse community in Toronto that includes a large number black Canadians who migrated from the Caribbean. They loved basketball and, in an era long before the NBA arrived in Canada and the sport was shown on local airwaves, had to travel to different bars in the city to watch games.
“We went to one spot and dude had to literally go up on the roof in the middle of winter to get the satellite to move for the right coordinates because it was frozen,” Jones recalled. “But going to bars with a dish was the only way we’d see the games.”
With a desire to stay connected to sports, Jones accepted a job as an editorial assistant at TSN, Canada’s largest specialty channel. Part of his job was cutting up highlights for the talent, and one day after he delivered a script, the anchor glanced at the content and said, “Jonesy, this item on Indiana … Pacers, or not?”
The anchor wasn’t sure that was the team’s name.
Jones eventually moved into an anchor role at TSN, but the difficult he had in trying to get NBA content on the air eventually led him to seek work in the United States.
“I wanted the Pistons/Bulls playoff game to be the in the No. 1 spot in the sportscast, not 25 minutes into the show,” said Jones, who left TSN for ESPN. “They used to throw ratings in my face all the time and tell me that curling beat basketball, and I’d tell them, ‘Yeah, ’cause you guys put curling out there every day!’ ”
Curling getting love before the NBA on sportscasts was likely a decision by the networks to cater to the people who made up the population of areas outside of Toronto, where much of the populace looks more Montana than Miami.
“There’s Toronto, and then there’s the rest of Canada,” Jones said. “I think if the media had been more open-minded about basketball in those early years, the popularity of the sport would have been accelerated.”
It was in that climate that the Raptors were launched in Toronto in 1995. As Thomas hit all the media outlets pleading for exposure, players were also asked to travel throughout the Eastern provinces to sell the team to a public that was uneducated about basketball.
Tracy Murray, an expansion draft pickup by the Raptors after he won a championship with the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, said the media commitments in Toronto were more than were required with any team he played for during his 12-year NBA career.
“Once we drove to an appearance a couple hours’ drive outside of Toronto and set up a table for autograph signings, and there’s nobody there,” Murray recalled. “I remember one guy came up to the table and says, ‘OK, Raptors,’ then looks in my direction and says, ‘but who is this guy?’ ”
That response wasn’t a surprise, which led the Raptors to make a key early decision: sell the sport to the nation’s youths instead of trying to convert the older fans who were stuck on hockey.
Thus, the iconic dinosaur logo on the early uniforms.
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“The Raptor mascot, we basically patterned after Mickey Mouse in trying to connect to the kids,” Thomas said. “Combine that with our top draft pick, Damon Stoudamire, having the nickname ‘Mighty Mouse’ — we couldn’t have had better symbols to connect with the youth.”
Imagine the connection to youth that Thomas could have made had he drafted the player he wanted, Kevin Garnett, with the seventh pick.
“Had we picked him I was only going to play him only in 41 games — the home games — and enroll him in the University of Toronto to make sure he went to college,” Thomas said. “Kevin McHale [of the Minnesota Timberwolves] had asked me about Garnett before the draft, and I told him that I liked him. McHale ended up picking him.”
While drafting a high schooler could have provided benefits to the appeal to kids, having a 5-foot-9 point guard had its advantages.
“Damon was great in helping us spark the imagination of the kids,” Thomas said. “I wanted the kids to have a chance to see basketball, to meet the players and to watch the game to a degree it would help spark their imagination.”
Mike Meeks may have been beyond the age of the youths Thomas was trying to reach (he was 22 when the Raptors played their first game), but he definitely felt the ripple launched by the NBA’s arrival.
Meeks, who was born in Jamaica before his family immigrated to the Toronto suburb of Brampton, played street hockey until a growth spurt (he’s 6-feet-10) shifted his attention to basketball. Finding the best local run meant weekend trips 30 miles away at George Brown College in Toronto.
“I was often the only player in that gym from the suburbs,” Meeks said. “Now the suburbs are often the hotbeds.”
Meeks would know. He serves as the manager of youth player development for Canada Basketball, and his job is to travel the entire country — he’s been invited to basketball camps in the sparsely populated Northwest territories — to identify talent that could have an impact on Canada’s future national teams.
“Basketball, when I was growing up, was simply an extracurricular activity and hockey was on television all the time, even in the summer,” said Meeks, who played college basketball in the States at Canisius and was a member of the Canadian team in the 2000 Games. “The thinking, at least in the Toronto area, changed really quickly after the Raptors arrived in town and a large portion of the generation are playing basketball because of it.”
The Raptors, of course, were joined by the Vancouver Grizzlies during the 1995 expansion and, at the time, there was an uptick in interest in British Columbia as well. But Vancouver native Joey Haywood, a two-time National Basketball League All-Star who possesses streetball credentials that earned him the name “King Handles,” said a smaller number of people in his hometown who could relate to basketball probably had an impact on the NBA’s failure to gain traction. The Grizzlies left after six years.
“I was excited when the two teams came to Canada,” Haywood said. “But even though I was a talented player, I was told I played ‘rap ball’ and ‘jungle ball.’ Toronto had more black people and because of that the mainstream community understood black culture a little bit more. That wasn’t the case in Vancouver, and people just didn’t get basketball.”
It feels like the Raptors, as the lone NBA representative in the entire country, have the ability to change the perception of the game.
Game 1 averaged 3.3 million viewers, and TSN revealed that 7.4 million were reached in Canada. In comparison, the reach of the playoff game in which the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated in the first round of the NHL playoffs was 3.7 million viewers, according to a report across two networks that included a national cable channel (Sportsnet) and an over-the-air channel (CBC).
“I was talking to a teacher at the school I work at part time, and he said he watched the game on Thursday, the first time he had ever watched an entire game in his life, and he enjoyed it,” Haywood said. “They’re playing in Toronto, but the Finals are just as big here in Vancouver. I hope Canada learns from what’s going on, and I hope it transfers here in terms of increased interest in the sport.”
Hockey is the national winter sport in Canada. If there was any doubt, the National Sports Act, passed by the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, claimed it as such on May 12, 1994. The proclamation came just six months after the NBA announced it was launching the United States’ main winter sport, basketball, into Canada.
Of 31 teams in the NHL, seven are based in Canada. None of those Canadian teams were among the final eight teams in this year’s NHL playoffs. And a Canadian team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens hoisted it in 1993.
Recently a nationally televised playoff game featuring two teams representing the National Winter Sport of Canada was outperformed in the television ratings by a cooking show called Mary’s Kitchen Crush.
There’s a reason that Jurassic Park, the Raptors’ official viewing party, is packed. Why television ratings are up. And why residents from all of Canada — Prince Edward Island to the Yukon — are rallying behind the Raptors.
The country is hungry to support a winner. And the Raptors, in their run to the NBA Finals, are feeding the beast.
Chris Bosh, who began his career in Toronto and played seven seasons here, is ecstatic.
“They were supporting us when we were struggling, and now the fan base is getting rewarded for their loyalty,” Bosh said. “This passion is different. It’s a whole country behind this team, that’s 30 or 40 million people.”
For those basketball heads who were down from Day One — the natives who embraced the game when the sport of basketball wasn’t fashionable in Canada — the emergence of the Raptors instills a sense of pride.
As the Canadian anthem played, Simu Liu, a well-known actor in Canada whose family immigrated to Toronto when he was a kid, couldn’t help but think of the growing acceptance of basketball over the past decade.
“Six years ago, you could walk into a sports bar on any given day and it was all hockey,” Liu said. “These days, it’s all basketball. Toronto is turning into a basketball city.”
That’s exactly what Thomas felt when he took the job with the team in 1994 and attempted to sell the team to anyone who listened. Many of those kids whom the organization focused on back in 1994 are the young adults who passionately fill Jurassic Park to cheer on their team.
“We knew we wouldn’t be able to take our plan all the way through,” Thomas said. “To have someone like [Raptors president] Masai Ujiri to provide the capstone on this is great.
“This city is on fire, and it’s amazing,” Thomas added. “It’s beginning a great journey for this city and this organization, and I’m glad to have been a part of witnessing the birth of all of this.”