By AMITHA KALAICHANDRAN, M.D. June 14, 2019
James Naismith was a young Canadian pre-med when he decided to try something: hang a fruit-basket at either end of a Springfield, Massachusetts gymnasium and challenge players to get a ball into the basket. Eventually, tired of taking a ladder to climb up and retrieve the ball each time someone scored, he sawed a hole in the bottom of each basket. Basketball was born: the year was 1891, and Naismith was just 30. Naismith went on to medical school but continued to help refine the game, even writing its first rulebook while coaching at the University of Kansas. While most of my peers in medicine now also have passion projects, Naismith was ahead of his time balancing his interest in medicine with his passion for innovation. Growing up, our ‘Heritage minute’ TV commercials would feature his invention prominently on most major TV networks.
Fast forward to November 1, 1946, and the first NBA game took place in Toronto: The Toronto Huskies and the New York Knickerbockers (Toronto lost by two points). But over the years Canadians would watch from afar as the league continued to develop teams across the U.S., leaving Canada out in the dark years before “FOMO” was a thing. Until 1995 that is. An announcement I was just old enough to remember: Canada would be getting two NBA teams. The Vancouver Grizzlies, named after the bears that roam Canada’s North, and the Toronto Raptors, a nod to prehistoric findings concentrated in Canada. Canadians in the Eastern part of Canada tended to support the Raptors, with the West coast being loyal to the Grizzlies. Vancouver would see legends like Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Big Country. The Raptors on the other hand would get Damon Stoudamire (the “Mighty Mouse” who earned rookie of the year in 1995–96 season), Tracy McGrady, and the divisive Vince Carter in its early years. Coaches would come and go, punctuating the eras from Brendan Malone, to Butch Carter (no relation to Vince), to Lenny Wilkens, and Dwane Casey.
No longer just a mandatory high school gym class activity, basketball would become popular in small towns and big cities across Canada. It would slowly become a ‘Canadian game’ again, one which, compared to hockey, had a much lower financial barrier of entry to join. After all, to play basketball, one just needed a ball, a few friends, and a court in a local park. Kids across the country, such as myself and my siblings, had players, right in their own backyard, to look up to. When Vancouver lost the Grizzlies to Memphis in 2001, cities like Toronto became hubs of homegrown talent for college and professional players alike — Toronto’s own Andrew Wiggins was the Cavaliers’ number 1 draft pick in 2014. Yet for years one thing seemed to stay the same — the Raptors were a darling of the NBA, a recipient of affectionate pats on the back and occasional embarrassment (Kobe’s 81-point game in 2006). A bit like the youngest or smallest kid in a classroom at recess: protected, included, but never looked up to. Never leaders, and certainly never winners.
But then a series of events happened, a few good trades, and investments in players that worked like a seamless unit instead of heavily relying on individual stars. But the team was inconsistent. A dip into success first happened in 2001, when the Raptors reached the Conference semi-finals for the first time, but couldn’t quite match the Sixers’ experience and drive.
In 2016 they made it as far as the Eastern conference finals, and while they lost to the Cavaliers in six games, the dream was within arms-reach. That year they signed NBA G-league (Development league) players Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.
Last July, Masai Ujiri, Raptors president had to make a tough but necessary decision by trading shooting guard DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. Then just this past February, Ujiri gave up Center Jonas Valanciunas for the Spaniard Marc Gasol, taking in free-agent Jeremy Lin in the process. Players with heritage from Cameroon, Spain, and China reflected what Canadians value: diversity as our strength, on and off the court. Yet Leonard was, undoubtedly, the most crucial get, having rehabilitated his right quadriceps injury in San Antonio, which kept him out for most of the 2017–2018 season. But he had emotional injuries too: while in San Antonio, Leonard found himself in an environment that was unsupportive. His coach, Gregg Popovich kept him in the dark about his return, while appearing to reduce his accomplishments and contribution to the team. As anyone who has ever been in a place where their talent and passion are met with hostility knows, one thing becomes really clear very fast: get out.
Toronto, under rookie head coach, Nick Nurse, embraced Leonard with open arms, which was particularly welcome given that Leonard left balmy Texas and landed in Toronto, a city known for its excruciating winters.
Leonard brought his experience as a 2013–2014 NBA Champion and Finals MVP to the team. But more than his basketball talent, Leonard brought grit and equanimity. His grit, earned during what he described last night as ‘a very tough time,’ when he watched his Spurs teammates play while he was out; a time where he found himself at odds with a coach who he thought believed in him, and players that were torn between sticking up for him and pushing forward. Leonard’s equanimity, or ‘even-keeled’ nature was fostered during a tough upbringing, which included his father being shot and killed at his carwash in Compton, leaving Leonard to take the reigns as the ‘man of the house’ to look out for his mother and four sisters. ‘Just press forward,’ ‘Focus on winning,’ became his mottos. The memes and old interviews validated his intense focus (“buckets, layup,” and “board man gets paid”) and he remained steady even when old teammates came out to say less than pleasant things.
Leonard’s stoic approach complimented Lowry’s leadership and affability. Coach Nick Nurse also drew from that, perhaps taking after Phil Jackson’s legendary “zen coaching” : the central goal for the Raptors was to stay centered. ‘Never too high, never too low,” was the mantra; Leonard the team’s ‘zenmaster.’ In turn every other player brought their best. We saw the bench rise to the occasion, with VanVleet earning every minute on the court, even losing a tooth in the midst. We witnessed Pascal Siakam, float across the floor with intricate footwork to drive it to the net, becoming one of the best scorers on the team. Gasol, despite his physicality became more consistent. And off the court the players just gelled (and maybe Coach Nurse’s guitar helped). The best leaders make everyone around them better. The same can be said about the best players.
Now 24 seasons in, and after their first-ever NBA Championship win, the Raptors are officially adulting, even if it all sounds like a fairy-tale that unfolded over one beautiful evening in June: Once upon a time there was a basketball team from Canada, its president born in Africa, its players claiming roots from Cameroon, Congo, Spain, and China, that embraced a fallen soldier from Texas, led by a fierce veteran leader from north Philly, their old wounds healed by a rookie head coach named Nurse. We’ll even throw in an “ambassador” that happens to be one of the most successful rap artists of our time. That team would feel the support of thousands of fans across Canada and around the world, gathered in living rooms, cinemas, and pop-up “Jurassic Park” outdoor viewing areas, all culminating in a Game 6 that was simply great, edge-of-your-seat, basketball. Our team wouldn’t win at home, no, because finding our happily-ever-after in the land of the goldrush, unseating a five-time dynasty, is just a little more fitting. Like the best plays, sometimes reality transcends the plan.
The game of basketball can trace its origins to Canada, and last night, after 127 years, it finally came home.