Last night, the Toronto Raptors became the first Canadian team to win the NBA championship, beating out the two-time defending champs, the Golden State Warriors, in a tight sixth game at the Warriors’ Oracle Arena to take the series.
The win was at least 24 years in the making. That’s the age of the Toronto franchise, now the only NBA team left in Canada. Though arguably it was in the works even longer, and represents a homecoming of sorts.
Toronto was home to one of the NBA’s handful of original teams, and the site of what’s considered the first-ever NBA game. On November 1, 1946, the Toronto Huskies played the New York Knickerbockers, falling in a narrow 68-66 loss. At the time the league was called the Basketball Association of America, and it was formed of 11 teams competing in two divisions. In the East were Toronto and New York as well as the Boston Celtics, Providence Steamrollers, Washington Capitols, and Philadelphia Warriors. The West was made up of the Chicago Stags, Cleveland Rebels, Detroit Falcons, Pittsburgh Ironmen, and St. Louis Bombers. After a few seasons, the BAA merged with the National Basketball League, based in the American Midwest, to become the NBA.
Basketball itself wasn’t very old then, having been invented in 1891, by a Canadian. James Naismith, born in the township of Almonte in Ontario, devised the game after moving to the US town of Springfield, Massachusetts to be a physical education teacher. The need became clear for a sport that could be played indoors during the cold New England winters. Basketball was his answer. The sport didn’t require a lot of space, or much specialized equipment (unlike, say, ice hockey). It was a quick success, and helped the rise of a nascent sneaker industry.
The Huskies didn’t last. The team, made up almost entirely of Americans anyway, played one season, which was poorly attended and ended in a losing record, before disbanding. It was half a century before the Raptors came into existence as part of an NBA expansion that again extended the league beyond the US. Toronto’s team could have been named the Huskies once more, but it was 1994, not long after the release of “Jurassic Park,” and Canadians went with the dinosaur as Toronto’s emblem.
Despite its historic ties to Canada, basketball hasn’t always been an easy sell in the hockey-loving country. But the sport has been gaining popularity, particularly with younger athletes, while the Raptors historic run had much of Toronto and beyond watching.
“Certainly in my lifetime I’ve never experienced a sort of energy like this in our country [around basketball],” John Campbell, coach of the University of Toronto’s men’s basketball team, told the BBC. Quiet, steadfast Raptors star Kawhi Leonard, who was named the finals MVP and becomes a free agent after this season, is so beloved in the city that Toronto restaurants have started a “Ka-wine & Dine” campaign offering him free food for life if he stays with the Raptors. Maybe the team’s most vocal fan is rapper and Toronto native Drake, who announced two new songs to celebrate the big win. This summer, Toronto is a basketball town.