Little more than a century after a Canadian invented basketball, Timberwolves forwards Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins came along as well, born 23 months apart in nearby Toronto hospitals.
The NBA returned to Canada in a big way soon thereafter, revisiting the country where the fledgling league played its inaugural game in 1946 by debuting franchises in both Toronto and Vancouver during the autumn of 1995.
Twenty years later, the seeds planted have sprouted, delivering Bennett in 2013 as the first Canadian selected first overall in the NBA draft; Wiggins was No. 1 overall a year later. They are part of a new bloom — red-and-white tinted, maple-leaf shaped — that’s poised to replicate its growing NBA presence at international competitions and future Summer Olympics.
“I’m not sure,” Bennett said, referring to the convergence of the NBA’s move north and an ensuing new age for Canadian players that numbered a dozen when this season started, “but it’s probably not a coincidence.”
Out of a country culturally defined in most every way by hockey has risen another sport, this one centered in sprawling Toronto — a diverse city of immigrants — but reaching from the Maritimes all the way to British Columbia, although it hasn’t transformed Moose Jaw or Medicine Hat just yet. Those 12 Canadians are the most in the NBA from any country other than the United States, two more than France when the season started.
Ontario-born and Montreal-educated, James Naismith conjured 13 rules and introduced a sport he called “Basket Ball” at a Springfield, Mass., YMCA in 1891. A half-century later, the Basketball Association of America’s New York Knickerbockers and Toronto Huskies played a November 1946 game at hallowed Maple Leaf Gardens that the NBA considers its first game ever played.
Now arriving full circle, Canada’s time is coming to the NBA, with the Toronto area represented by, among others, a collection of promising young players led most prominently by Wolves teammates Bennett and Wiggins.
“It’s not like there’s one or two of them,” said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who has leaned upon international players to win five NBA titles and now coaches Toronto-raised Cory Joseph. “They’re everywhere.”
Right place, right time
There are many reasons why a country of only 35 million people is rising in basketball prominence. Some obvious, some more mysterious: The influence of homegrown star Steve Nash and imported American Vince Carter on a generation of Canada’s youth, the country’s broad immigration policies, the game’s grass-roots growth through provincial associations and clubs that included the rise of powerful AAU programs that sent players such as Bennett and Wiggins as well as Gophers senior Mo Walker to American prep schools before they advanced to American universities.
Don’t forget simple economics, too.
“Basketball was always the most fun for me, the easiest thing to do,” Bennett said. “All you need is a hoop and a basketball. All the other sports you needed to buy equipment, buy pads, all of that. Basketball was just the easiest thing to do.”
As did the mothers of Wiggins, Phoenix’s Tyler Ennis and Detroit’s Joel Anthony, Bennett’s mother, Edith, emigrated from the Caribbean to Canada. A nurse who worked two jobs, she left Jamaica for Toronto 13 years before she gave birth to her son Anthony. He was born two years before the Raptors arrived, three years before Phoenix unceremoniously drafted a South African-born, British Columbia-raised guard out of California’s Santa Clara University named Nash and five years before Bennett’s hometown NBA team obtained Carter in a 1998 draft-night trade.
“How it all started, nobody knows,” said two-time Canadian Olympic player and current Canadian national team coach Jay Triano, a former Raptors head coach who now is a Portland assistant coach. “But for the first time when all these guys were young, there was basketball in their homes because it was on TV with the Raptors. Steve Nash proved to everybody it’s possible to be a really good NBA player. Between those two things, these guys now started believing we could be pretty good as a basketball nation.”
Hockey remains a national obsession, but times do change.
“When I first got there, there weren’t hoops in the yards,” said Wolves assistant coach Sam Mitchell, who coached the Raptors from 2004 to 2008. “There were goals and boards. Hockey, that was it. Now there are basketball hoops in people’s driveways.”
You can debate what most inspired Canadians kids to pick up a basketball: Carter’s gravity-defying acrobatics that carried the Raptors to both the playoffs and relevancy, or Nash’s emergence from Vancouver Island anonymity on the country’s left coast to become a two-time league MVP who allowed a player of any size from anywhere to dream big.
“For me, I watched Nash, at least tried to take more of his game,” said Joseph, a point guard himself who grew up in a Toronto suburb and attended the same Las Vegas prep school that Bennett did before he enrolled at Texas. “But I loved them both.”
Wiggins alternately calls Carter Toronto’s “king” and Nash Canadian basketball’s “godfather.”
Surely, Canada produced NBA players previously — Jamaal Magloire, Rick Fox, Bill Wennington and Mike Smrek, to name a few — but Carter’s arrival produced a sea change, much like Wayne Gretzky’s move from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 produced a generation of hockey-playing Californians.
Carter took the Raptors to the playoffs for the first time in his second pro season. That same year, he transformed the 2000 All-Star weekend with a succession of contest slam dunks, each one more inspired than the last.
“It wasn’t until the Vince Carter Era that I fell in love with the game and if you ask the other guys, they’d probably tell you they fell in love with the game at the same time,” said Cleveland forward Tristan Thompson, who was Toronto-raised, Texas-educated and the 2011 draft’s fourth player taken. “The energy, the entertainment he brought, it made basketball cool. Everybody thought Canadians were all about hockey, but after Vince everybody fell in love with basketball.”
When he was in high school, Thompson attended one of Carter’s Florida basketball camps and mentioned his hometown and the effect Carter’s years there held. Years later, Carter remembers the conversation and the kid from those camp team photos Carter still has.
“The next thing I know, I’m playing against him in the NBA and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m getting old,’ ” said Carter, now 37 and playing for Memphis. “Those are special times, those are special years. I was just playing the game because I enjoyed it. People were like, ‘What dunk are you going to do tonight?’ I was like, I don’t know? I do it and leave it free for everybody to enjoy it, to ooh and aah about it. You can rate it in history as you please, but I wasn’t thinking about the impact it’d have on young kids at the time.”
One of their own
Nash’s influence wasn’t fully felt until he played a decade in the NBA and won consecutive MVP titles. Ennis was five when Carter won the slam-dunk contest in Oakland. He was 11 when Nash won his second MVP trophy in 2006 and aware of a world in which his father, Tony McIntyre, co-founded one of Canada’s top AAU programs for whom Wiggins, Bennett, Ennis and Walker all would play.
“Vince was everybody’s idol, but having somebody from Canada do what Steve has done is a whole different story,” said Ennis, a point guard by way of Syracuse and a New Jersey prep school. “For him to be from Canada and one of us, it’s a whole different feeling than somebody just playing for the Raptors.”
When he was eight or nine, Sacramento rookie Nik Stauskas played Carter one-on-one at a Raptors practice. But it was Nash’s success that gave him permission to dream, and the need to bundle up in all kinds of weather when he and an older brother played a game in the snow on his family’s back-yard court that he now calls “tackle” basketball: No fouls, no dribbling and lots of contact that improved one’s finishing skills around the basket.
“For guys like me, it gave you hope,” said Stauskas, whose uncle helped introduce him to the game. “He’s 6-2, not overly quick, not overly athletic and he’s a two-time MVP. It really makes you think if he can do it, I can do it. The more I played, the better I got. And the better I got, the more I wanted to play.”
This summer, Canada will attempt to qualify for Rio de Janeiro 2016 and its first Olympic Games since Sydney in 2000. The country’s best — Wiggins and Bennett included — are expected to assemble for the first time for a national-team program now managed by Nash, much like Gretzky managed Canada’s hockey program to 2002 Olympic gold.
Consider it a preview of what is expected to be for the next decade and beyond, in a sport that goes through its cycles once you take the Americans out of the international equation. Argentina had its time in winning 2004 Olympic gold. Spain rose thereafter, and France has had its moments as well in what Philadelphia coach and former Australian national team coach Brett Brown calls “generational” ebbs and flow in the international game.
“It goes in generations, and I see this as the infant stage for Canada,” Brown said.
With baby steps, is this Canada’s time?
“It sure looks like it, doesn’t it?” Popovich asked. “It’s a great thing. The more international the game gets, the more interesting it is.”