Carter was the naturally-gifted shooting guard from North Carolina who would be anointed as the heir to Michael Jordan, thanks to his breathtaking victory in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest one season after he had been named NBA Rookie of the Year. And that was that: Carter was going to serve as the high-flying embodiment of basketball in Toronto, whether he wanted the responsibility or not.
The job was his because of an impulsive move by the NBA, in 1995, to place two expansion franchises in Canada. The Toronto Raptors would be rescued, five years later, by their discovery of Carter. The Vancouver Grizzlies, on the other hand, would be abandoned -- evacuated in 2001 to Memphis -- ostensibly because the weakened Canadian dollar had been combined with financial losses that were inflamed by their dwindling attendances. Even so, all of those problems might have been survivable if only they'd had a star of their own. A star like Nash.
Carter Reflects On 2000 Slam Dunk Contest
Vince Carter looks back on his 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Championship.
Nash was a Canadian point guard who grew up in Victoria, B.C., on the southern end of Vancouver Island. No sooner had the Grizzlies been run out of Vancouver than Nash was being unveiled -- surprise! -- as the star who defined his region. He would play in eight All-Star Games with the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns, win two MVP awards and serve as the quick-witted forerunner to the daring style that is being championed today by Stephen Curry.
And so, as the new millennium was beginning to take shape some 15 years ago, there were two household names to be associated with basketball in Canada: Vince in the East, and Steve from the West.
See what was happening? See how the unforeseeable future was playing itself out? The original idea had been to create a national basketball rivalry between the franchises of Toronto and Vancouver. As soon as that plan collapsed, another more inspired dream was rising up in its stead. The new dream was based not on conflict, but rather on the emulation of Carter and Nash, who were emerging, unwittingly, as Canada's answer to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Of course there was no rivalry between Steve and Vince, and yet on their own terms they would become as important to Canada as Magic and Larry had been for America in the 1980s.
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We take a look at the point guard's stellar career.
At one end of the new Canadian spectrum hovered Carter by way of his phenomenal gifts.
From the other end 2,000 miles away came forth Nash, the star who was self-made.
One created, the other finished.
One soared above the rim, the other dribbled below it.
Vince and Steve Nash were definitely the two that I could relate to the most. I could go to the games. I could see Vince Carter. It gave me something to aim for. It gave me something to dream for.
– Sixers guard Nik Stauskas, who grew up near Toronto
The American had been expected to be great. The Canadian, of whom nothing was expected, turned out to be even greater.
It has been 21 years since the NBA committed to expanding abroad, and all kinds of unexpected benefits are now being realized. The nation of Canada has stepped forward as the No. 2 provider of talent to the NBA with 12 players in uniform this season -- which in turn has positioned the Canadian national team as a likely gold-medal challenger to USA Basketball in years to come.
Then there is the evolution of the Raptors, who, along parallel lines, have established themselves as the No. 2 contender in the East, with a backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan that on Sunday will be playing as teammates in the 65th All-Star Game.
Most revealing of all will be the setting of the game itself. All-Star Weekend is going to be celebrated in Toronto. Never before has the NBA held its signature event in a foreign country. More ambitious lines of expansion to Europe and beyond are still years away. But for now, this breakthrough internationally is not to be taken for granted. First things first.
"While we're not crossing the ocean, it is a first important step to play this marquee game outside of the States," says NBA commissioner Adam Silver. "And that is a very symbolic move for the league."
The dream of starting up franchises in the Old World remains as intimidating as ever. And yet this unprecedented All-Star Weekend is likely to embolden Silver to keep dreaming big, based on the unanticipated progression and outcomes that have followed the NBA's first small step of expansion just over the border. No one was forecasting two decades ago that the founding fathers of the new Canadian era would be Carter and Nash -- much less that each would stake out his own end of a marketplace that would stretch from East to West, with a world of opportunities emerging in between.
Planting seeds in Toronto
"I remember exactly the spot I used to sit in," says Tristan Thompson, the 24-year-old big man of the Cleveland Cavaliers. "It was literally in the back corner, way up there."
Each time he returns home to Toronto, Thompson wanders over to a corner of the court and looks up to where he used to be. The dream, as he remembers it clearly, was to make his way down to where he is today.
"I was so high up to where everyone looked like little ants," he says. "I was 10 or 11 years old. We had our $15 tickets to the Sprite Zone. They would give you a free hot dog and a Sprite. My dad was a construction worker, and we would usually go to one of the Tuesday games. My dad got off work early on Tuesdays so we were able to take the train downtown."
Inside Stuff: Tristan Thompson
Tristan Thompson explains why his favorite basketball player is Vince Carter.
Before the arrival of the Raptors and Grizzlies, there was no high-level college or professional basketball being played in Canada. The Toronto Huskies had been members in 1946-47 in the Basketball Association of America, but they folded two years before the merger of the BAA with the National Basketball League that gave birth to the NBA.
For almost a half-century there had been little to nothing in Canada, the birthplace of the game's inventor James Naismith. Now, as Thompson grew up, there was everything.
"Every fast break, Vince Carter would give us a windmill," Thompson says. "I remember there was a concourse where you could shoot hoops, and a 50-50 raffle for the chance to win something. I just wanted a chance to get a jersey or get a handshake or a 'Hello, Tristan' from one of the players. That was like my dream come true. I was hoping, but I never won."
One day he and his friends saw Matt Bonner of the Raptors across the street in Toronto.
"We called him 'the Red Rocket' because he would ride the train," Thompson says. "I'm yelling, like, 'Red Rocket! Let's go boy!' He had like a Subway (sandwich) in his hand or something."
Cory Joseph, who also grew up in Toronto, was introduced to Carter and his young teammate Tracy McGrady at a Raptors game.
Through The Years: Vince Carter
"You can be inspired if you watch the games," says Joseph, 24, who helped the Spurs win the 2014 NBA Finals before signing last summer as a backup point guard with the Raptors. "But to see the players up close, it inspires you that much more."
"My favorite players were Allen Iverson and LeBron (James) and those guys," says Nik Stauskas, the 22-year-old shooting guard of the 76ers who grew up near Toronto. "But Vince and Steve Nash were definitely the two that I could relate to the most. I could go to the games. I could see Vince Carter. It gave me something to aim for. It gave me something to dream for."
Kelly Olynyk's mother was a scorekeeper for the Raptors, which gave him access to a half-dozen or more games each season.
"Vince, Doug Christie, Alvin Williams, JYD," says Olynyk of the old Raptors, including Jerome (Junk Yard Dog) Williams. "I watched all of the games."
Olynyk was 12 when his father, a renowned basketball coach who had famously cut under-aged Nash from the junior national team, moved the family to Kamloops, B.C.
NBA Rooks: Olynyk On Canadian Hoops
Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk talks about growing up in Canada, joining a storied franchise and getting adjusted to life in Boston.
"I used to love Steve Nash growing up," said Olynyk, who now plays for the Boston Celtics. "I loved that you had high-level basketball in your own backyard. Bringing that into Canada built an excitement around the game that wasn't there before. It was something for the kids to aspire to and look up to and dream about. You were immersed in it."
What do all of these young players have in common? In the last five NBA drafts, nine Canadians have been picked in the first round. More impressive is the list of a half-dozen Canadians chosen in those lotteries, including Andrew Wiggins (No. 1 in 2014), Anthony Bennett (No. 1 in 2013), Thompson (No. 4 in 2011), Stauskas (No. 8 in 2014), Trey Lyles (No. 12 in 2015) and Olynyk (No. 13 in 2013). No other country apart from the U.S. has produced more than two lottery picks in that time.
Among the nine first-rounders from Canada, eight were raised in the Toronto area. They were fans of the Raptors just as Carter was ascending.
NBA Rooks: Andrew Wiggins - Pride of Canada
Draft prospect Andrew Wiggins gives an all-access look at his upbringing in Vaughan, Ontario and talks about the recent Canadian invasion into the NBA.
"I went to every game I could," says Robert Sacre, the Lakers' 26 year old backup center. "My mom and I would scrounge money up and go to games. We were up in the nosebleeds. That's what really motivated me. It just brought a surge to the city that I don't think anyone can explain."
Sacre, a dual citizen of the U.S., is one of the few Canadian players who was not heavily influenced by the Raptors. Born in Baton Rouge, La., he was 7 when he moved with his mother to North Vancouver. Sacre grew up cheering for the Grizzlies.
Hoop dreamers want to earn reputation
Much is made of the Canadian sense of "insecurity" that comes from sharing the border with the world's superpower. But the relationship works both ways. It can be oppressing, in the same way that the expectations of Michael Jordan were asking too much of Carter: At times the demands of picking up where the biggest star left off appeared to be too much for him, and so Carter insisted on proudly and stubbornly defining himself by his own terms.
The Starters: Impact Of All-Star Weekend
The Starters try to describe how basketball fans in Toronto must feel to have the biggest NBA event in their city.
On the other hand, the proximity to the U.S. can also be viewed as an opportunity, a challenge, which was how Nash identified it. He was committed to fulfilling himself even though only one American university offered him a scholarship, even when he began his NBA career as the third-string point guard of the Suns, even after he was booed in his first season with the Mavericks.
As much as this golden generation of young Canadians was inspired to reach high by the airborne visuals of Carter, it was Nash's underdog mentality that they tended to emulate. They, like him, were Canadian outsiders.
"It was definitely a huge chip on my shoulder," says Stauskas, who like many of his fellow Canadians chose to attend high school in the U.S. in order to hasten his basketball development. "I remember my junior and senior year at St. Mark's (School) in Boston, I had two guys on my team that were ranked in the top 10 in the country for the class of 2012. They were great players, but I had just come over from Canada and I felt like I was already better than them. And no one knew who I was. I was never ranked. They were my friends, they were on my team, but I was like, OK, I've got something to prove. These people don't know who I am because I am from Canada. I will always have that chip on my shoulder."
|Canada's Finest |
|Since 2011, nine Canadians have been selected in the first round |
|Player ||Year, Pick ||Team ||Current Team |
| Tristan Thompson || 2011, No. 4 || Cavaliers || Cavaliers |
| Cory Joseph || 2011, No. 29 || Spurs || Raptors |
| Andrew Nicholson || 2012, No. 19 || Magic || Magic |
| Anthony Bennett || 2013, No. 1 || Cavaliers || Raptors |
| Kelly Olynyk || 2013, No. 13 || Mavericks || Celtics |
| Andrew Wiggins || 2014, No. 1 || Cavaliers || Wolves |
| Nick Stauskas || 2014, No. 8 || Kings || Sixers |
| Tyler Ennis || 2014, No. 18 || Suns || Bucks |
| Trey Lyles || 2015, No. 12 || Jazz || Jazz |
The pathway across the U.S. border had been developed by Ro Russell, a Canadian coach who was the son of immigrants from Jamaica. "I played hockey until I was 12," says Russell, 46. "I was the only kid in the entire league that was black. So I felt out of place. I was walking home one day and I seen these kids playing basketball."
Russell found himself falling in love with basketball just as Magic and Bird were taking control of the NBA. His parents were entrepreneurial -- his father owned a record shop, his mother was a hairstylist -- and so was he. No sooner had Russell taught himself to play basketball than he teaching other kids in his neighborhood at a cost of 50 cents per lesson. "That was the cost of ice cream," Russell says from the small office he shares at a rec center in Toronto. "I said, I've got to get something out of this."
As a young adult he began putting together his own AAU teams. In America, AAU has been criticized as a destabilizing force that has weakened the traditional high school system. For the Canadians, however, there was no high-level feeder system for basketball players in high school or college. Russell viewed the AAU tournaments in the U.S. as a way for him to develop Canadian players against the best competition in America.
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The basketball authorities in Canada complained naturally that Russell was undermining their efforts to grow the sport, and he was accused of exploiting the players for his own gain. At the same time, it is difficult for anyone to escape the world of U.S. recruiting unscathed.
"He was the first one to actually believe in us," says Thompson. "Because it had never been done before. And sometimes Canadians -- some of them -- don't like to go out on a limb. They would rather play it safe and do it the conventional way. I honestly believe if it wasn't for him, I might have ended up going to some smaller Division I school."
These kids today are stacking up against the American players a dozen times a year, and they're saying, 'Hold on a minute: I'm better than that guy. I'm playing the best kids in the States, and I know I'm better here.'
– Former NBA MVP Steve Nash
Russell learned the hard way. When his earliest Canadian protégés failed to reach the NBA, he realized that he needed to help them become more coachable and accommodating with their teammates. He also insisted that more of his players move to the U.S. for high school -- and so Thompson spent two years at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, to be followed by a senior year at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., with his Grassroots teammate Joseph.
Another Grassroots big man, Dwight Powell, attended the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Powell went onto play for four years at Stanford and is now backing up Dirk Nowitzki with the Dallas Mavericks. Those future NBA players -- Thompson, Joseph and Powell -- helped Grassroots became the first Canadian team to win a major summer AAU tournament in 2008.
"When AAU became a full-blooded Canadian venture in certain quarters, it gave our top kids a chance to look eye-to-eye with their counterparts in the States and measure themselves," Nash says. "I knew Jason Kidd when I was in high school, but I didn't have the chance to play against him. These kids today are stacking up against the American players a dozen times a year, and they're saying, 'Hold on a minute: I'm better than that guy. I'm playing the best kids in the States, and I know I'm better here.' "
Today, Tony McIntyre runs a rival high-level AAU program, CIA Bounce, which has featured Wiggins and McIntyre's son Tyler Ennis, the No. 18 pick of the 2014 draft who is now playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. More programs have emerged to serve other regions of Canada. All of them are seeking to emulate the same competitive spirit that drove Nash.
"We knew how good we could be and how good we were, and that is what fueled us to compete so hard," says Powell. "We wanted to prove it because nobody else thought we were that good. But our coach told us, 'You guys can beat any of these American teams. You have just got to go and prove it."'
Prove it they have.
Early roots had humble beginning
"Some of the gyms were pretty bad," says Leo Rautins, a longtime broadcaster for the Raptors and former coach of the Canadian national team. "But I was lucky. My high school, St. Michael's, was run by Basilian priests and they lived there. So if you snuck through the priests' residence, went through the cafeteria to the balcony of the gym, you could hang off the balcony. It was a three-foot drop. Once you were in the gym you could go under the stage and bring down the baskets. Then there was a side door that could get you in and out, so you could actually close up like you were never there without having to climb back up. And that was really how you had to do it."
Rautins was the best basketball player in Canada in the late 1970s. Close to 100 U.S. colleges were recruiting him. Among the very small minority of Canadians who knew basketball, Rautins was a celebrity. Everyone else passed by without any premonition that he was going to be a star at Minnesota and Syracuse before being picked No. 17 overall in the 1983 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.
"We would have guys at certain high schools, and we could say to them, 'Leave the window open a crack,' " says Rautins, a 6-foot-8 forward whose NBA career was shortened by injuries. "We snuck into gyms all the time. If you were part of my crew, there was always a gym or an outdoor court. There was one outdoor court in the city that was kind of famous back then, it was Keele Street schoolyard on the west side of the city. The best pickup games in the city were right there, and it was like 100 yards from my house."
It's estimated that nearly half of Canadian kids 12-to-17 are now playing basketball. Which is remarkable, considering we're only 20 years into the country.
– NBA commissioner Adam Silver
These were the romantic days, when the best Canadian basketball players were trying to find their way in a country devoted to hockey. The old ideals were still in place -- the Raptors and Grizzlies were only five years old -- when Nash led Canada into the 2000 Olympic Games at Sydney. Nash, 26, and 24-year-old center Todd MacCulloch of the 76ers were the only NBA players on the team. They and their teammates bonded as never before.
"I would go in the athletes' village and they would be sitting there playing Risk - you know, the board game?" says Jay Triano, currently an assistant coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. In 2000, Triano was coach of the Canadian national team. He stood over their shoulders and started questioning their boardgame strategy. "They said, 'Coach, we beat the team that we play tomorrow first -- and then we try to win the game.' So they're all converging on Australia, and once they've got Australia beat, now they compete against each other."
They would go 5-2 to finish fourth in Sydney. Nash was leading Canada up from the bottom in those Olympics, while Carter, the American, was leaping over Frederic Weis for his most famous dunk.
"We had six guys on that team bring guitars, and they sat around in the village and just played their guitars," Triano says. "Steve wanted to learn how to play guitar. They didn't want to get caught up in the distractions of everything else in the Olympic Games. They stayed tight and stayed together, and when one guy went to eat, 12 went to eat. It was a neat thing, and a lot of it had to do with Steve's leadership."
Triano was fired in 2004, surprisingly, and Nash, by no coincidence, refused to play for Canada for the remainder of his career. As much as Canadian basketball appeared to be foundering, the sport was actually developing practically out of sight. The establishment of multiculturalism as an official policy of the Canadian government in 1971 had opened the door to immigrants from all over the world, and many of them were interested in basketball.
"Another big thing was that the internet gave our young players proximity and understanding -- they could go online and see Ray Allen's warmup or practice routine," says Nash. "As a coach you could get online and find theories and best practices of the top coaches across the board."
Jack Armstrong, a New Yorker who has been broadcasting Raptors games for 18 years, was able to hear a change in the vocabulary of basketball. In his previous life he had been the men's basketball coach at Niagara University, which for 10 years had led him across the border to recruit Canadian players.
"It was always hockey terminology," Armstrong says. "Instead of the fast break, it was the rush out. The man advantage. Digging it out, you know. I would say 'drive it to the basket,' but a lot of people here would say 'you are driving it to the goal.' You don't hear that anymore. What you have are all these people who a generation ago were true-blue hockey people. Now their children and their grandchildren want them to sit down and watch an NBA game together. So now the older generation has gotten the bug because their kids are into it."
"It's estimated that nearly half of Canadian kids 12-to-17 are now playing basketball," says Silver. "Which is remarkable, considering we're only 20 years into the country."
Altogether now another corner is being turned. Nash, who retired as a player last season, is now the general manager of the national team. He has rehired Triano as head coach. The assistant GM and executive VP of Canada Basketball is Rowan Barrett, a Canadian Olympian from 2000 whose 15 year old son, Rowan Barrett Jr., a 6-foot-6 swingman at Montverde (Fla.) Academy, is already being cited as potentially the best Canadian prospect of them all.
Underdogs? The old way of viewing themselves is going to become less relevant.
Beyond the Paint: Oh Canada
As the NBA takes it's All Star weekend to Canada for the first time, Matt Winer takes a look at why some of the game's best young talent is coming from north of the border and how it is affecting the fortunes of Canada's National team program.
"We were always an overachieving team," says Rautins of the national team. "We scrapped; we would fight every game if we had to. That was the identity. But I think the identity has changed, because it is a talent team now. The team has so much talent. Obviously you still want to be the hardest-working team. But things do shift when you are a talent team."
Raptors create culture shift
"I see us winning 48 and 49 games the last two years, and I almost think that's like nothing, really," says Masai Ujiri, now in his third season as president and GM of the Raptors. "People are so excited, and we haven't really done anything, to be honest. I don't want to discredit the players or coaches or anything. But we haven't done anything."
Consider those who have worked for the Raptors since their birth in 1995. Isiah Thomas, their original GM who is cheered every time he returns to the Air Canada Centre, picked Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby and McGrady in his first three drafts. His successor, Glen Grunwald, landed Carter. Former GM Bryan Colangelo was a two-time NBA Executive of the Year. Two Hall-of-Famers, coach Lenny Wilkens (2000-03) and executive Wayne Embry (since 2004) have been employed by Toronto. Even so, for most of its brief history, the organization had been incapable of getting out of its own way, as if proving itself worthy of the NBA came at the expense of winning.
That is no longer the prevailing theme. The 2013 hiring of Ujiri away from the Denver Nuggets echoed a newfound sense of authority and confidence in Toronto. Instead of simply firing coach Dwane Casey -- because isn't that what NBA franchises are supposed to do when regimes change? -- Ujiri reinvested in his coach, which in turn enabled Casey to focus on developing the hard-working, blue-collar approach that befits not only the culture of hockey, but also the mindset of this city of immigrants.
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When Ujiri scans the crowd at Raptors games, he sees what may be the most diverse audience in the NBA. He sees a lot of fans who relate to his own experiences as an immigrant. Ujiri was young when he moved from his native Nigeria to Bismarck State College in pursuit of his dream. That initial mission, much like the original expectations for Canadian basketball, was exceeded long ago, for Ujiri never imagined he would be in charge of an NBA franchise with so much potential. And so he has learned to recalibrate his dream, to upgrade, to think bigger than ever.
As he should, insists the commissioner.
"The Raptors, in partnership with the league office, in essence own a country," Silver says. "No other NBA team is in a similar position."
Not only is Toronto the No. 4 media market in North America (behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago), but the Raptors' following extends throughout the nation with a virtual monopoly on the Canadian population of 36 million. In 2014 the Raptors rebranded themselves around a new campaign, "We The North," which was meant to rally the nation around their team. By distinguishing the Raptors from the American market, the goal was to transform Canadian citizenship in the NBA from a perceived weakness into a powerful strength.
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In 20 full seasons Toronto has won but one playoff series -- a 2001 victory over the Knicks in Carter's third season. The current Raptors, lacking an MVP talent to contend with the likes of LeBron James and Stephen Curry, are still not positioned to win the championship. But first things first.
Lowry, a Philadelphia born-and-raised point guard who will start for the East on Sunday, in 2014 became the first major free agent to re-sign with Toronto. DeRozan, the All-Star shooting guard from Los Angeles, has expressed no hint of wishing to leave the only franchise he has known. Drake, the internationally acclaimed Toronto rapper, is the Raptors official "global ambassador" and socializes at a peer level with the NBA's biggest stars. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, owned primarily by Canadian media giants Rogers Communications and Bell Canada, has provided chairman Larry Tanenbaum with the financial means to compete with any American franchise.
They want to win. They want to win big. I just can't imagine what the country will be like if we are winning.
– Raptors GM Masai Ujiri on Canadian fans
"I see this as a top-five organization in the NBA -- the city, the ownership, the fans, everything," says Ujiri. "The only thing we don't have is the history of winning. All of the other boxes, I think we have them checked off."
The Raptors toured their extensive home market in preseason with exhibition games in Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver. Ujiri snapped a photo of the crowd in Vancouver and texted it that night to Silver.
"I know they wish they had a team in Vancouver, but the support for us has been amazing," Ujiri says. "You could just tell in the picture I sent to Adam that it was packed with vibrant fans, and more people outside the building -- and that was a preseason game. It makes you realize the people of Canada, the people of Toronto, they are dying for a winning team. Even when I sleep I'm thinking about it. How do you put a championship team here?"
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The goal for Ujiri is to connect his privately-held franchise to the public's ambitions for its national team. If Canada Basketball is able to rise up and challenge the U.S. in future Olympic and World Cup tournaments -- if it is able to create a rivalry with the superpower -- then the popularity of the game will transcend its old limitations. Can the Raptors, having helped ignite the development of the national team, come up with a way to tap into the new energy?
"They want to win," says Ujiri of his team's fans throughout Canada. "They want to win big. I just can't imagine what the country will be like if we are winning."
A coming out party
"We were shooting in the practice gym, and you could hear them outside," says DeRozan.
He was talking about the playoffs last spring, when thousands of fans gathered in Maple Leafs Square -- an area renamed by the Raptors as "Jurassic Park" -- to watch their NBA team on a big screen outside Air Canada Centre. Casey showed pictures of the crowds to his players in their locker room.
Inside Stuff: Raptor Fans
Inside Stuff captures the unique 'We The North' scene and Canadian feel of experiencing a Toronto Raptors playoff game.
"Just to understand that we have that type of fan support is definitely crazy," says DeRozan.
This is why this weekend in Toronto promises to be more than just another exhibition. It is going to serve as a coming-out party two decades in the making. Instead of seeking the validation of their neighbors to the south, it will be the Americans -- along with the rest of the basketball world -- who will be coming north to pay their respects to Canada.
For the first time in its 65-year history, the All-Star Game is going to be celebrated by its hosts as a patriotic event.
"Hmmm," says Nash. "I hadn't thought of it that way."
Welcome to the country of unexpected benefits.
Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.
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