2019 NBA Finals: Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors

Oh, Canada!: Great moments in Canadian pro hoops history

From Nash's MVPs to Leonard's series-winner, Canada boasts rich hoops history

TORONTO – Hard as it might seem to top the euphoria at Scotiabank Arena and in the immediate vicinity around it Saturday night, there have been other highlights to the city’s and the nation’s surprisingly long history with professional basketball.

Look, we get it: beating Milwaukee in Game 6 to earn their first trip to The Finals ranks right now as the biggest moment ever for the Raptors. Four more victories, against the dynastic Golden State Warriors, would shove that to the side, too.

But there have been plenty of warm memories and proud accomplishments for Toronto, hoops, Canada and the NBA. Some, for too long, were about the only things onto which hardcore Raptors fans could hang. But in reaching the league’s best-of-seven championship series at the end of their 24 season, coach Nick Nurse and his players have reignited hope, and more than a few dreams.

What follows is some context for the success right now, a sense of tradition that makes Toronto’s rise in the East totally appropriate. And still giddy as heck.

Hello, James Naismith!

On March 6, 1861 — eight months after Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States — Naismith was born in Almonte, Ontario. He would go on to spend his life as an educator and a sports coach, but his signature achievement for our purposes here came when he left Montreal’s McGill University and took a job as a YMCA training school instructor in Springfield, Mass.

His boss in 1891 asked Naismith to come up with an indoor game to keep athletes in shape and engaged during harsh New England winters. One ball and two peach baskets later, voila! “Basket ball” was created. The sport was instantly popular and spread internationally, though it took longer than you’d have thought before Naismith cut the bottoms out of the baskets.

First ‘NBA’ game

Naismith was gone by November 1946, but his legacy lived on. Basketball already was being played as an amateur sport in the U.S., Canada and overseas by then, and was welcomed as an official Olympic event starting in 1936 (women’s basketball debuted at the Olympics in 1976). But the professional version got its first real traction right in Ontario when the Toronto Huskies played host to the New York Knickerbockers at Maple Leaf Gardens in the inaugural game of the Basketball Association of America on Nov. 1, 1946. (The Knicks won, 68-66.) That’s the league that morphed into the NBA three years later. The Huskies didn’t go along for the ride, finishing 22-38 that first season before disbanding.

Sorvan, Baker and Biasatti

Today there are more Canadians in the NBA than players from any other country, but back at the start, someone had to be first. Gino Sorvan lays claim to that distinction with a double credential: he was a native of Windsor, Ont., and he played his brief BAA stint with its Toronto franchise. His total contribution: 11 points in six games, which does little justice to the 6-foot-2 Sorvan’s skills as a potent scorer at Assumption College in Windsor or a year at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Norm Baker, a 6-foot guard, snubbed the Huskies in their one and only season, instead signing a $4,800 contract to play for the Chicago Stags. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Baker had been a force in amateur competition; he was named the nation’s top player of the first half of the 20th century in a Canadian Press poll in December 1950. But in the BAA, he stuck around for just four games, missing the only shot he took for the Stags.

As for Hank Biasatti, he was born in Beano, Italy, but spent his formative years in Windsor. He had split allegiances as an accomplished baseball player who wound up having cups of coffees at the highest levels of both sports. The Huskies invited Biasatti to camp as one of six Canadian prospects that first season, and he survived the final cut. His production was meager (six games, six points) so he persuaded the team to release him so he could chase his baseball dream. He was 27 in 1949 when he appeared in 21 games for the Philadelphia Athletics, getting two hits in 24 at-bats (.083). He is the guy the NBA cites as its first international player.

No one called him ‘Dr. E’

The first native of Canada who lasted a while as an NBA player was Ernie Vandeweghe , a swingman born in Montreal who played with the Knicks from 1949 into the 1955-56 season. Vandeweghe was New York’s third-round pick in 1949, and wound up playing 224 games, averaging 9.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He took off the 1954-55 campaign for medical school, quit after five games the following season and wound up renowned for his medical career and his offspring. Vandeweghe served as a physician for the Air Force and later was chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. His four children — Tauna (swimming), Bruk (beach volleyball), Heather (polo) and Kiki (a two-time NBA All-Star) — all enjoyed athletic success. Kiki currently serves as the NBA’s executive vice president, basketball operations.

Houbregs and his hook shot

Bob Houbregs was a scoring sensation at the University of Washington who helped popularize basketball on the West Coast. A practitioner of the hook shot and a native of Vancouver, Houbregs was a consensus All-American who averaged 34.8 ppg while taking Washington to the 1953 NCAA Final Four. The second pick overall in the 1953 draft, Houbregs played five NBA seasons for Milwaukee, Baltimore, Boston, Fort Wayne and Detroit. He technically is the only Canadian-born player in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Steve Nash was actually born in South Africa, before his parents moved to Regina, Saskatchewan when he was 18 months.

Smrek grabs first ring

Mike Smrek, a 7-footer born in Welland, Canada, was the 25th player selected in the 1985 Draft out of Canisius College. He was traded or waived seven times in seven seasons and played for a total of five franchises (Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, LA Clippers). But from November 1986 to November 1988, Smrek stuck with the Lakers and thus became the first Canadian player to win an NBA championship. Not one, in fact, but two with the “Showtime” Lakers of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and the rest.

Welcome, Toronto and Vancouver

Having added four teams just a few years earlier, the NBA bellied back up to the expansion bar in 1993 and announced that franchises would be awarded to Toronto and Vancouver, beginning play in 1995-96. Restricted in where they drafted in 1995, Vancouver took center Bryant (“Big Country”) Reeves at No. 6, while Toronto grabbed guard Damon Stoudamire at No. 7. Stoudamire earned Rookie of the Year honors in a class that featured Kevin Garnett, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, and had a productive 13-year career. Reeves fizzled out after six seasons, in lockstep with the Vancouver franchise that got moved to Memphis in 2001.

If not for them, Bulls go 73-9

The inaugural Raptors team was predictably bad, finishing 21-61 to earn enough lottery balls to draft Marcus Camby at No. 2 in 1996. But they delighted their fans with at least one stirring upset: On March 24, the rock-star Chicago Bulls came to town at 60-8, chasing the NBA’s best-ever record. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the rest eventually got it, but no thanks to Toronto, which beat the Bulls in a 109-108 thriller at SkyDome. Stoudamire scored 30 points, Jordan had 36, and attendance was a whopping 36,131.

Back-to-back No. 1 overall picks

When Syracuse’s Leo Rautins was drafted in 1983, he became only the seventh native of Canada to reach the NBA. Two years later, St. John’s Bill Wennington went 16th in the Draft and became NBA Canadian No. 9. Both still are on the scene, by the way, as broadcasters for the Raptors and the Bulls, respectively.

But the development of top NBA prospects accelerated over the next four decades. And in June 2013, the player taken No. 1 overall – UNLV forward Anthony Bennett to Cleveland – was a Canadian. One year later, it happened again, with Kansas wing Andrew Wiggins selected first overall, again by the Cavaliers.

Bennett proved to be a disappointment from the start, averaging only 12.6 minutes in 151 appearances for four teams over four seasons. Wiggins is more confounding. His obvious skills have been good for 19.4 ppg for Minnesota (which acquired him in a trade of Kevin Love), but his motor has been found lacking. The Timberwolves have poked, prodded and paid “Maple Jordan” ($148 million, five-year extension), and now are hoping new coach Ryan Saunders can sweet-talk some determination into him.

There were 12 Canadian-born players on NBA rosters at the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

If we’re holding to the “native” status for Canadian players, then the most successful in NBA terms is Rick Fox. The former Celtics and Lakers forward ranks first in points (8,966), first in assists (2,649), first in minutes (23,723) and first in games (930) among those born in Canada, and third in rebounds behind Tristan Thompson and Jamaal Magloire. Fox, born in Toronto, spent his formative years in Indiana and North Carolina. He won three NBA championships with the Lakers from 2000-02, the same number as Wennington with Jordan’s Bulls from 1996-98.

‘It’s over!’ (but it’s only the beginning)

At a time when the NBA was searching for the next Michael Jordan, the Raptors’ Vince Carter raised his hand — and then shoved his arm up to the elbow through the rim. Carter’s dominance of the Slam Dunk Contest at NBA All-Star 2000 caused him to blow up as an international celebrity and he took the Raptors along for the ride. He inspired what had to be thousands of young Canadian kids to start playing basketball with some grand dreams. That contest and what followed was the stuff of a trio of nicknames — “Vinsanity,” “Air Canada” and “Half-Man/Half-Amazing” (thanks, Shaq!) — and the nation’s first NBA superstar.

First playoff breakthrough

Toronto had been swept from the first round by New York in 2000, and was down 2-1 in the best-of-five series in 2001. But the Raptors fired back, led by Carter. He scored 32 points in Game 4, then added 27 while playing all 48 minutes of Game 5. In the next round against the Philadelphia 76ers, Carter averaged 30.4 ppg, went for 50 in Game 3 and just missed saving the Raptors at the end of Game 7.

Carter’s status as the most storied Raptors player had its ups and downs — he spent six-plus seasons of the 21 he’s logged in the NBA with Toronto, and there was rancor at the end. Eventually, he was traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2004 to end his era with the Raptors. But he spent his prime with the franchise and became not only its face but its personality. Just as he craved and over time earned respect for being more than an elite dunker, so did the Raptors demand and demonstrate their need to be taken seriously as an East foe with which to be reckoned.

When the Raptors finally get around to hoisting a retired jersey — either before or after Carter lands in the Hall of Fame — it has to be his No. 15.

MVP repeat for Nash

Too small and presumably too old by the 2004-05 season, Steve Nash surprisingly left Dallas as a free agent and transformed himself as the Phoenix Suns’ new point guard. Nash hooked up with coach Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offensive system to become something of a Wayne Gretzky of the hardwood. He could play fast or he could play slow, circling under the backboard along the baseline to torment an uneasy defense.

Nash ran Phoenix’s attack, got the Suns to 62 victories and averaged 15.5 points and 11.5 assists while hitting 43 percent of his 3-pointers. That earned him his first MVP. Then he topped his personal stats in 2005-06 and won it again.

Best Raptors trade evah, 2012 edition

The one Toronto made last summer will get more attention this week and next, but a little credit needs to go to former GM Bryan Colangelo for the deal he made in July 2012 for Kyle Lowry. Lowry had a tarnished reputation as headstrong, particularly in dealing with his coaches, so the price was pretty low: a first-round pick to Houston and guard Gary Forbes. Lowry arrived, forged a solid working relationship with coach Dwane Casey and, one year in, started a run of six straight playoff berths, with five trips to the All-Star Game for himself.

F-F-F-F-Feelin’ it

Actually, it was a different “F” word that’s the star of this item. Toronto fans had gotten excited about the 2014 team’s push to the postseason, and GM Masai Ujiri either got swept up in it or wanted to amplify the enthusiasm. So before the Raptors faced Brooklyn in the first-round opener, Ujiri showed up at a rally outside the then-Air Canada Centre. He punctuated his exhortations to the crowd with a “[EXPLETIVE] Brookyn!” It dinged his pocketbook when the NBA fined him $25,000 for the indiscretion but it roused the fans and propelled what became the Jurassic Park phenomenon outside home games.

‘The Shot’

Time running out. Kawhi Leonard to the right corner, high-arcing shot, orange lights on the backboard, then one, two, three, four bounces on the rim. When Leonard’s shot with no time remaining dropped through the net to win Game 7 against Philadelphia in the conference semifinals, Toronto’s season might have been saved. Had the Sixers prevailed in overtime, there’s no telling how gloomy things might look by comparison. Worry among Raptors fans already would be reaching epic proportions over Leonard’s looming free agency and assorted, inevitable changes in the roster. Instead, it was Joel Embiid’s time to cry.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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