Twenty-five years in, the game has changed

By Chris O'Leary

The Shot had (finally) fallen and Toronto, Canada and the basketball world at large was collectively losing its mind. My phone lit up, almost instantly. 

That’s not uncommon. When what would turn out to be the second-most joyous moment in Raptors history took place, we all reached for our phones, millions of people around the world connecting with each other to celebrate a miracle. 

What was uncommon was that the first text that showed up on my phone was from my sister. 

Nancy never got into basketball. I think back to when my brother and I figuratively joined hands and dove face-first into the vortex of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the ’90s. The only way this impacted her was that it set in motion the single-greatest battle that we’d have for the next decade: TV-viewing rights. 

I opened the text and things quickly made sense. 

“It’s Liam that was crazy,” the message said.  

“Leanard buzzer-beater wow.” 

Liam, my nephew, Nancy’s middle child, is 10 and in a triumph of fate over his mom’s genes, he loves basketball. (As it was for most of us at that age, the spelling is a work in progress.)

Just like me and my three siblings did, Liam’s growing up in Fort McMurray, Alta. Watching him fall in love with basketball — he’s playing up one age group on a select team, his dad has put together a makeshift court in their garage that he can use year-round and he loves using the Raps on 2K — takes me back to when I started playing/consuming/obsessing over the game.

As we texted our way through the playoffs, watching spring eventually give way to summer, to a championship and a parade, I thought about how much things have changed. How much everything has changed, really. I’ve thought a lot about what it was like 25 years ago, when the Raptors’ first season tipped off and where we are now. 

There were...challenges that came with being a basketball fan in a small city that’s a little cut off from the rest of the country. Basketball wasn’t impossible to access. There were outdoor courts at just about every school in the city. There was open gym at the Y. But organized basketball? That started in junior high. If you were a kid, basketball season, complete with coaching and practices and refs and scorekeepers, lasted from November or December until March. I remember how lost and intrigued I was with basketball when I tried out for my junior high team in grade 7. It was the first time I can remember playing with any semblance of structure. 

Liam joined a youth basketball league when he was in kindergarten. He’s now in his second season with his select team, the Northern Trailblazers. When we text, he talks about aspects of the game in a way that I didn’t learn about until I’d finally made a team when I was 15. He’s already travelled to Edmonton with his team to play in tournaments. That came for me in my senior year of high school (the Raps were around 14-35 by then). All of those things make such a huge difference in your development. 

I think about how he’s able to consume basketball, versus how I did. He has every Raptors game and anything basketball-related he could ever want at his disposal. Me? I used to scour the TV guide when it came with our paper on Fridays to see what my NBA options were for the coming week. I’d stake out a newsstand downtown for new issues of SLAM, of SI, The Sporting News. Anything I could get my hands on.

It’s a given now that all 82 Raptors games will be available across Canada. In Year 1, the Raptors had 41 games aired on The New VR in Toronto, with 25 games airing on CITY. CTV did national broadcasts for Sunday games (as well as Sunday Grizzlies games that year) and CBC had a hand in that first season as well. It felt complicated. 

I remember the Raps beating the Nets on opening night and then…not seeing them again for a while. You’d keep tabs on them and the rest of the league through your local paper, checking box scores, standings and league leaders. 

Over the Raptors’ first few years in the league, things gradually got better. By All-Star weekend 2000, I was sitting in my parents’ living room with three of my best friends and we watched live as Vince Carter set the standard for the dunk contest and put the Raptors on basketball’s map. It was the first major step in a long journey that this game and this country have been on. 

Today, Liam doesn’t just have the Raptors in front of him whenever he wants. He has all of basketball. There are endless games on TV and highlights on NBA.com and elsewhere. There are instructional videos (some of dubious quality) on any aspect of the game just a Google search away. He has good coaching and more good coaches waiting for him for as long as he wants to keep playing. 

Part of that is just what the world has become through technology, but I think another big part of it is the Raptors and the impact they’ve had on the game across Canada over the last 25 years. We all know about The Carter Effect and what Vince did for the Raps, basketball in Canada and the 16 (!) Canadians that play in the NBA (not to forget the near 200 male and female Canadians playing in the NCAA). 


I look at Liam and his friends and how kids across the country reacted to the championship run. That was the culmination of a five-year build, laced with the highs and lows that a franchise deals with on its way to a championship. Those are the teams and the players that the next generation of great Canadian basketball players are growing up on. It makes me excited for where basketball is headed and what these kids with Lowry, Siakam, Leonard, DeRozan, Anunoby, VanVleet, etc. jerseys will do. 

The last Raptors game I was at was on Oct. 30. Pascal Siakam dominated the Pistons and the Raps improved to 4-1. As well as the Raps played, I left Scotiabank Arena that night thinking about what I saw at halftime. 

These kids from Toronto’s Filipino Basketball League, probably somewhere around my nephew’s age ran some five-on-five for about 10 minutes and they were phenomenal. Have you seen these kids before? The way they see the floor, how they cross each other up, the NBA range they have on their shots? Already! 

The Raps’ first season ended on April 21, 1996, with an OT loss to Philly. I was a couple of months away from finishing high school. My competitive basketball days were done (two points per game off the bench, even if I was in a fresh, fresh, fresh pair of Air Max CWs put the writing on the wall for me) and the basketball landscape felt barren. It would be almost 15 more years before there was a post-secondary team in my hometown, which feels like it’s blossomed in its own way with basketball over the last decade. 

A couple of weeks ago I got another text from my sister. It was Liam, trying to pick out a new pair of sneakers to wear for basketball season. I sent suggestions — Hardens, Freaks, Kyries — and he sent pictures of what he liked and what he was trying on. He settled on what I would have settled on: The Air Jordan 12 reverse taxi. He told me more about his team and I reminded him that the Raps were playing that night. He said he’d knew and that he’d be watching. It feels like he has the world in front of him.  

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