What was once a country entirely lacking in basketball players has now become a basketball-rich country. A country constantly dominated and ridiculed by its neighbours to the south has now become a country respected and competitive. A country with no players on a professional level, without a single team in the National Basketball Association, has now become a country with many players, and one of the best teams in the league.
If you hadn't already guessed, I was talking about this great, if somewhat inconspicuous country that we call Canada. As a basketball nation, Canada has seen plenty of ups and downs over the years. Today, we're going to take a look at the past state, the current state, and what we feel to be the future state, of Canadian basketball.
The Ghost of Canadian Basketball Past
Ahhh, the "Dark Era". A time before I can remember, before I was born, when neither the Toronto Raptors nor the Vancouver Grizzlies even existed, when the NBA had few Canadian players, much less any of note.
This situation continued from the conception of the league until the 1990s, when the handful of Canadians in the league began to play small roles on their respective teams, guys like Bill Wennington (Bulls' backup centre during the Jordan era) and Mike Smrek (a Lakers benchwarmer during the Magic Johnson era).
Despite this progress that the Canadian-born players were making, there wasn't much success with the Canadian NBA franchises, the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors. After entering the league as expansion teams in 1995, the two teams inspired little faith from their fans after a string of disappointing seasons. These early seasons of Canadian NBA teams gave Canadians little reason to convert to basketball, thus remaining a hockey nation.
It wasn't until soon after Wennington's three-peat championship run with the Bulls in the years between 1996 and 1998 that Canadian basketball really started to sky rocket, a time that I've begun to refer to as Canada's own "Golden Era". It started with the rise of "Vinsanity" in 1999, when Raptors rookie, Vince Carter, won the NBA's Rookie of the Year award. In his second season, Carter gained the hearts of not just Canadians, but basketball fans across the world, with his exciting play and camaraderie with then-teammate and cousin, Tracy McGrady.
T-Mac and Vince led the Raptors to their first ever playoff appearance in 2000, and after the departure of McGrady to Orlando, Vince led the team to their first ever playoff series win in the following season, inspiring children throughout the nation to pick up a basketball.
At this same time, Rick Fox, a Toronto-born NBA player, was starting at small forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, acting as one of the main contributors, behind legends such as Kobe Bryant and Shaq, for the 2000-2002 Lakers' championship squads. Fox, who I believe to be an unsung hero, motivated the children of Canada to almost the same degree as Vince Carter to beg their parents for a hoop for Christmas. You see, while Vince inspired awe in the nation through his flashy plays and personality, he was, ultimately, an American; Fox was the one who let people know that even kids born north of the border could make it in the league.
Around the time when Vinsanity died down and neither Carter nor McGrady were playing in Toronto any longer, the Grizzlies moved their franchise from Vancouver to Memphis, and the population of Canadian players in the NBA died down, thus signalling a fall from grace for basketball in Canada.
Following this short slump, a new answer to our basketball-god prayers appeared in the forms of Steve Nash and Chris Bosh.
Steve Nash, who grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, went from a virtually un-recruited player coming out of high school, to getting booed by Phoenix Suns fans after then-commissioner David Stern announced him as the draft pick, to being traded away by the Suns just two years later, and then finally to becoming a two-time NBA MVP (2005 and 2006) during his second stint with Phoenix, a stretch in which he averaged 17.2 points, 11.0 assists, and 3.8 boards per game. Add his phenomenal NBA career to his obvious patriotism and desire to lead the Canadian national team to the Olympics, and you've got a basketball legend in Canada, someone who can inspire the next generation of hoopers.
Chris Bosh, on the other hand, took over from Vince Carter as the next American Raptors star to lead what had become Canada's only NBA team after the move of the Grizzlies, becoming an inspiration to young Canadian fans in his own right.
The Current State of Canadian Basketball
Now flash forward to today's state of basketball up north, where fans are finally starting to see the seeds that guys like Nash, Bosh, Vince, and Rick Fox planted in the young Canadians who grew up watching them play.
Those seeds show up in Anthony Bennett, the first-ever Canadian to be picked first overall in an NBA Draft, Cory Joseph, a champion with the Spurs; Tristan Thompson, the starting center on the Cavs' 2016 championship team; R.J. Barrett, god-son to Steve Nash, as well as the projected number 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft; Kelly Olynyk, former first-round draft pick and now the starting center for the Miami Heat; and countless others representing their country to the best of their abilities.
Anthony Bennett being selected as the first pick in the 2013 NBA Draft; the first Canadian to do so
The only real issue I have with Canadian national basketball as things currently stand is with a lack of national pride in some of the better players eligible to play national basketball for Canada. Particularly, I don't like Andrew Wiggins opting out of playing for the national team more or less every year, for fear of injury. Now, while I understand his concern, I do not agree with his not playing, especially as he would arguably be the team's best player, someone who could lead Canada to a medal in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (which would be their first since they won silver in 1936 at Berlin).
Other than my complaints about Wiggins, I am very happy with how things currently are with Canada's national team, who have been beating notable opponents, such as Chile and Brazil, by comfortable margins (84-61 and 85-77 respectively).
Watch Team Canada cruise to a win over Team Chile in the first round of FIBA World Cup Qualifiers.
It's also worth mentioning that every player on the current roster for the Canada Men's National Basketball Team was born from 1991-2000, which means they would have been growing up right around the time when Rick Fox and Vince and T-Mac (or Steve Nash and Chris Bosh for the 2000-born players) were playing, just further demonstrating the influence that those guys had on the current generation of basketball players.
As well as the national team's success right now, the state of the lone Canadian NBA franchise has been better than ever in recent years. The Raptors have been having record-breaking seasons consecutively since the 2013-'14 season, and have just recently traded for a game-changing player in Kawhi Leonard.
Also, despite the cold weather, and the snow, and having to go through customs at the airport for every away game, almost any player who has played for the Toronto Raptors over the years has fallen in love with the city and the country, due mostly to the fan-base covering an entire country. This is most notably seen in the cases of Matt Bonner, who applied for Canadian citizenship years after leaving the Raptors organization, and Kyle Lowry, who at first thought nothing of the city and wanted to leave as soon as possible, but is now happily signed on for at least two more years with the franchise.
Finally, we get to Vince Carter. The man who seems to never age. The man who, at 41 years of age, signed a one-year deal to play for the Hawks in Atlanta. So, while this could be the year that ends his miraculous fight against time, Raptors fans still, as we always have, (other than the few years after he was traded to New Jersey, in which we booed him constantly) wish Vince the best, and would be thrilled to have him end his career in Toronto, the place where it all began.
Canadian Basketball Future:
It's incredibly hard to predict the future. In fact, some might call it impossible. Despite all that, I'm going to attempt exactly that, by predicting what will happen with the Toronto Raptors, Canada and the NBA, and the Canadian Men's National Basketball Team between now and two years from now, the end of 2020.
Looking at the Raptors, I'm expecting, based on the roster they currently have, for them to fight hard with either the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers in the years to come, and come out on top at least once, making the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
I also expect an increasingly high influx of Canadian-born NBA players, with their population growing by the year, until, by 2020, there are between 20 and 35 NBA players who originated in Canada.
Finally, when it comes to the national team, I would not be at all surprised, and am, in fact, entirely confident that, barring any injuries or Wiggins-like unwillingness to play, Canada will play for a medal in both the 2019 FIBA World Cup, and the 2020 Summer Olympics. So yes, that means I expect the lowest the team to place in both of these major tournaments to be fourth, and the highest to be second (they aren't ready for Team USA quite yet).
I have watched the Raptors and the Canadian national team alike suffer great defeat after great defeat, and those who came before me in the generations prior to my own, have, without a doubt, seen countless more. However, thanks to the contributions of many, many players, coaches, fans, media personalities, and administrative figures in professional basketball around the world, including, but not limited to, the ones mentioned here, Canada has burst on to the scene as a basketball nation, one that could one day compete with the USA for the best in the world.