Canadians Could Steal The Show As IndyCar Hits Toronto Street Course

The NBA descends on Toronto this weekend to celebrate all that’s grown from a seed planted more than 20 years ago, one that changed what was possible for a new generation of Canadians looking to build greatness from the sacrifices of their parents.

You’ll see Drake, Toronto’s most famous son and Raptors ambassador, at the front of all that is cool about basketball in The 6, and old montages of Vince Carter flying through the air. It’ll be a continuation of the party started by the raucous swells outside Air Canada Centre during last year’s playoffs.

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But beyond the temporary bashes and congratulations on a successful franchise lies a movement that was stunted until the Raptors and Carter gave it the fuel to thrive.

There were 12 Canadians on NBA rosters to start the 2015-16 season, tied for the most ever; miles away from the sporadic one-offs like Bill Wennington, Jamaal Magloire and Steve Nash. Eight of the 12 are from the Toronto area. The boom is the culmination of circumstance, opportunism and nurturing over — depending who you ask — 20, 30 or even 40 years. 

“It’s not a fad,” longtime Canadian youth basketball coach Ro Russell said. “It’s a culture change and we’re going to be consistently improving and sustaining.”

Melting the ice

Basketball was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith, but for more than a hundred years, the relationship between Canadians and basketball was casual at best; a recreational activity, and a textbook-style factoid to feed national pride.

Canada has been a hockey country for as long as anyone can remember. Or at least it was, until a flood of immigration in the 1970s began to change the landscape of Canadian uban culture. Toronto’s population filled out with Africans, Asians, Eastern Europeans and people from around the Caribbean — many of whom had never been around ice before. Their connection to hockey was weak, though their first-generation Canadian children largely bought into the city’s obsession on some level as fans. 

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However, hockey mostly remained a white sport where the most promising talent is whisked away at a young age into a system of prep schools, hockey academies and junior leagues. There was still a distance between hockey and the increasingly multi-cultural community of Canada’s biggest city.

In the mid-1990s, a new game came to town.

Vinsanity strikes

The Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993, but baseball didn’t steal the attention of Toronto’s youth. The Raptors did, when the franchise began in 1995. The NBA was new, it was cool and its players were relatable for the city’s young people. 

Toronto has long fancied itself as metropolitan as any of the biggest American cities, but it’s always been important to its people to stay distinctly Canadian. 

The perfect manifestation of this was Vince Carter; an electric American superstar representing "Tdot." The signature moment, the 2000 NBA Dunk Contest in which Carter set the basketball world on fire, not with “Raptors” or their red dinosaur mascot but with “TORONTO” emblazoned across his chest. The Daytona Beach, Fla. native wasn’t technically one of them, but you couldn’t tell that to the kids of Toronto who’d anointed him a hero and aspired to be just like him when they grew up.

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"Vince Carter is the reason why a lot of us Toronto-born NBA players are here where we are today,” said Tristan Thompson, now a starter for the Cleveland Cavaliers. “If you ask them all — myself, Cory (Joseph), Kelly (Olynyk), Dwight Powell, (Andrew) Wiggins — we’d all say if it wasn’t for Vince Carter, basketball wouldn’t be the same in Toronto. It was definitely him. He was a superstar, he made the game attractive and you just wanted to go out and practice dunking. 

“That’s how you fall in love with the game. You watch him every day and you fall in love with the sport and that’s what happened to me.”

Home schooling

For youth basketball coaches, this blossoming love between Toronto and the NBA was the was the spark needed to grow the game at the amateur level. 

Ro Russell was at the forefront of this movement in the 1990s. He grew up with basketball in the same way most Canadians did: basic instruction on the rules of the game that was devoid of sport-specific strength training and conditioning or skill development.

While in college, he began developing Toronto-area athletes into skilled basketball players. Before long, he took the bold next step of taking teams stateside in an effort to get players athletic scholarships, something Canadian universities don’t offer. Canadian basketball players weren’t getting the exposure necessary to get scholarships to American colleges, even though some were as little as two hours away. Without a track record of developing players, Canada might as well have been on the other side of the world.

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“High school coaches were volunteers, so really it was just the basics,” Russell said. “So most players were talented, in terms of natural talent, size, athleticism, but there were far and few between that would go Division I because they had to really stick out and they had to really do some things to get noticed, because back then you weren’t noticed just because you were really good. You had to go to camps in the States, you had to call coaches and send videos. You had to do a lot to get seen.”

Once Russell started taking players across the border, word started to spread among American college coaches that there were decent recruits in the Toronto area, and soon coaches from schools that were within a day’s worth of driving began to show up looking for Russell’s players. Russell thought he was providing kids greater opportunities, but the basketball establishment didn't like the idea of losing talent to American schools. That was a battle they eventually had no choice but to concede.

A sharp rise

When Russell traveled to the 2008 adidas Super 64 AAU tournament with his Grassroots Canada Elite team, they were dismissed as an also-ran before they stepped on the court. They bore the brunt of igloo jokes … and then a team featuring Thompson, Joseph and Junior Cadougan, who later starred at Marquette, became the first Canadian team to win the tournament.

“I remember (Russell) said ‘If you win this tournament, it’s going to change basketball forever,” Thompson said. “Not just for us personally, but for our country, as a nation, so that was our motivation, to prove everyone wrong and do something that had never been done before.”

The win earned Russell’s Grassroots Canada program out of North York, Ontario, a five-page spread in "Slam Magazine." Then the shoe company dollars came and the program took off. 

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Grassroots Canada has produced hundreds of collegiate basketball players and laid the foundation for the country as a basketball factory. Russell’s attempt to create a basketball-focused academy in North Carolina led to him falling out of favor in parts of the Canadian basketball community, though that was a small misstep relative to the scope of his influence on Canadian basketball.

There was resistance from basketball coaches at the youth, high school and university levels because they didn’t want all of their best players, who were better than they ever had been thanks to the introduction of basketball-specific training, leaving the country. What ended up working was everyone learning to embrace the evolution, and establishing ways to grow it further, without the players’ country of origin becoming an afterthought in a feeder system to America.

“I don’t think there’s a disparity in talent that we once had, everybody thinks we had, but our ability to be impactful with that talent is very different,” said Roy Rana, longtime men’s basketball coach at Ryerson University in Toronto and a frequent coach for youth teams in Canada’s national program. “We understand how it works and we’re able to support in a lot of different areas where, 20 years ago, we were still trying to figure it out. Unfortunately, for those young guys who carved the path, they didn’t have as many opportunities as these young kids have now today, but they were trailblazers in their own right.”

Finding role models

Steve Nash knows the perils of being Canadian and an aspiring basketball player better than anyone. His recruiting process coming out of high school in British Columbia was basically a do-it-yourself campaign of mass-mailed letters and VHS tapes with his high school coach, until they convinced Santa Clara coach Dick Davey to take a flyer on a Canadian kid. That, of course, paid off, but the two-time NBA MVP wanted to help build a basketball foundation for future players across Canada.

With the Steve Nash Youth Basketball program through Canada Basketball, kids ages 6 through 12 all over the country can get basketball-specific instruction at a much earlier age than previous generations. The program, started in 2007, provides coaching guidelines and drills and has been offered to a wide variety of children from Aboriginal youth in First Nation communities to Chinese-Canadians to encourage them to make basketball their primary sport.

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Rowan Barrett, Canada Basketball’s assistant general manager, didn’t start playing basketball until he was 14, but played NCAA ball for St. John’s, and represented Canada in the 2000 Olympics. 

With Canada Basketball, Barrett and Nash have built a program that’s attracting the country’s best players and providing a support system for them as they develop.

“Whether it was a player in college, like a Nik Stauskas who might’ve had a rough patch during college for a couple games, Steve’s on the phone. Steve’s been there, he’s walked the path, making sure that kid knows what he sees,” Barrett said. “Whether it’s a little tutelage about how to run a pick and roll, or it’s an Andrew Wiggins learning how to deal with fame, there’s just so many little nuggets there that our senior management team can provide the athletes.”

The talent surge

For a while, this wave of young Canadian players surprised even the coaches that trained them. The Americans didn't know what hit them.

In 2008 when Russell’s Grassroots players won the Adidas Super 64 Tournament, they did so by blowing out Pump N Run and beating Compton Magic, two Southern California programs that had produced NBA players such as James Harden, Gilbert Arenas, Paul George, Klay Thompson and Arron Afflalo, among others, between them.

In the first FIBA Americas U16 tournament in 2009, Rana’s team featuring Stauskas, eventual No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Anthony Bennett and future four-year Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos took the bronze medal. Rana’s FIBA U17 World Championship team in 2010 with Bennett, Pangos and Wiggins also won bronze. 

“I think those first two years, people had no idea what we had and we were a bit of a mystery, nobody expected anything,” Rana said. “To say anyone would have predicted we’d have two No. 1 draft picks off that team, nobody would’ve said that.”

Canada began losing its best players at the high school level, with Thompson and Joseph among those starting the wave of those going south to American prep schools such as Findlay Prep in Nevada and Huntington Prep in West Virginia.

“We had to make a lot of sacrifices,” said Thompson, who attended Saint Benedict's Preparatory School in New Jersey before transferring to Findlay Prep. “I remember being, 15, 16 moving to Newark, New Jersey, seeing that tear come down my mom’s face, knowing that she was going to have to leave her son a thousand miles away to pursue this dream to play Division I and hopefully the NBA. But I wouldn’t change it for the world, and it was worth it.”

The exodus wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, if that was the best way to reach the top levels of basketball, but there was still a need for a place where Canadian players could train close to home and still get the recognition to earn scholarships and play professionally. 

Haven away from home

Having grown up in a small Ontario town with few post-secondary athletic options and two younger siblings who spent their high school years 2,000 miles away playing sports at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Jesse Tippen created that option for Canada’s best young athletes.

A former player turned youth coach who specialized in strength and conditioning, Tippen drove his players to games and back home to different towns with an old school bus before his family, which earned its wealth in the trucking industry, built and funded the Athlete Institute, a training center and fieldhouse in Mono, Ontario,  that houses the Orangeville Prep High School basketball team, in 2010.

Parents and area AAU coaches were skeptical at first, but the program is an easy sell now.

“We had some good athletes the first year,” Tippen said. “But we definitely had to recruit harder than we do now because those kids had to take a chance that we would help them and wouldn’t just leave them high and dry.”

The school’s alumni include Kentucky freshman Jamal Murray. Thon Maker, a five-star recruit in the Class of 2016 from the Sudan, also attends. 

Tippen enlisted Tony McIntyre, coach of Toronto-based AAU program C.I.A. Bounce and father of Bucks guard Tyler Ennis, to be the Athlete Institute’s director of basketball operations, saying McIntyre was one of the first people to buy into his idea.

“All of my kids went to prep school in the United States, so I knew how much it cost and how much time it took to go watch and what it was like to not raise your child on a full-time basis because they were away for 11 months of the year at a prep school,” McIntyre said. “So I thought that if i could provide the same opportunities working with Athlete Institute, that I was looking for in the States, but the kids could go home on weekends and the parents could come to games and practices, then I just felt that we were going to be even more successful because the kids and the parents could be even more stable in their relationships as well as the relationship with the Institute.”

The showcase and the future

All-Star Weekend will be a testament to basketball’s past in Canada and a showcase of its present with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan representing what could be the best Raptors team in franchise history. Likely Team Canada members Wiggins, Trey Lyles of the Jazz and Dwight Powell of the Mavericks will play in the BBVA Rising Stars Game for rookies and second-year players on Friday.

Canadian basketball will have another chance to make waves on the international circuit this summer in a last-chance tournament to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Lacking international experience, the young team fell short of earning a berth in the FIBA Americas tournament last summer, but learning the international game has been a process too.

“There’s different rules in the international game,” Barrett said. “It’s a much more physical game, the hand checking rules, less possessions, less minutes ... and then in a short time, trying to put them together to play in this different game, it’s definitely a challenge. I know the U.S. ran into the same thing in the early 2000s. Obviously, the U.S. has bounced back resoundingly.”

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The popular belief is a spot in the 2016 Olympics would give the Canadian team the experience they’re lacking, but by 2020, Canada could challenge for a spot at the medals podium in Tokyo. By the next summer Olympics in 2024, the current crop of young NBA players would be hitting their peaks and there’s more elite talent on the way, including Rowan Barrett Jr., a Class of 2019 prospect who attends powerhouse Monteverde Academy in Florida.

“It’s a bright future,” Thompson said. “I think what helps is social media. People are like, these Canadians, they can actually play and people are asking now, who’s next? Who’s the next Canadian prodigy, that phenom that’s going to be a McDonald’s All-American or that next NBA player? They’re actually expecting it now. 

“The pressure’s on and the young kids gotta get to work.”

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