By essentially every account, the 2016 N.B.A. All-Star Weekend in Toronto was an unequivocal success.
Fans had great opportunities to engage with league present-day stars and legends of the past.
Cool events and venues emphasized why the N.B.A. and related player brands are a robust force in the sports business universe.
Core All-Star Weekend features like the Three-Point Shootout delivered certified platinum performance and drama; Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon brought their defibrillator paddles, delivered vertical voltage, and destroyed the irregular heart beat that had come to be associated with the Dunk Contest in recent history.
All-Star weekend, however, went beyond glorifying “the association”. Canadian basketball was put on a pedestal in its various dimensions.
All-Star venues provided a platform for, among other things, local club, Ontario university and Toronto Raptor basketball and outlets for both the newly love-struck and the long-time romancers to embrace the rock and put their devotion on display.
It is hard to deny that we are in a golden-age of Canadian basketball. And while it feels good to revel in a signature moment of this aurumian era like All-Star Weekend, it also seems important to look back for perspective on the sport’s status today.
Consider, in no particular order, events, persons and perspectives from years past that help contextualize the place of basketball in the Greater Toronto Area, Ontario, and in Canada at large.
THE YEAR 8 B.R. (BEFORE the RAPTORS)
On October 30, 1987, the Toronto Raptors did not exist. If someone referenced the Air Canada Centre they literally had to be talking about some airplane hangar at Pearson Airport because there was nowhere to play basketball at Bay and Lakeshore.
People who dug the game as much as I did and salivated at the chance to see the N.B.A. in Canada found themselves inside Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum to watch a pre-season battle between Isaiah Thomas and Detroit Pistons and Akeem (not yet Hakeem) Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets featured Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson as the “Twin Towers”, 6’8″ guard Robert Reid and power forward Buck Johnson. The Pistons, a.k.a “The Bad Boys” had Dumars, Laimbeer, Mahorn, the “Microwave” Vinnie Johnson, Adrian Dantley and a second-year pro named Dennis Rodman.
A fond memory was the half-time entertainment which included a dunk contest featuring Ontario high school ballers and ultimate contest winner, Toronto scholastic power dunking legend Dennis Smith out of perennial 80’s and 90’s Scarborough powerhouse Stephen Leacock Collegiate Institute.
STEVE NASH AND ROWAN BARRETT TAKE OVER CANADA’S BACKCOURT, ALMOST TWO DECADES BEFORE THEY TAKE OVER CANADA BASKETBALL’S FRONT OFFICE
Steve Konchalski replaced Ken Shields as head coach of Canada’s senior men’s basketball team. In the process, by the summer of 1995, starting point and shooting guards Ronn McMahon and J.D. Jackson are cut in favour of talented upstart Rowan Barrett (Toronto’s West Hill Collegiate in Scarborough; St. John’s University then of the original and formidable Big East Conference), arguably part of the first true wave of Toronto high school cagers to be recruited to elite Division I NCAA basketball programs, and a fresh-faced Victoria, B.C. kid, named Steve Nash, entering his senior season at Santa Clara University “who made NBA scouts sit up and take notice…” Today, Nash and Barrett are at the helm of Canada Basketball as General Manager and Assistant General Manager/Executive Vice-President, under the leadership of Michele O’Keefe, President and Chief Executive Officer.
TOO MUCH BASKETBALL DAMN IT
To a kid who devoured sports pages, The Globe and Mail was always the newspaper with the formidable sports writers but with hardly any pages devoted to sports (compared to The Toronto Star or the Toronto Sun). Well, back on Monday March 20, 1995, in section D on page D7, a long-time Globe and Mail subscriber had had enough of basketball and didn’t want to take it anymore. If he or she is still around today (let’s be charitable and hope so), the increase in media coverage for basketball by several orders of magnitude, in the face of the precipitous decline of newspapers in a digital world, definitely would have led that subscriber to cancel his subscription, cut his cable TV, disconnect his modem, smash his cell phone, wear a blindfold, insert earplugs….
AFTER LEO RAUTINS BUT BEFORE ANDREW WIGGINS, THERE WAS DR. DIX
It’s not just because Phillip Dixon (Bathurst Heights Secondary School, University of Utah) was the most complete high school basketball player people had ever seen in Toronto and likely in all of Canada. It’s not just that he displayed an exclusive, special combination of singular athleticism and totally sound fundamentals. It’s the fact that he was one of the early Canadian adopters and beneficiaries of participating in elite club basketball in the United States. It’s the fact that he could shatter a backboard as a high school junior without being the size of Moses Malone or Darryl Dawkins. It’s the fact that he could be pitted against the “Mr. Basketball” award winner from almost any state in America in an all-star game and easily be the best player on the court. It’s the fact that he was representative of the urban, Canadian black basketball player pushing through the challenges to become an elite recruit, not just in the country but across the continent. It’s the fact that people from all over and of all ages, my teenaged self included, went to high school basketball games to see him play.
Dixon helped transform the status of the elite Canadian high school basketball player. He put major Division I NCAA basketball programs on notice that select talent resided north of the border. In a sense, Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, Kia Nurse and the embarrassment of riches that is the 21st century bounty of superior Canadian NCAA basketball players are not only the progeny of Nash and Vinsanity, but the are also the descendants of Dixon.
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