The evolution of Toronto as one of the most powerful basketball cities in the world took a crucial and comical step in 1995, when its NBA expansion franchise, the Raptors, were in their first year and in town for an early season home game.
Veteran guard Tracy Murray laughed as he stepped to the free throw line, not because of the cartoonish dinosaur logo on his uniform, but because his own home fans behind the rim were distracting him by waving inflatable plastic sticks. Murray told reporters afterward that while he loved his new fans’ energy, he encouraged them to only wave the sticks during their opponents’ attempts. They simply didn’t know any better.
“The first year was an educational year,” Murray said of the moment, which fit into everything the Raptors organization began to build that season. The team’s color commentator, Leo Rautins, used in-game skits to explain what a charge or three-second violation was. Raptors players, most of whom were household names in the United States but literal and figurative foreigners in Canada, poured into schools to introduce themselves to kids, grooming a new generation of fans and inspiring a crop of adolescents who would years later turn Toronto into a hotbed of hoops talent.
Within a few years, that group of players took off, transfixed by watching the Raptors’ first transcendent star, Vince Carter, and capitalizing on the emergence of a powerful prep basketball scene in a country long known for hockey.
“I call them Raptor babies,” Murray said.
The Raptors have become one of the NBA’s top franchises, valued at $1.7 billion and fourth in the league in attendance, a crowd that once again will buzz Sunday when the Raptors host the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference semifinals. Moreover, the team’s brand has become one of the most recognizable in the NBA; the Raptors have a powerful ambassador in Toronto-born hip-hop mogul Drake, and even its once laughable retro uniform from the team’s debut season has become a fan favorite.
But the success of the Raptors, coupled with a rich immigrant population and a booming AAU scene, has also helped transform Toronto into fertile ground for elite basketball talent over the past decade. In 2000, there were four Canadian players in the NBA; that number was at 13 at the start of this season, with most hailing from the Toronto area. Top prep schools and Division I programs have set up shop in the city to recruit top-end prospects, many of whom have become NBA draft picks. Since 2011, 12 players from the Toronto have been selected in the NBA draft, nine of which were picked in the first round.
“Just the NBA coming to Canada, the difference overnight was almost tangible,” said Rautins, who grew up in Toronto and was an first-round draft pick out of Syracuse in 1983 before eventually becoming a broadcaster with the Raptors. “These kids grew up with the game. We’ve had NBA players, but it’s always been kind of cyclical. . . . We lead the world in NBA players outside of the United States now. And that number is going to increase this summer, and next summer. It is amazing.”
The Toronto area produced its first NBA draft lottery pick, Tristan Thompson, in 2011, followed by back-to-back No. 1 overall picks in Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins in the 2013 and 2014 classes, the latter of which saw a record four Canadians drafted. There has been at least one Canadian selected in the last nine drafts. Toronto’s Nik Stauskas, along with Tyler Ennis, Jamal Murray and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander have all been picked in the first round since 2014.
Toronto is expected to produce a new wave of NBA players during June’s draft, including Duke guard RJ Barrett, a consensus top-three pick, as well as Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a potential lottery pick who is also a cousin of Gilgeous-Alexander. During the NCAA tournament in March — an event that featured 23 Canadian players — Alexander-Walker spoke at length on the influence of his Canadian roots and the impact the Raptors had on his upbringing.
“Kids are getting a chance to show they can play,” Alexander-Walker said. “I remember Vince [Carter]. He was Canada basketball . . . just things he did, just wowed you.”
The Raptors had produced an early-fan favorite in Damon Stoudemire, the team’s first draft pick — Canada had also long hailed Steve Nash as a rare hoops hero — but Carter’s rise in Toronto, which began with his electric performance in the 1998 all-star slam dunk contest in Oakland and continued when he led the Raptors to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2001, captivated the city and spawned a new generation of young players looking to imitate his highflying game.
“If you recall at that time, he was being compared to Michael Jordan. He was also more popular than Kobe Bryant,” said former Raptors forward Jerome Williams, who played with Carter in the early 2000s. “That popularity . . . and being one of the NBA’s ambassadors was a huge platform to grow the game in Canada.”
“Vince Carter took that baton,” said Murray, “and just took it through the atmosphere.”
Carter’s popularity had attracted new fans to the Raptors and to the game, and new opportunities for young players at the grass roots level. Toronto had just one AAU program in the early 1990s, led by Ro Russell, who has since become one of the city’s top prep basketball power brokers. Russell, whose family emigrated to Canada from Jamaica when he was a boy, had watched the city’s diverse population gravitate toward the game in a far more significant way after the Raptors and Carter arrived.
Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities on the planet; 51.5 percent of the city’s population is composed of visible minorities, according to the latest census in 2016.
“Because we have so many people immigrating, they are coming with an open mind,” said Vidal Massiah, who played under Russell after his family emigrated from South America and now runs the local AAU club Northern Kings. “I think that’s what you see. You see the growth of the game. You see this unique mix of people from all around the world that represent a very unique gene pool, and you’re seeing athletes come out of that.”
By the early 2000s, multiple AAU programs were launched in Toronto and local participation in the sport nearly doubled, according to Russell. Sneaker companies moved in to provide sponsorship, giving programs new resources to travel across North America in order for players to gain exposure.
“A lot of the naysayers were like, ‘it’s a waste of time, they’ll never get a scholarship, they’re not good enough. Stay in Canada.’ But now these guys are getting scholarships,” said Russell, who said his AAU program, Grassroots Elite Canada, has sent more than 400 players to Division I programs. “These guys get a free education, they get an opportunity to play pro basketball.”
Along with traditional hotbeds in Los Angeles, Texas, Florida, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., Toronto is considered one of the most competitive AAU basketball markets, boasting multiple programs that travel on the lucrative circuits sponsored by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour each summer.
As the local AAU scene has grown in the past decade, so have prep schools for Toronto’s elite prospects. Most of the top players from the city, such as Wiggins, Gilgeous-Alexander and Barrett, chose to go the conventional route of playing at top prep schools in the United States before moving on to college and then the NBA. But that trend appears to be changing, with multiple prep schools springing up in Toronto in recent years. Murray, who was the seventh overall pick in the 2016 draft and has since arguably become the top Canadian player in the NBA, played all four years of high school ball in Canada. And one of the top players in the 2023 class, Elijah Fisher, is expected to play the duration of his high school career under Russell at Crestwood Preparatory College in Toronto.
More and more Americans are heading north to play at Toronto prep schools, too, according to Russell, whose prep school team has included touted prospects from New York, Alabama, Michigan and Florida.
The signs that basketball was about to boom in Toronto could be felt the minute the Raptors arrived nearly three decades ago. Rautins recently recalled one of his favorite stories: A couple of years after the team had arrived, he was on a flight and coming in low into the city over the suburbs. He looked out the window and spotted a basketball hoop in a driveway.
“This is Canada, this is Toronto. I had never seen that before,” Rautins said. “It kind of hit me: ‘Whoa. Something is going on here.’”
More from The Post: