The last time Canada’s men’s basketball team qualified for an Olympic Games in 2000, the world was a different place: dial-up Internet, flip phones, Walkmans, DVDs, and Vince Carter leading the Toronto Raptors to their first winning season since their introduction to the NBA.
As the Internet went wireless and phones became smart, Canada became a basketball country, with more and more kids picking up the sport and the talent level rising each and every year.
Now, there are a record 24 Canadians playing in the NBA, representing the most players of any country outside of the United States for the eighth consecutive season. And that’s not to mention the increasing number of Canadians playing in the NCAA, at the highest levels of Europe, and right here in Canada with the newly formed Canadian Elite Basketball League.
The question is: why Canada?
Of course, there are external factors that play into Canada becoming more of a basketball country over the past two decades, including increased population and immigration from countries where basketball is more popular than a sport like hockey, for example.
But that doesn’t fully explain why Canada, perhaps more than any country in the world, has not only embraced basketball over the last two decades, but also succeeded at it at increasingly high levels.
So, to learn about the rise of Canadian men’s basketball, I went to the source, interviewing Canadian coaches such as Steve Nash, Nathaniel Mitchell, and Nick Nurse; NBA players including Shai Gilgious-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Dillon Brooks, RJ Barrett, Nickeil-Alexander-Walker, Dalano Banton, Khem Birch, and Joshua Primo; as well as NCAA players including Bennedict Mathurin, Caleb Houstan, and Zach Edey.
What I learned is that the growth of basketball in Canada is not a coincidence; that there are intentional, long-standing factors that played into this, including the rise of the Toronto Raptors into one of the elite franchises in North American sports; the increasing number of Canadian players who have paved different paths to the highest levels of basketball for kids in their neighborhoods to follow; and the Canada Basketball program developing youths every step of the way and providing them with an aspiration in the form of the senior team.
What we have now is a golden era of basketball in Canada, with more athletes playing at increasingly high levels every year and several players in the NBA with legitimate superstar upside. More than that, we have a group of high-character young men who are committed to representing Canada on and off the court and eventually leading them back to the Olympics and onto the podium.
But in order to understand the present, we must go back and examine the past, including those who made the game look cool before it was popular to do so.