‘This is just the beginning’: Raptors win inspires young fans, could change future of Canadian basketball

It’s not unusual for students at Winnipeg’s Ecole Lansdowne School to play pickup basketball at lunch, but Friday’s game was different.

“All the kids are going to get inspired by the Raptors,” said Riley Guied, as he took a break from the action. His dream is to be an NBA player.

“I was very happy because they were in the NBA for 20-something years and they never won, and this is the first time winning,” said his friend, Isaiah Walker.

The Raptors made history Thursday night, becoming the first Canadian team to win a National Basketball Association championship. 

But their NBA victory could also change the future of Canadian basketball. 

Basketball fever is running high and Basketball Manitoba is already seeing that.

Raptors shooting guard Danny Green is teaching a skills camp in Winnipeg in a few weeks.

It’s already sold out — and there’s a wait list.

The phone has been ringing at Basketball Manitoba, where executive director Adam Wedlake has seen a big increase in interest since the Raptors’ playoff run began. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

“It’s buzz city for us for sure — awesome to see what it’s doing for the sport across Canada,” said Basketball Manitoba executive director Adam Wedlake. The phone has been ringing constantly with people asking to sign up for summer camps and amateur clubs, he said.

A recent Angus Reid poll found just 10 per cent of Canadians usually follow the NBA.

That number jumped to 40 per cent, during the Raptors’ playoff run, the poll said. The team’s young and diverse fan base is also reflective of Canada.

‘A low-barrier sport’

While the Toronto team’s tenacious play has inspired countless new fans, basketball’s popularity has been surging for the last few decades.  

It’s comparatively easy to learn and inexpensive to start playing.

“We call it a low-barrier sport, not only just for the attraction of it, but also the cost factors that may be in reality to getting involved,” Wedlake said.

“A lot of our growth is coming out of new Canadians that are arriving in Canada, that may have some experience or a passion for the game elsewhere and are bringing that passion with them,” he said.

The players are also more accessible. For example, Danny Green has his own podcastwhile centre Serge Ibaka has a cooking show on YouTube.

Winnipegger Emily Potter is a member of Canada’s senior women’s basketball team and a professional player in Europe. She hopes more young Canadians will be able to see themselves playing the sport after the Raptors’ NBA success. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

National senior women’s basketball team member Emily Potter hopes young people can now see themselves playing the game.

“We all start out five years old or two years old, picking up a ball for the first time and not knowing what we’re doing. That’s exactly where those NBA players started, and look where they are today,” she said.

“Maybe we won’t see it right away, but let’s say 10 years from now, we’re definitely going to see that benefit of the Raptors doing so well and kids continuing to blossom in the sport.”

‘Sky is the limit’

For long-time basketball fans, seeing the country embrace the sport is exciting. 

“You’re going to see a lot of kids going to the park today … shooting some hoops,” said Jay Rosales, co-host of the That’s a Rap podcast.

“I remember when I was a kid, I would go to the park and pretend I was Michael Jordan because the Raptors didn’t have a franchise at the time.

“Now you’re going to see kids out there wanting to be the next Kawhi [Leonard] or the next Kyle Lowry. And that’s just the start of it.”

Scout Elias Sbiet of North Pole Hoops says Canadians have seen players like Toronto’s Andrew Wiggins go from watching the Raptors to playing against them, as part of the Minnesota Timberwolves team.

Then there’s R.J. Barrett, a Canadian expected to be a top pick in the NBA draft next week.

“I think the sky is the limit and this is just the beginning. We’re just scratching the surface,” Sbiet said.

Julia Dacyon isn’t on a club or school basketball team. She just likes playing at school and with her cousins in the evening. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

He’s excited about the momentum, but says investments will need to be made in both coaching and infrastructure — “making sure there are enough facilities, courts for accessibility for these kids to put themselves in a situation to be successful and chase a dream.”

Many of those dreams will start with pickup games like the one at Ecole Lansdowne on Friday, where Julia Dacyon was playing her heart out.

“I’m not on a team or anything,” she said.

“I just play … because it’s an opportunity to meet new people and play a sport you’ve never played before.”