The Toronto Raptors are the champions of the National Basketball Association — and by winning the title, Canada’s only NBA franchise has also captured the heart of a country always known as a nation of hockey fans.
Don’t get me wrong — I love hockey. My involvement in the sport has included scholar, critic, fan, coach and player. But I have to wonder what the Toronto Raptors’ NBA championship will mean to the great Canadian game.
Is this a transformational moment for both hockey and basketball? For a sport to become ingrained in Canadian nationalism, it must stir the collective imagination.
Hockey had Paul Henderson’s goal in the 1972 Summit Series.
But now basketball has Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater that put the Raptors into the semifinals. Leonard then led the team the rest of the way, earning the MVP award for the final series.
Will Leonard’s heroics replace Henderson and become this generation’s magical sports moment? Will it become the stuff of Canadian sports lore?
In order to answer this question we need to explore how the sport imagination of a nation is created.
Legends and origin
First, popular notions of a sport are woven within the character of its legends. Henderson was born during a snowstorm and grew up in Kincardine, Ont., during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Leonard was born in sunny Los Angeles and went to high school in Moreno Valley, Calif., an urban area that expanded rapidly from the 1980s to the 2000s. The contrast is stark — one is a prodigy from a rural community while the other is a star from an urban metropolis.
A sport’s imagination also relates to the origin of a sport and how its growth mirrors that of a nation. Hockey emerged from the land of ice and snow. It developed from a traditional to modern game during the same time that Canada evolved from a colony to a country of its own.
While basketball was created by Canadian James Naismith in 1891, it reflects a more contemporary Canadian era and has developed from a modern game into an entertainment spectacle. For basketball, “We the North” isn’t about a cold frontier — it’s about a bold and diverse nation.
A sport’s imagination is also based upon actual moments. The moments are shared through popular discussion and over time become mythical. Hockey has been lacking a lot of magical moments lately.
On the international stage, the most recent two examples are probably Sidney Crosby’s game-winning goal in the 2010 Winter Olympics or Marie-Philip Poulin’s overtime winner at the 2014 Olympics. In the professional game, it has been more than 25 years since a Canadian-based National Hockey League franchise won the Stanley Cup. The Montreal Canadiens took the championship in 1993.
But several special basketball moments have recently gained attention and inspired the country. On the women’s side, stories of the Edmonton Grads, Canada’s basketball dynasty during the 1920s and '30s, have re-emerged as current female players and teams take centre stage. The women’s national team played in front of massive crowds during the 2015 Pan-Am Games in Toronto and several high-performance athletes compete in North American and European leagues.
The recent success of Canadian men’s national basketball teams is extraordinary, achieving podium results at international competitions. For example, the under-19 team won the 2017 World Championship and a team of university players earned a silver medal at a 2018 Commonwealth Games tournament.
Many contend the streak of Canadian players included in NBA drafts — nine and counting — demonstrates the strength of talent in the country. When it comes to the professional sport industry, the Toronto Raptors reflect a legitimate National Basketball Association franchise both as an off-the-court commercial enterprise and on-the-court contender.
Finally, the strength of a sport’s imagination depends upon who, and how many, feel connected to the game. Some suggest that hockey has become selective and elite. Fewer Canadians have direct experience playing the game as access and cost become barriers to participation.
In this way, hockey is becoming more exclusive. Some research even suggests Canada’s elite player development may be falling behind those of other countries.
But as a sport that just requires a ball and doesn’t allow intentional body contact, basketball doesn’t face the same economic limitations or concussion risks as hockey. As a result, it has emerged as a game with a strong bond across social groups, regardless of age, class or ethnicity.
Basketball’s profile among Canadian newcomers ranks first as a personal favourite sport, whereas hockey ranks third.
The association between sport and the Canadian imagination is powerful. The Raptors’ playoff success has propelled basketball’s legends and lore to a level never before reached among Canadians. Now that the Raptors are NBA champions, will basketball now surpass hockey as Canada’s favourite game?