Few nations boast club teams that also act as de facto national teams. It’s a role occupied here by the Toronto Raptors and Blue Jays, the lone respective NBA and MLB franchises in Canada.
Raptors Nation was out in full force Thursday night, a long way from CN Tower and the Lake Ontario waterfront, as a standing-room only crowd of more than 2,700 fans crammed every nook and cranny of the 2,300-seat CARSA gymnasium on the University of Victoria campus for the Raptors’ training camp intra-squad game.
“No other team has an entire country as a fan base. The great enthusiasm got our players’ juices going . . . the crowd got us going,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, following the game.
“These are excellent basketball fans and they know the game.”
Casey described CARSA as a “beautiful” facility, right down to the weight and workout rooms, adding: “There are not many university gyms, even in the U.S., that fit that description.”
Fans were adorned in all manner of Raptors-logoed gear.
The Black team defeated the Gray team 89-63, not that it mattered much.
“The great thing about this is that no matter what happens, the Raptors win,” said Ian Borenheim, who watched the game with 13-year-old son Cayden.
The Borenheims are such big hoops fans that they drove down from Campbell River for the occasion. Dad Ian wore a DeMar DeRozan T-shirt and son Ian a Kyle Lowry jersey.
“This is big. It means so much. We were all over it as soon as we heard it was coming,” said Ian, who coaches in the Steve Nash Youth League in Campbell River.
Son Cayden plays for the Southgate Middle School team and was in awe of watching his heroes in person: “Basketball is such a fun game to play and watch.”
Forward Kyle Wiltjer and guard Norman Powell led the game with 17 points each.
“It was a lot of fun with the packed house,” said Wiltjer.
His dad Greg Wiltjer was raised in Germany and the Saanich Peninsula, played for the Parkland Secondary Panthers, in the Olympics for Canada, and also won a national title with the UVic Vikes.
“Every time I scored tonight, I looked over at my grandpa [John, who now lives in Duncan],” said Kyle Wiltjer.
“It’s like coming full circle. I was on the phone with my dad and he said it was like déjà vu seeing me here [at UVic].”
Maybe it was that familiarity with the air up here as the six-foot-10 dual citizen Kyle Wiltjer, who won the silver medal with Canada at the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games, went five-for-nine from three-point land as the NCAA champion with Kentucky, and later a Gonzaga player, displayed a deft outside touch for a big man. Fellow Canadian Andy Rautins went four-for-six on three-pointers. Casey and his Raptors are placing more emphasis on three-point shooting this season and Wiltjer and Rautins went all out to state their cases in the intra-squad game.
“I don’t care what country they are from . . . they could be from the moon,” said Casey, with a chuckle.
As long as they hit the three.
“That's the way the game is going,” he said.
The star-power triumvirate of Lowry had 11 points and six assists, U.S. 2016 Rio Olympics gold-medallist DeRozan seven points and Lithuanian international Jonas Valanciunas 11 points.
“The compete level was good . . . although it was a typical first scrimmage with some rustiness . . . but the ball movement is getting there,” said Casey, of his Raptors team, that is expected to challenge again in the Eastern Conference.
Powell, taking off almost Jordan-like near the top of the key, had the dunk of the night to elicit a gasp from the crowd. Powell later drew another loud crowd burst with a three-pointer from Sooke.
“Having the Raptors in our country exposes more kids to basketball and gives them role models,” said John Affleck, as he watched the game.
Affleck was the manager of the national team when Canada, with Leo Rautins and Victoria’s Greg Wiltjer, were part of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics qualifying tournament against the original U.S. Dream Team.
“Having those two Canadian sons [Kyle Wiltjer and Andy Rautins] out there playing tonight is special,” said Affleck.
All proceeds from the game went to Golf for Kids, which raises funds for Island children’s charities. A cheque for $85,000 was presented by Casey on the court at halftime to Golf for Kids co-chairs Dale Douglas and Murray Stewart.
“The Raptors don’t come to just any place. Tonight validates what [UVic athletic director Clint Hamilton] has pulled off with this event,” said Affleck.
RAPTORS NOTES: Mike James from Nanaimo officiated the game, along with two referees from the G League, which is the farm league for the NBA . . . The Raptors break their week-long training camp at UVic and depart today for Honolulu, where they open the NBA preseason Sunday and Tuesday against the Los Angeles Clippers . . . Raptors governor Larry Tanenbaum was elected chairman of the NBA board of governors on Thursday to become the first Canadian to hold the position.