There will be something not seen even a decade ago when the Toronto Raptors hold their 2022-23 NBA training camp Tuesday through Saturday at CARSA Gym on the University of Victoria campus: two Canadian players.
Chris Boucher from Montreal and Khem Birch from Russell, Ont., are among the 20 players gathering Tuesday at UVic in a training camp that also includes the likes of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr. and O.G. Anunoby.
It speaks to the so-called Canadian Golden Generation of 18 players who played in the NBA last season and to the growing popularity of the sport in Canada. That is evident in that the Raptors intra-squad game Friday night at the 7,000-seat Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre is sold out. (The rest of training camp at UVic is closed to the public).
The intra-squad game played in 2017 in CARSA Gym, the last time the Raptors held training camp in Victoria, also sold out in the 2,300-seat facility. The Canada-Argentina 2023 FIBA World Cup qualifying game last month at the Memorial Centre attracted 7,000 fans. The Tokyo Olympics qualifying tournament last summer at the Memorial Centre was also sold out before public health pandemic restrictions limited attendance to zero for the preliminary round and to just 10 per cent for the playoff round.
“There’s a lot of buzz,” said Nick Nurse, head coach of both the Raptors and the Canadian national team.
“There is a continuation of [Canadian] players getting drafted and playing at high levels overseas. The numbers and talent keep coming through,” added Nurse, when in Victoria last month to guide Canada to victory over Argentina in the 2023 World Cup qualifying game.
That is having a ripple effect throughout Canadian sport.
“The number of kids you see, too, is on the rise,” said Nurse.
“You go to parks and you see a lot of kids shooting buckets that I didn’t notice when I first got to Toronto. Now when I go to a park there’s all kinds of kids out there shooting. On all fronts, it’s all positive.”
It is noticeable on Island courts, too. The basketball courts at Central Park, behind the Memorial Centre and sponsored by two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, are abuzz daily with pick-up games going from morning to night.
“Our basketball courts in all our parks are one of our most used city assets showing so clearly that Victorians love basketball,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, in a recent statement.
The Raptors, much like the Toronto Blue Jays, hold outsized places in the Canadian sports imagination as the only Canadian franchises in the NBA and MLB, respectively. That has led to national followings for both clubs. This will be the 12th time the Raptors have held their training camp outside Toronto and the seventh time in B.C. The Raptors will break camp in Victoria to play five pre-season games, including Oct. 2 against the Utah Jazz at Rogers Place in Edmonton and Oct. 14 against the Boston Celtics at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
“Everywhere we go, the Raptors are the nation’s team and we get a tremendous response and support,” said Nurse.
“Pre-season games in Vancouver and Montreal are almost like a playoff atmosphere.”
The Raptors held their media day Monday morning in Toronto before flying out to Victoria later in the day.
“I love to be in the gym,” NBA all-star Siakam told the assembled media in Toronto.
“I like to get better. I enjoy the process of getting better. That process to me is more important than the actual game. I get lost in it. I understand having to pace and train at the right moment and all that. [But] pure basketball wise, I enjoy being in the gym.”
He will get plenty of that enjoyment this week inside Ring Road.