Raptors’ run has Islanders joining in cross-Canada basketball fever

It was a dream deferred, not a dream denied.

The Toronto Raptors have painted Canada red and black from Victoria to St. John’s, Monday night’s white-knuckle loss in Game 5 of the NBA final notwithstanding.

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“The reaction across the country to the Raptors is unprecedented,” said Ken Shields, who coached the University of Victoria Vikes to seven consecutive national championships in the 1980s and also the Canadian national team.

Shields and former University of Victoria Vikes great Eli Pasquale attended Monday’s Game 5 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Because they are the lone Canadian teams respectively in the NBA and MLB, the Raptors and Blue Jays hold singular spots in the Canadian sporting pantheon. We haven’t seen this type of pan-Canadian response to a pro club team since the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and 1993.

But this is even more so, said Shields. “I haven’t seen this happen [for a pro club team] in Canada in any sport, not even the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993. There are big-screen outdoor viewing parties, and games are also being shown in movie theatres, in cities across Canada. It’s been unreal and wonderful for basketball and without question the sport will grow across the country because of this.”

The Raptors 2017 training camp intra-squad game in CARSA gym at UVic was the hottest sports ticket in years on the Island. That interest has not waned.

Movie theatres across the country showing the NBA finals have been packed with fans, including an auditorium at Silver City Tillicum.

“It’s massive that the Raptors have made it all this way,” said Connor Zawacki, who watched Monday’s game at Silver City Tillicum with girlfriend Halayna Peskett.

“It’s great that the whole country is involved. It’s quite a spectacle.”

Said Peskett, pointing to Zawacki: “He got me into it.”

Also at Silver City were friends John Cowley, Ren Vagay and Joseph Bond.

“It’s fun to be in a community setting to watch history being chased,” said Cowley.

Fifty-six Jurassic Parks have sprung up across the country with large-screen, outdoor viewing parties in cities from Halifax to Calgary. Night lights have turned Niagara Falls Raptors red during the playoff run.

This may represent a shifting cultural change, with the a story in Sunday’s New York Times noting a newer immigrant population is turning Canada away from the expense of playing hockey and toward basketball.

“Basketball B.C. registration has been growing at 10 per cent and this will add fertilizer to that mix,” said Craig Beaucamp, head coach of the UVic Vikes basketball team.

“Kids across the country are watching the Raptors. That might be the spark for them to pick up a ball and play.”

Beaucamp pointed to the impact the U.S. and Canadian women’s national soccer teams, with their results in the World Cup and Olympics, have had in fueling growth of girls’ soccer across North America. “It is going to be interesting to see what this Raptors run translates into for basketball in Canada.”

Kathy Shields, who coached the UVic Vikes women’s team to eight national championships, said the impact will be felt across both boys’ and girls’ basketball in Canada: “The Raptors have brought so much more awareness of the game to beyond even the casual fan. This will get more kids excited about playing the game. We are going to see an explosion of basketball in Canada over the next 15 years. The impact would have been doubled if the [Vancouver] Grizzlies had not been taken from us.”

The B.C. capital is among the Canadian cities most closely associated with basketball over the years. It included the Dominoes national championship dynasty of the 1930s, and Ken and Kathy Shields’ men and women UVic dynasties of the 1980s through to Victoria-raised two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash.

Victorians Doug Peden, and Art and Chuck Chapman were part of the last Canadian team to win an Olympic medal at Berlin in 1936, although the Pasquale-led Canadian team came close in 1984 at Los Angeles, finishing in fourth place. Now there is talk of the drought finally being broken by an all-NBA-player Canadian team at Tokyo 2020.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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