From Canada to college basketball
Myron Medcalf [ARCHIVE]
July 10, 2012
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One night in Canada, former Toronto Raptors star Damon Stoudamire bumped into Drake, a Canadian and one of the world's most famous rappers. The two talked basketball, not hip-hop, as the rap star relayed his admiration for the man he idolized as a boy in Toronto.

"It's almost like he was paying homage. He said, 'You're the reason people like us started watching basketball. You were Toronto's guy,'" recalled Stoudamire, now an assistant coach at Memphis. "It took me back, and it was humbling."

The conversation with the multiplatinum-selling artist helped Stoudamire embrace and understand his significance in Canada's thriving basketball culture.

For decades, Canada has contributed to American music (Celine Dion, Justin Bieber, Avril Lavigne), movies (Jim Carrey, Ryan Gosling, William Shatner) and other sectors of entertainment. Hockey represented the bulk of the nation's athletic footprint in the United States. But a flock of Canadian basketball players seeking more exposure have crossed the border in recent years and established a pipeline coveted by American coaches at all levels.

The arrival of the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies in the mid-'90s turned a generation of Canadian youngsters into NBA hopefuls. Steve Nash's evolution from unknown prospect to Santa Clara standout to two-time NBA MVP established the blueprint. His success encouraged Canadians to invest more money and resources at the grassroots level. Now, a country full of hockey players produces basketball standouts that take their talents to American prep schools, colleges and NBA franchises every year.

Five Canadians -- Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Andrew Nicholson, Robert Sacre and Kris Joseph -- were selected in the last two NBA drafts. Andrew Wiggins is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2014 recruiting class.

Those connected to the Canadian hoops scene suggest that the number of basketball prodigies birthed by the country will multiply in the coming years. Many will hail from the minority communities that arrived in the 1970s through more relaxed immigration policies.

"A number of components have come together to create this wave of talent we're in the process of unleashing," said Wayne Parrish, CEO of Canada Basketball, the nation's official basketball governing body.

Immigrants come, children choose basketball

The soldiers arrived at dusk and yelled for Texas guard Myck Kabongo's father. Toure Kabongo told his wife, Nene, and children to hide under a bed.

Nene, however, jumped from a window in the laundry room and alerted a neighbor, an ex-bodyguard with a gun collection. The man grabbed his gun and fired two shots into the air. The soldiers fled.

Violent and intimidating military displays were common enough in the tumultuous Democratic Republic of the Congo that the Kabongo family decided to leave that day.

Toure journeyed to the United States alone, but during a trip to Canada, his wife's brother persuaded him to take advantage of that country's immigration policies. So he moved to Canada after being granted entry as a political refugee.

Five years after he left Africa, Toure brought his family to the nation.

"My husband wanted us to do better, have a good life," said Nene.

In 1976, Canada eliminated a ban on non-European immigrants. Its new policies catered to three groups: the educated, families seeking reunification and refugees. Since that time, the country has become one of the most diverse nations in the world. From 1996 through 2006, Canada granted 2 million-plus immigrants and refugees -- most from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean -- permanent resident status, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Many settled into Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto -- home to more than one-third of the country's population -- and moved to urban communities as they sought fresh starts. Their children chose hoops over hockey sticks.

Basketball was identified as the fastest-growing sport in Canada in a 2006 study conducted by Solutions Research Group. The same study listed basketball as the No. 1 sport among "fast-growing visible minority groups."

"In the same way that basketball became an outlet for inner city kids in American cities, it sort of worked out that way for minority kids from fairly recent immigrant communities in Canadian cities," said Christopher Moore, a Canadian historian.

Thompson's parents are Jamaican. Wiggins' mother was born in Barbados. Marquette standout Junior Cadougan's mother was born in Trinidad and Tobago but grew up in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. All three are Toronto natives.

"Every area really had community centers, and people would just always come after school to play. We had night runs where you could go back and play at night," said Myck Kabongo, adding that basketball helped him stay safe and focused while living in one of Toronto's roughest areas. "The gyms were always open for us to play in. You fall in love with it playing every day, really."

The sport's swelling fan base forced the NBA to take notice. In 1995, the league arrived and changed the way an entire country viewed the game.

NBA comes to Canada

In 2006, Dr. James Naismith's granddaughter uncovered proof -- in the form of notes and letters -- that basketball's inventor had been inspired by a game he played as a boy in Almonte, Ontario, Canada, called duck on a rock.

Yes, Naismith created the sport in 1891 at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Mass. But Canadians emphasize his roots.

"We think of basketball, and this is true of everyone in this country … we believe basketball was invented by a Canadian and take huge pride in that," said Parrish. "With Dr. Naismith, there's just a tremendous kind of resonance and connection to him."

More than a century later, the NBA expanded with the Grizzlies and Raptors. Both teams debuted in the 1995-96 season.

The country offered its immediate support.

"Obviously, we didn't have the best record, but those people, they really embraced us," Stoudamire said.

Before the two franchises existed, Canadian children followed NBA squads through American TV.

Cadougan loved March Madness. He was also a Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan fan like millions of American kids. But when the Raptors came to town, the Toronto native changed his allegiance.

When you look at those guys, you're like, 'If I work hard, one day I can be on that stage.' Especially having a pro team in your city, it opens up opportunities. You get to see them every day. You get to see them walk down the street. They were definitely big for my growth because seeing is believing.

--Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson

"Before the Raptors came, I was obviously a Michael...
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