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Raptors have work to do as Canada's basketball infatuation fades

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Saturday, October 19, 2019 – Page S1

TORONTO -- On Tuesday, the Toronto Raptors will raise their championship banner and begin the 2019-20 NBA campaign against New Orleans.

It's going to be a historic moment. Generationally significant even, given this country's poverty of iconic 21st-century sports moments. You've probably made plans to watch it.

After that, the season could rapidly become a bit of a bummer. You probably haven't made many plans to watch that part.

A great deal has been made of how Canada embraced basketball through the spring. In the early going, Raptors playoff games were getting TV viewership totals in the middle six-figures - far less than Hockey Night in Canada gets on an average Saturday. By the time Toronto had got to the finals, the television audience had increased 10-fold.

What had been a strictly Toronto-based concern spread across the country. People who had never cared before suddenly cared - and a lot. If your city didn't have its own version of the Jurassic Park rooting club, you were in danger of losing your civic charter.

A subgenre of winsome stories emerged - children tossing off their hockey gloves and going in search of a hoop, pied-piper like.

A great conversion was under way.

The implication seemed to be that Canada was growing up. We were now more than a one-trick sports pony.

As many as two million people showed up at the Raptors victory parade in downtown Toronto. A week later, club president Masai Ujiri declared the franchise bigger than the NBA itself: "We're the new [Liverpool FC].

We're going to capture the world."

The theory was that basketball acts like a malarial contagion - once you have been infected by it, the symptoms never fully abate. In June, Canada was in the feverish, night-sweats stage.

Then things started going wrong.

First, Kawhi Leonard left.

Somewhere deep in our souls, we all knew that was going to happen.

No one got angry about it. In fact, people seemed bizarrely pleased at being tossed over by their brand-new basketball boyfriend. That may be the most Canadian part of the whole thing.

Leonard was universally praised in this country for his cunning and cheered on his way through Customs. He showed up in Vancouver the other night for an exhibition game and got a standing O upon introduction.

All these admirers may feel a little less keen on him once it becomes clear what he's left behind.

The Raptors without Leonard aren't exactly the Beatles without Lennon. They're more like Wings without McCartney.

The team has one star left - Pascal Siakam. Siakam is still a comer rather than a fully formed difference maker. He's had one great year, and did that with Leonard out in front of him running interference. Now he has to improve without the benefit of much cover at all.

After him, the team has a Goldilocks problem - either a little too old (Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol) or a little too young (Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby). Once you get past the starting lineup, it rapidly turns into a game of "remind-me-who-that-is-again-ohhim-right-well-okay-then."

Meanwhile, the best teams in the Eastern Conference have got better. The Raptors are still a contender, but for what exactly we're not sure.

The second thing that happened over the summer was a basketball World Cup that acted as a qualifier for next summer's Olympics.

Before the Raptors went on their run, this tournament was meant to be Canada's transformational basketball moment. We now had enough NBA-level talent to stock two decent international men's teams. A few of those players - Jamal Murray, Tristan Thompson, R.J. Barrett - are stars or proto-stars. The launch of Canada as a global superpower in the sport was (slowly raises hand toward the sun) inevitable.

But none of the stars showed up. A couple were hurt. Somebody missed a phone call. The dog ate one guy's plane ticket.

More depressing than the absences was the fact that few players bothered to make up a decent excuse. They figured the country didn't care and, as it turned out, they were right.

Canada bombed out of the tournament and though we are compelled to say there is still a chance the team makes Tokyo, there is no chance.

Lots of countries have a golden sports generation. Canada may be the first with an imaginary one. We might've been great. In theory. We are theoretical Olympic medalists.

The cumulative effect here - Leonard leaves; Raptors get mediocre overnight; Canada's national basketball set-up looks out over a field of rakes and decides not to bother walking into it - is deadening.

There will still be a couple of echo moments to rally around.

The banner raising is one of them. Leonard returns to Toronto on Dec. 11. Unless everything goes completely sideways, the Raptors should make the playoffs.

But will all the bandwagon jumpers who felt so strongly about this sport four months ago show up nightly in the interim?

No. Of course, they won't.

Basketball didn't have a moment in Canada during the spring. Kawhi Leonard and the shiny newness of a winner did.

The two things together moved people.

Now that those two things have been removed from the conversation, all the people who piled in at the end will remove themselves as well.

That still leaves a sizable core of basketball-first types. There are more than enough of them to sustain the team, but they are not representative of the whole.

They're the true believers. For everyone else, this particular church is a Christmas-only affair.

Canada remains what it always was - a front-running country and a hockey country, in that order. If someone's winning, we like them. If no one's winning, we'll settle for hockey. If a hockey team is winning, then you might as well cancel all the other sports.

(Not that anyone under 40 would know what that feels like.)

The Raptors did a mitzvah - they reminded Canada that it was okay to be good at things.

Leonard made that happen close to single-handedly. He deserves a statue for it.

Canada will continue to produce NBA players because all sport is global now. Basketball, with its low cost, high glamour and ease of access, is designed to attract young participants, a very few of whom will be great. This process was well under way before the Raptors got good.

But if there was a moment when a conversion from what we are now into some new, enlightened sports version of ourselves was possible, it's passed.

It may yet happen, but if so, it will be gradual. You don't let go of the old ways that easily.

Which I'm guessing most people think is okay. If the choice was win and then be disappointed, or not win at all, I'm going to assume everyone - the hard core, the fair-weather, the people who just like a party - can agree they'd take the first thing every single time.

Associated Graphic

Raptor Pascal Siakam attempts a layup against the Warriors during Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Toronto in May. Siakam is Toronto's lone remaining star, Cathal Kelly writes, and he had a great year - with Kawhi Leonard in front of him running interference.


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