By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – When Canadian James Naismith invented basketball back in 1891 it is doubtful that in his wildest dreams he could have imagined his hockey-mad homeland going bonkers over a sport designed to be an “athletic distraction”.
Not since Naismith nailed peach baskets to the wall of a gym had basketball ever been a distraction for Canadians until Thursday when it became a national obsession, the country putting aside regional loyalties and jumping on the Toronto Raptors bandwagon.
For the first time an NBA Finals game was played outside the United States and from Victoria to Newfoundland, Canadians assembled in city squares for viewing parties, packed bars and pubs to watch the Raptors record a rousing 118-109 win over the Golden State Warriors.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted about it, rapper Drake was courtside chirping and taunting and NBA commissioner Adam Silver was offering a historical perspective.
“This is a homecoming of sorts for basketball in Canada,” Silver began his state of the league address ahead of Game One. “You know, our Game One of the Finals taking place in Toronto, Canada. That will, I think, be a milestone.
“It’s come full circle in terms of basketball being invented by a Canadian.”
Until this post-season Canada was a bit player on the NBA stage but now find themselves as nearly everyone’s favorite team, even in the U.S. where they are benefiting from Warriors fatigue.
For the casual fan, little is known about the team operating out of the NBA’s northern outpost, but they have heard too much for too long about the Warriors, who are in their fifth consecutive Finals chasing a third straight title.
According to a map created by gambling site BetOnline, all but three states (California, Nevada and Hawaii) are cheering for the Raptors.
“That’s cool,” shrugged Warriors Draymond Green on Friday as his team prepared for Game Two of the best-of-seven series on Sunday. “People in the States are rooting against us because we beat all their teams. So it’s all good.
“When you’re at the top, no one’s ever cheering for you to stay there.
“People want to see you get to the top and they want to see you fall.”
Even more surprising than Americans getting behind the Raptors is Canada rallying around a Toronto team.
The Raptors joined the NBA in 1995 and in a quarter of a century had grown little support outside the 416 area code.
That all changed on Thursday as they were elevated to the status of Canada’s team.
As Toronto whipped itself into a frenzy the rest of Canada joined in, with cities across the country setting up their own “Jurassic Parks” just like the one outside ScotiaBank Arena for viewing parties.
“I think you would need to be probably asleep or something if you didn’t realize that everybody is pretty excited,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “I think it’s awesome.
“They’re proud of their team and we want to play hard and make them proud of us. That’s it.”
(Editing by Toby Davis)