Lessons from March Madness 2014 Part I: Canada is Important.

Wiggins, Ejim, Pango, Powell... Canadian Hoopsters Abound!

Wiggins, Ejim, Pango, Powell… Canadian Hoopsters Abound!

A 5 minute history of Canadian Basketball and why it is more significant than previously thought…

By David Hauser

There is a Freakanomics type of math that we do not employ often enough when examining sports and cultural phenomena: the +18 years formula.  As in, when there is something noticeable or out of the ordinary in a new generation or in a new crop of college freshman, go ahead and subtract eighteen years and identify some of the events, policies, and cultural movements that set the backdrop for this new group’s birth.

With such in mind, the Toronto Raptors have given us some moments over the last 18-20 years.  The franchise was established in 1995, along with fellow Canadian expansion team the Vancouver Grizzlies, as part of David Stern’s megalomanimous[1] insistence on turning the NBA into the next ‘world sports brand’ (note the synergistic delight between the drama, conspiracies, and chicanery in every NBA offseason along with FIFA’s routine leadership style fraught with a European flopping flare for the dramatic).  One would be more than fair in asking, with 18 years of data under our belts, has the NBA’s great Canadian Expansion been successful, meaningful, or even worth it at all?

Somewhere in Brooklyn a 23 year old with a caterpillar mustache who’s wearing a retro ’97 Bryant ‘Big Country’ Reeves Vancouver Grizzlies jersey just scoffed at this silly line of questioning.  However, for the rest of us, what really has NBA branded Canadian basketball provided us?  With the Grizzlies quickly having scampered across the continent to the mountains(?)[2] of Memphis, we are really only left to examine the evidence of Ontario basketball.

From the late 90s through the early 2000s the Raptors stamped their cultural mark namely with Vince Carter’s vinsanity and once in a generation dunk contest performances.  With substance though, the 2001 Raptors were on the doorstep to their first Eastern Conference Finals, but fell one point short to the Aaron McKie Allen Iverson led 76ers.  Looking back, this very well may have been the turning point for the franchise.  Despite (or because of) their lack of future playoff success, the Toronto professional basketball team managed to become the franchise who drafted raw, athletic talent (i.e., McGrady, Bosh, Half-man/Half-Amazin), developed them, and then watched them move to greener pastures and catalyze deep playoff drives for other teams.[3]

As the departed Raptors thrived for other teams throughout the mid-to-late Aughts, the visible passion of Toronto basketball manifested namely on Internet message boards through the “Raptor Truthers” movement (little did we know, the real Toronto basketball passion was showing itself on the elementary and middle school parquet–more on that in a moment).  The Raptor Truthers, a group of beleaguered sports fans trying to will their team credibility via the internet[4], were truly revolutionaries in establishing a rich Internet tradition as an intimidating and intense special interest sports base that browbeat sports writers to report more kindly about their beloved…as if that might change the truth about their team.

Yes there were some moments in these 18 years, but it does seem far-fetched that this is what David Stern dreamed of at night when hatching this great Canadian expansion in the early 90s.

As we check-in on Canadian NBA basketball as it turns the big ‘one-eight’ and can now serve its country and consume adult beverages,[5] there is perhaps a renewed hope.  For it is those little Ontario infants born of the mid 90s, seemingly growing up mimicking Carter and McGrady fast breaks on the NERF hoops perched upon their bedroom doors, that began attending college in the past couple of years, and wouldn’t you know it, an inordinate heaping of them are mighty fine basketball players.  In watching March Madness this weekend the names Andrew Wiggins!, Melvin Ejim!, Pango!, Dwight Powell! extolled off the tongues of play-by-play announcers in every which direction and region this weekend along with the ubiquitously espoused phrase “and he comes from his hometown of Toronto, Ontario Canada.”  The college basketball landscape is O!verflowing with Canadian talent like never before and the question raised for me is where did this sudden influx come from?

Providing further example of the +18 theory, in watching March Madness this opening weekend, the play (well actually…mostly name) of Shaquielle McKissic of ASU jumped off the screen late Thursday night.  Yes Shaquielle hit a few clutch shots down the stretch to give the Sun Devils a fighting shot at moving on in the tourney, but where in the world was the office wide memo that we all had another Shaq in our lives?  And then it dawned on me- of course, the 18+ rule.  Shaquille O’Neal came into the NBA in 1992 and within a mere three years he had a hypnotizing shoe, a taco named after him, multiple Greek/Roman nicknames, and two broken back boards under his belt (along with one NBA Finals appearance).  And voila 18 years later, we have arrived at the place in history when Shaquille O’Neal’s cultural imprint gets rewarded with a new generation of folks taking on his previously under utilized namesake.[6]

Could these two examples of 90s cultural basketball icons influencing today’s tournament and young players all be some elaborate happenstance and simply a matter of correlating events, lacking true causal inference?  Sure.  However, I implore you though to watch March Madness this second weekend and not notice the outlier–that 2013-2014 has significantly more Canadian prospects (33 in all in the tournament) than ever before and there must be some explanation for this.  Wichita State put two Canadian starters on the court yesterday, both from Ontario.  The Jayhawks relied all year on their own “Canadian LeBron James,” in Andrew Wiggins.  Melvin Ejim and his dapper flat top propelled Iowa State into the second weekend of the Big Dance.  Something is happening here.

Eighteen years ago, David Stern birthed his Canadian basketball baby.  Maybe this baby had a tough go of it throughout an awkward adolescence and only recently has started to show signs of maturation in the last few years, the high school years if you will, under the new tutelage of General Manager Masai Ujiri.  But who of us did not go through as much in those tricky and clumsy middle school and early high school years?

The Toronto Raptors will make the playoffs this year for the first year in a long time.  In a top-heavy Eastern Conference they likely will not move past where Vince Carter was able to lead them in yesteryear.  David Stern might be gone, but a new generation of Canadian basketball emerges in his absence.  And while the Godfather of Canadian Basketball, Steve Nash nears retirement, the investment of basketball north of the border seems to finally be paying big dividends.  It would appear the best of Canada’s brand of basketball is yet out in front of us.

On that note, this one’s for you, Andrew Wiggins—O Canada!

[1] Um, not really a word, or at least one that can be found in a dictionary.

[2] Naturally with the Memphis connection the obvious move was to change the team name to something The Firm or John Grisham related, but damn our sports bureaucracies to do something that crafty

[3] Of course applying to everyone except Tracy McGrady

[4] Now a common past time for every team’s fan base via Reddit

[5] Canada has a drinking age??

[6] You’re kidding yourself if you do not see that we are 13 years away from an outlandish number of Kim’s, Khole’s, and Kourtney’s coming of age