It was a meaningless preseason game between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors, little more than a chance for coaches and general managers to evaluate talent before deciding on their final rosters. Yet on a cool, damp night last week when Toronto fans had some compelling alternatives—hockey’s Maple Leafs were in town against the San Jose Sharks, and both the hockey game and Game 3 of the World Series were on TV—a supportive crowd of 14,753 showed up at SkyDome to watch basketball. The game had its moments—the Raptors got off to a fast start before falling by six points. And rookie forward Marcus Camby, the Raptors’ top pick from last spring’s college draft, showed flashes of brilliance. But for a second-year franchise coming off a losing season, the loyal following in the stands was as important as the quality of play on the court.
Canada’s two National Basketball Association teams face some stern challenges as they tip off a new season this week. In Toronto, the two major partners in the
Raptors’ ownership group are waging a bitter fight for control of the team. And after the excitement and novelty of the inaugural campaigns, the expansion-team honeymoon is just about over. Fans expect better performances than they saw in 1995-1996, when the Vancouver Grizzlies won only 15 of 82 games, while the Raptors took 21. And although both the Grizzlies and Raptors ranked among the NBA’s top teams in attendance in 1995-1996, fan surveys and TV ratings indicate that there was little interest in NBA games outside the two major cities. “You can’t just put games on TV and expect people to watch them,” says NBA Canada boss Ken Derretí. “We need to promote our games, and that takes time.”
Basketball, of course, was invented by Canadian James Naismith in 1891, and hundreds of thousands of people across the country play it recreationally. But that has yet to translate into broad-based spectator support for the pro game. A Maclean’s/CBC Newsworld poll, conducted last spring, re-
vealed that NBA basketball was preferred by only six per cent of Canadians—the bulk of them in Toronto and Vancouver—compared with 66 per cent for hockey and 16 per cent for major-league baseball. And CTVs NBA broadcasts last season averaged 419,000 viewers, well below the 1.5 million who tune in to Hockey Night in Canada each week. To extend their reach, the teams are exporting the NBA-style “entertainment package”—thumping rap music, slam-dunking mascots and scantily clad dance teams— to the regions. The Raptors played their first two preseason games in Halifax and Ottawa, and last week the annual Grizzlies-Raptors Naismith Cup was staged in Calgary.
Rick Traer, executive director of Basketball Canada—the umbrella organization for amateur hoops—says it is too early to know if the two new NBA teams will in turn spark a greater boom in participation. That is what happened following the arrival of majorleague baseball’s Montreal Expos (in 1969) and Toronto Blue Jays (in 1977). Participation was booming anyway, Traer says, beginning in the early 1980s as the NBA rode Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan to unprecedented popularity. In Ontario, for instance, there were more than 500 teams competing in the provincial championships last year, up from only 58 in 1983, Traer says.
If basketball follows baseball’s lead, national TV ratings will rise when the teams put a better product on the court. To that end, the Grizzlies and Raptors, while hampered by restrictive league rules on salaries and draft position for expansion franchises, spent the summer retooling their rosters. The Grizzlies veterans, who suffered through a grisly 23-game losing streak at one point last season, hope that the worst is behind them. “We are better on paper, but the game is not played on paper,” says Blue Edwards, a guard who was perhaps the Grizzlies’ most consistent player a year ago.
The Grizzlies are trying not to put too much pressure on their top draft choice, Shareef AbdurRahim, who is only 19 and played just one season at the University of California before turning pro. But the acrobatic, six-foot, nineinch rookie has been among the team’s top scorers in the preseason and appears to have won the small forward position in the Grizzlies’ starting five alongside seven-foot centre Bryant (Big Country) Reeves. Abdur-Rahim is making rookie mistakes, but he plays hard and is learning quickly. “He’s a player who peopie around here can get really excited about,” Vancouver general manager Stu Jackson says.
Raptor hopes, meanwhile, are riding on the six-foot, 11-inch Camby, who played centre at the University of Massachusetts. With free-agent shooting guard Hubert Davis and point guard Damon Stoudamire, who was the team’s leading scorer and the league’s rookie of the year last season, Camby should add more bite to the Raptors attack. “We haven’t jelled yet on offence,” says Toronto coach Darrell Walker. “But we’ll be better, no question.”
So, too, will the game’s national profile, basketball proponents hope—and they have every reason for long-term optimism. NBA market surveys and the Maclean’s poll reveal that the game is enormously popular among kids, many of whom have traded their once-ubiquitous Chicago Bulls jackets for ones bearing Grizzlies and Raptors logos. “This is hockey country,” says Walker, an easygoing Chicago native, “but basketball is coming. You’ll see.”
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