AP Basketball Writer
TORONTO — When Greg Anthony arrived in Vancouver to join the inaugural Grizzlies team in 1995, the cash in his pocket wasn’t the only currency that he needed to exchange.
Anthony was a star in college at mighty UNLV and went to the NBA to play for the Knicks, who took a back seat to nobody in New York during those playoff days.
In hockey-mad Canada, it was another story. There was no star treatment for hoop stars and no real understanding of the game. Local and national publications had to run basic tutorials that explained the rules of basketball to the fans.
“I don’t want to say it was humbling, but to a certain degree it was. To go there where it was kind of a Basketball 101 for so many people,” said Anthony, now an analyst for NBATV. “We all want to feel like what we do matters. It took a while for it to really matter for the vast majority of people in Vancouver.”
Basketball has finally carved out a much higher profile in the country’s sports consciousness, albeit 20 years after Anthony first set foot in Canada as part of the NBA’s initial in-roads into the country.
The Grizzlies lasted only six seasons in Vancouver, but as the NBA’s All-Star weekend kicks off on Friday night in Toronto, it offers Canadian basketball its first opportunity to really show the rest of the world how far the game has come.
Canada is ready for its close-up.
“You could put it up there with some of the biggest moments in Canadian basketball history,” said Dan MacKenzie, vice president and general manager for NBA Canada.
That list isn’t incredibly long. The Toronto Raptors, the other team to break into the league with the Grizzlies in ‘95, have lived a largely unremarkable NBA life with only one playoff series victory in franchise history.
Like the Grizzlies, the Raptors early days were difficult, with players and coaches often expressing reluctance about coming and staying north of the border.
My, how times have changed.
On the 125th anniversary of the invention of the game, the NBA is holding its midseason gala outside of the United States for the first time.
It comes during a period of rebirth for the Raptors, who have galvanized under the leadership of general manager Masai Ujiri and coach Dwane Casey. All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have led the team to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at the break, giving its dedicated and vocal fan base reason to pack the Air Canada Center.
There are 12 Canadian-born players in the NBA, more than any other country outside the United States. And budding young stars Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson have helped put Canada’s national team on the map in international competition.
Television viewership of NBA games has doubled over the last three years, bolstered by an influx of immigrants from basketball-hungry nations like China and the Philippines.
“I can’t express to you how far Canada Basketball has come,” said Raptors guard Cory Joseph, a native of Toronto. “It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere. I feel like it’s going to inspire the youth around town, inspire the whole country and hopefully it just skyrockets from here even more.”
Canada is home to Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game, former two-time MVP Steve Nash and even, for a couple of years in his youth, reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who has emerged as the new face of the league. Curry’s wife, Ayesha, is Canadian as well.
“I’m very familiar with the entire scene there,” said the Golden State Warriors guard. “I know where my house, where we used to live, Lakeshore Avenue. We drive by it from the airport to the hotel we’re staying at. … My wife’s extended family all live there, she’s from there, so a lot of sentimental value to going back.”
Even Charles Barkley — noted lampooner of NBA cities like San Antonio and Oklahoma City — likes Toronto.
“I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets in the world,” said Barkley, the Hall of Famer and TNT analyst. “I think it’s one of the best cities in the world. They’re amazing fans. You saw this year in the playoffs. You saw how crazy that place was. I think it’s going to be great to shine a light on that city.”
When he contemplates the moment that is about to arrive, Tas Melas — a longtime Raptors fan who now is co-host of “The Starters” on NBATV — said it sends shivers down his spine to think about where things were in the team’s formative years. That’s when the NBA was buried in the sports pages and deep into the nightly highlight shows in Canada.
“It’s something no one saw coming 20 years ago when this all started,” Melas said. “It was just a lot of dark times. … The reputation of the city was really lousy and it was a bit of a joke in the NBA world. This is just a huge mark of validation.”
Most believe Vince Carter’s high-flying act saved the Raptors from possible relocation at the turn of the century and got a whole generation of youngsters to pick up a basketball for the first time.
Wiggins, the NBA’s rookie of the year last year who is having another strong season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, was one of those youngsters. He will participate in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night, part of weekend of activities that could inspire the next generation of Canadians.
“People (in Canada) have never got a chance to experience something like that before, especially the younger generation,” Wiggins said. “Unless you’re there to witness it, you don’t really know how it is. It’s one thing to watch it on TV and another thing watching it live in person.”