LOOKING BACK 90 YEARS: THE NBA COMES BACK TO CANADA

On November 3, 1995, cheers rang down from the SkyDome.

More than 30,000 fans watched the Toronto Raptors, led by their rookie point guard Damon Stoudemire, defeat the New Jersey Nets, 94-79. 

On the same night and on the other side of the county, the Vancouver Grizzlies also made their debut, a 92-80 win over the Portland Trailblazers.

Together, they were the first NBA teams based in Canada since 1947. It had been nearly 50 years since the Toronto Huskies, then part of the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner to the NBA, played at Maple Leaf Gardens.

The return of professional basketball to Canadian soil was a process that began two years earlier, when on September 30, 1993, the NBA awarded a franchise to a group headed by Toronto businessman John Bitove.

The Raptors became the 28th team to join the league and played their first two seasons at the SkyDome, now the Rogers Centre, before moving into their shared home with the Maple Leafs, the Air Canada Centre.

The team colours of bright red, deep purple, black and silver were an ode to the past with the “Naismith” silver paying homage to Canadian Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.

The Raptors first moves, like their team colours, were bold. Isaiah Thomas, the Hall of Fame point guard who wreaked havoc on the court during the Detroit Pistons Bad Boy era, was named General Manager. In the 1995 NBA draft, held at the SkyDome, the Raptors selected a diminutive but talented point guard in the 5’10” Stoudemire. 

The selection, while initially met with boos from the crowd, turned out to be one of the most captivating storylines of the 1995 NBA season. Stoudemire led the Raptors with averages of 9 assists and 19 points per game. “Mighty Mouse” as fans affectionately dubbed him, also set a then NBA record of 133 three-pointers in a rookie season while also taking home the Rookie of the Year Award.

Meanwhile in Vancouver, the Grizzlies were led by their rookie selection Bryant Reeves, a towering seven-foot tall centre. After winning their first game, the Grizzlies also defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime the next night, to start the season at 2-0. Unfortunately, the team would go on to collect only 13 more wins over the course of the season and finish with a record of 15-67.

The Grizzlies would spend another five years in the NBA before relocating to Memphis following the 2001 season.

It was a different story in Toronto, where the Raptors were the talk of the league following the 1999 season, when a 21-year-old player named Vince Carter won the Rookie of the Year Award.

Carter would carry the franchise to new heights of the next several seasons, including leading the team to the Eastern Conference Semi-finals in 2001, before eventually being traded to the New Jersey Nets in the 2004 off-season.

In 2006, the Raptors named Bryan Colangelo, the 2004–05 NBA Executive of the Year, the President and General Manager of the team. Colangelo immediately put his stamp on the club, retooling the roster and helping the Raptors qualify for their first playoff berth in five years. In that same season, the team also captured the 2007 Atlantic Division title, the first in franchise history.

The Raptors, now in a stage of rebuilding, remain the only Canadian team in the NBA. With a core of talented young players, including Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozen, and a newly appointed General Manager in Masai Ujiri, the future looks bright for Canada’s team.

Regular stories commemorating our 90th anniversary will appear on the 90 Years in the Making series archive. We would also like to reach out to those who have been involved in the Canadian basketball community over the years. If you have a story to share, contact us at communications@basketball.ca and join the conversation on twitter with #CB90