Canadian Invasion: How Canadian players are influencing the NBA|
Our neighbor to the north has always been a big fan of basketball, and has played an important role in the development of the game. Two facts that many American basketball fans sometime overlook is the game was created by a Canadian and one of the first NBA teams was Canadian.
In 1896, James Naismith, invented the game of basketball when he hung up two peach baskets at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. And on November 1, 1946, the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knicks in the first ever NBA game.
Sadly, the Huskies only lasted one year, but their impact was felt. Many Canadian players joined the NBA in the years following the Huskies dispersal. But by the 1950s there was a sharp drop off of Canadians in the NBA. Between 1954 and 1984, there was only two Canadian born NBA players to play in the NBA. Bob Houbregs who played from 1954 to 1958 with the Hawks, Bullets, Celtics and Pistons and who is in the Hall-of-fame; and Jim Zoet, who played 7 games for the Pistons in 1983. Bob Croft did make the ABA in that time as well.
With the global expansion of basketball in the mid 1980s, the NBA started seeing an influx of Canadian players. By the 1990s several Canadians had joined the NBA and many of them were being featured prominently on some very good teams. Among these was Chicago's Bill Wennington who was a center on 3 Bulls championship teams.
By far the most important player to come out of this era from Canada was Steve Nash, though Nash was born in South Africa, his parents were Canadians and he played under the Canadian flag internationally. Nash would go on to be the only Canadian born player to win MVP, which he did twice.
The popularity of basketball in Canada was something a lot of people, especially in the NBA, did not pay attention to. As former 2nd round pick Will Njoku put it "My youth was spent playing baseball and ball hockey, mostly because there were no hoops in my neighborhood."
Njoku is a classic example of the overlooked Canadian players of this era. Like Nash, he was born in Africa (Ghana), but immigrated to Canada and became a Canadian citizen and played for Canada internationally. He was selected 41st overall in the 1994 NBA draft by the Pacers, but never played in the NBA.
Because of the interest from people like Njoku and others in Canada, the NBA announced in 1994 that the league would expand and add two new teams to the league, with both being from Canada. The first team announced was the Toronto Raptors. Toronto being one of Canadas largest cities and one of the biggest population centers in North America. To keep things equal the NBA selected a western city in Vancouver for the Grizzlies. This gave both conferences a Canadian team.
The Raptors became an immediate hit. While they were not winning, they drew fans and quickly got a devoted fan base. The Grizzlies on the other hand struggled both on the court and to get fans to even care about the team. Toronto took on the national identity of Canada, while the Grizzlies were just an easy win for most the league.
The Grizzlies relocated to Memphis, Tennessee in 2001, leaving Canada with only one team. This was actually good for the Raptors as all of Canada quickly became Raptors fans.
The success of the Raptors drove a new generation of Canadian athletes to become basketball players. It took about 20 years, but starting in the mid 2010s a lot of Canadian players started to join the NBA. Since 2012 over 60 Canadian players have been drafted or played in the NBA. Many of them are like Nash and Njoku, in that they represent Canada and grew up there, but where born elsewhere. This include the only person of Indian decent to play in the NBA: Sim Bhuller.
The game of basketball is only going to grow in Canada, as Njoku put it "There's just so many people talking about it now, so many platforms where people can discover you, Back then, if you didn't have a tape circulating or the connections to get your name out there, you wouldn't have been known. "Now, if you're 12 to 14 years old and you've got potential, you're going to be discovered somehow. With these bigger platforms like social and digital media to showcase yourself, it's easier."
"I also think the talent has grown tremendously, because there are so many more kids playing now and so many more resources available to help them become better players and athletes. More people playing with more skill means better competition, and more competition only continues to push the game forward."
Currently, there are over 30 players of Canadian decent in the NBA, and in the last couple of years most teams have had at least one Canadian player. The Utah Jazz have had the most with 4 since 2017: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kelly Olynyk, Trey Lyles, Naz Mitru-Long, The Jazz currently have the most Canadian players with 2.