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Keeping Up With The Canadians: 2019 and the rise of Canada basketball's golden era

Keeping Up With The Canadians
Keeping Up With The Canadians (NBA.com)

In 2013 Hall of Famer Steve Nash uttered the now-famous words that Canadian basketball is in its golden era . Each year since basketball has been building momentum like a tidal wave and in 2019 it finally crashed onto the sores of the Canadian sporting landscape.

It took a while, but basketball is no longer just a footnote in the great white north. It's now a significant staple of the culture for many who call Canada home.

That in large part was thanks to the Toronto Raptors. For 24 years, the Raptors have been at the forefront for growing the game in Canada. In 2019, they led the broad efforts to turn Canada from a Hockey country to a true sporting nation.

44% of the population tuned into to watch the Raptors win the NBA championship in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. There were 15.9 million unique Canadian viewers that checked in on Game 6, easily a record for an NBA game in the country and close to the Canadian sport average audience record set in 2010 when Sidney Crosby's game-winner gave Canada a victory over the U.S. in the Olympic men's hockey championship game.

Legendary sports broadcaster Chris Cuthbert called Crosby's goal the "golden goal" , a phrase that is a lasting memory of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games. The Raptors' victory over the Golden State Warriors is Canadian basketball's golden moment in the golden era.

To see the country unite the way it did for the game of basketball was something many never thought they'd see. From sea to shining sea, Canadian turned out in droves to pack Jurassic Parks across the country .

Millions more came out to the championship parade to celebrate the grandest achievement basketball has seen in Canada. Before Toronto's championship triumph, hockey had always been seen as Canada's singular sporting unifier - basketball now comfortably shares that space.

It wasn't just the Raptors that made 2019 special for the game in Canada. Just a few days after the Raptors had set the country on fire, six Canadians heard their names called in the 2019 NBA entry draft setting a modern draft record for non-Americans drafted.

A draft class headlined by R.J. Barrett and Nickeil Alexander-Walker reminded the world that Canada continues to produce elite basketball talent at a tremendous rate.

In the past 10 NBA drafts, Canada has seen at least one Canadian get their name called starting with Andy Rautins in 2010. But it was in 2011 when Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph were selected in the first round of the draft that a shift was happening.

Thompson and Joseph certainly weren't the first to head to the states and play high school basketball, but they were two of the most high-profile prospects to do it. They later both committed to the University of Texas and realized their dream on draft night in 2011 after just one season in college a norm now for many including Canadians.

Thompson and Joseph walked so that the 2019 draft class and beyond could run.

"I had a belief, I had a good idea. I knew basketball was on the rise in Canada for sure," Joseph told NBA.com of one day setting an NBA draft record. "For me and Tristan...I mean there's guys before us that did well.

"A lot of guys that went D1 from Toronto, but we were at that stage where going down South, we got a little more exposure and we both made it to the NBA, first round.

"I think that was the first time ever, two Canadians in the first round so we like to think that we opened it up a little bit for the Canadians," Joseph said smiling.

"Then more people started going to Canada looking for young talent and now shoot it's like a hotbed for scouts and whatnot. Now it's a little different than when we were growing up, we have a lot of talent, we've always had a lot of talent but now we have a lot more exposure.

"I think kids are seeing that and are interested in the game. Obviously, the Raptors doing well and all these players now entering the league inspires the youth even more.

"Just goes to show when me and Tristan were (getting drafted) it was two (Canadians) and now shit it's six...this is big time. It's big-time for Canada, we just have to continue to grow."

With the Raptors winning the championship, and Canada having the most non-American players in the NBA, the attention and anticipation have shifted towards the Men's National Team. Even after a poor showing and turn out by NBAers at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China there's still a ton of positive to take away.

Nick Nurse fresh off winning an NBA title with the Raptors committed to leading the National Team program. And after the disappointing finish in China, many of those NBAers who didn't show up in the fall have already publicly committed to the team for their push to secure an Olympic spot in 2020.

The next five years could be huge for the Men's program and we may look back at 2019 as the turning point.

MORE: Who should start for Team Canada at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?

"I think we have a good opportunity, we have a lot of talent," Joseph said of one day medalling at the Olympics. "We check our egos at the door. I feel like we don't have a problem with that, everybody is unselfish.

"We just have to put it together and we'll have a good chance for sure."

While the men have a good chance of medalling at a future Olympic games, the Canadian Women leave 2019 with a great chance of standing on the podium in 2020.

After a seventh-place finish in the 2018 FIBA World Cup, it felt like a missed opportunity for the Canadian Women, but in 2019 they responded with outstanding performances in their continental tournaments.

Canada breezed through the 2019 FIBA Women's Americup in Puerto Rico only losing to Team USA in the Gold Medal game - a game they had to play without their leading scorer and tournament All-Star Kayla Alexander who was lost to due to injury a couple of games prior.

They followed that up by dominating on home soil in Edmonton in the first of two legs of Olympic Pre Qualifying going 3-0 with an averaged margin of victory of 37.0 points.

The second leg of Olympic Qualifying is in February. Canada will set up shop in Ostende, Belgium one win away from securing a spot at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. They'll be heading into those games with a great team who are all playing at high levels across the world. A great coaching staff led by Lisa Thomaidis whose been terrific since taking over for Allison McNeill in 2013. And a number four world ranking that doesn't that say they're good, it screams it.

All the pieces are in place for the Women's National Team to claim their first-ever Olympic medal. Their dominance in 2019 was a reminder of that.

Before the year wraps up, the National Basketball League of Canada (NBLC) will begin its ninth season making it the longest-running Canadian pro basketball league.

Also in 2019, the Candian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) had its inaugural season. A partnership with Canada Basketball and FIBA has made the CEBL Canada's only first division league recognized by the governing body.

Many countries have had long-standing professional basketball leagues for years, it was slightly embarrassing to most in the basketball community that Canada - whose had no problem developing number one overall picks in the NBA draft - didn't have a league where their homegrown talent could play and make a living at home.

That changed in 2019 with both leagues running opposite times of the year. It was the first time a Canadian basketball professional could stay home and make money playing the game they love all year round.

When we look back on what made 2019 special many basketball fans will immediately point to the Raptors winning the championship, but the past 12 months were far more than that.

It was an affirmation that Canada is amongst the world's best at producing high-level basketball talent. The realizations that our Women are closer to hearing the Canadian national anthem at the Olympic games than we realize. The encouragement that there's a place for our future to play, develop and make money in their own backyards.

Years from now when the history of Canadian basketball is written it won't mean a thing without mentioning the importance of 2019 - the golden era's golden year.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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