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Make Basketball the New National Sport of Canada

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I like to tell my students that it's good to get ahead of things in the business of sports. We talk a lot about Roone Arledge, Branch Rickey, Muhammad Ali -- people who saw what others could not, and went there before the others got there, and then every other who followed had to be there. Today, in basketball, Canada is there where you might want to go to get ahead.

Case in point: The number one pick in this year's NBA draft was Anthony Bennett. He is the first number one pick out of Canada in NBA history. Consensus has it that in next year's NBA Draft Andrew Wiggins, of Toronto playing this season for the Kansas Jayhawks, will go number one. ("He's the closest thing to a Lebron-like first pick guarantee since Lebron," said Bill Simmons on ESPN's live NBA Draft coverage last month.)

There are more on the way. Along with Wiggins, big-time U.S. college basketball this season will highlight Canadians such as Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), and Khem Birch (UNLV). Also keep an eye out for point guard Tyler Ennis at Syracuse (No. 20 on ESPN's high school top 100 recruiting list) and shooting guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes at Florida State (No.44).

Today the NBA lists more Canadians on their rosters than ever before. And we're not talking garbage time guys. Take a look:

• Anthony Bennett: 2013-present Cleveland Cavaliers
• Samuel Dalembert: 2001-2010 Philadelphia 76ers, 2010-2011 Sacramento Kings, 2011-2012 Houston Rockets, 2012-present Milwaukee Bucks
• Cory Joseph: 2011-present San Antonio Spurs
• Kris Joseph: 2012-2013 Boston Celtics, 2013-present Brooklyn Nets
• Steve Nash: 1996-1998 Phoenix Suns, 1998-2004 Dallas Mavericks, 2004-2011 Phoenix Suns, 2012-present Los Angeles Lakers
• Andrew Nicholson: 2012-present Orlando Magic
• Kelly Olynyk: 2013-present Boston Celtics
• Robert Sacre: 2012-present Los Angeles Lakers
• Tristan Thompson: 2011-present Cleveland Cavaliers
• Myck Kabongo 2013-present Miami Heat
• Joel Anthony: 2007-present Miami Heat

Steve Nash led the way. His back-to-back NBA MVPs (2005, 2006) made him a national treasure. When he started re-building dilapidated basketball courts all over the country and revitalized youth leagues through his organization Steve Nash Youth Basketball, he became the father of a nation's modern basketball boom.

"Our top players are all in," Nash, once coach, now general manager, of the Canadian National Team, said recently about the full participation of the countries stars on this summer's national squad. "It's a beautiful thing," marvels Nash. "They're getting a lot of love and interest from people in Canada. This boom of young talent that's entering the NBA and potentially going to the NBA, I believe fans and television viewership is up 19 per cent or something in the past year or two in this country. "

Anecdotally, I can tell you that my brother-in-law who lives in Toronto subscribed to ESPN last year for the first time just so his son, an eight-year-old basketball player, could watch Gonzaga because it featured two Canadians on the team. Being married to a Canadian, I can tell you, this is not a nation of incidental people. They love what they love, and they love it with a passion.

Back to the science, USA Today reported in June:

"[R]ecent research by BBM Analytics, which does frequent surveys of Canadian citizens, put basketball's annual growth rate of participation in Canada at 16 percent since 2010, more than hockey and soccer. A 2010 study by Toronto-based Solutions Research Group found basketball to be the most popular team participation sport for Canadians aged 12-17."

Nash calls it Canada's "golden age of basketball."

At the 2013 Panini NBA Rookie Photo Shoot held this week at the Knicks training facility in Westchester, I grabbed Anthony Bennett and asked if basketball really has taken over the great north. He seemed to think yes.

"Now everybody is going to prep school [to play basketball] instead of hockey, soccer or cricket," said Bennett.

Why? Because it's easier.

"All you need is hoop and a basketball," said the young man from Brampton. "Not all that equipment. Not skates."

"I tried hockey. It wasn't my thing," said Kelly Olynyk, a fellow Ontarian of Bennett, who went #13 in the draft to the Celtics.

Both Bennett and Olynyk cited Vince Carter and a good '90s Raptors teams as a positive influence growing up, but Olynyk, who is seven feet tall, feels like it was Nash who made basketball accessible to all Canadians.

"Steve Nash was a different breed of NBA player," said Olynyk. He's not 7'2" and doesn't bench press 500 pounds. He's a normal looking guy. If you put 200 Canadians in a line-up including Nash and say pick out which one is the NBA player, you wouldn't pick Nash. That means a lot to kids across Canada. It says with hard work I can make it in the NBA. It makes it real."

That is exactly how it works. Bennett relayed to me an interesting story. Three weeks ago he had big press conference at the courts Jane and Finch courts, a recreational areas outside of downtown Toronto where he played his pick up ball growing up. The press event went well, good media and local officials -- nothing earth shattering. The next day 200 kids were out there clamoring to play pick up. The grassroots effect is powerful.

The interest in basketball on the Canadian street has risen to the level of supporting not one but two pro leagues. The National Basketball of League (NBL) of Canada is a nine team league where the London Lighting, coached by my old friend Micheal Ray Richardson, are the current two-time defending champions in a two year old league. While the NBL is more of an eastern-Canada thing, the Edmonton-based Canadian Basketball League (CBL) looks to take root in the western half of the country starting in 2014.

And though lacrosse is its official national sport, and hockey is commonly seen as their national sporting obsession, the seed of the game of basketball has been uniquely cellular to the people of Canada for over one hundred years, since the game's inception. James Naismith the inventor of basketball was Canadian.

Naismith was born in Almonte, Ontario and educated at McGill University and Presbyterian College in Montreal. He was the physical education teacher at McGill University (1887 to 1890). Yes, he invented the indoor game of basketball Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891, but for sure we can blame it on Canada.

Indeed, I like to tell my students that it's good to get ahead of things in the business of sports. I tell my students that underlying social causes cue us to what's ahead. Look at Canada: a country with a soaring immigrant population, producing kids with no connection to hockey nor any money to play it reaching for the cheaper alternative, one that's backed by increasingly more glamorous multicultural and multiracial role models. Then add in that the sport's inventor is a Canadian, and... Ok, it might take a lot to make basketball the National Sport of Canada, but right now the Canadian dollar is worth just as much as the U.S. dollar and if you wanted to invest in basketball, Canada, today, is a very good place to lay your money down.

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