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Stu Cowan: Basketball fans across Canada have caught Raptors fever

Stu Cowan: Basketball fans across Canada have caught Raptors fever
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“I’ve played for our national program, I’ve been to the Olympics, I’ve seen our U-19 program finally win a gold medal (at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2017) — the first for our country,” said Walton, who is also a basketball analyst for TSN 690 Radio. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff, but I would think that in terms of Canadian history that’s the best shot and the most important shot. That’s simply based on Toronto being Canada’s team and Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA today. For him to put a franchise on his back — albeit only in the second round — the whole suspense of the shot hitting the rim four times before finally going in, going over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid, I felt a sense of pride. I know that it was an American who made the shot, but because it was the Toronto Raptors, because it is Canada’s team, because it advanced the Raptors to the Eastern Conference final, it most definitely is the most important shot in Canadian history and I also think it legitimized the Raptors franchise.”

It definitely legitimized the trade last summer that sent Raptors fan favourite DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs and brought Leonard to Toronto.

Canadian fans will get to see a lot more of Leonard in the Eastern Conference final against the Bucks, with Game 1 Wednesday night in Milwaukee. The fact there are no Canadian teams left in the NHL playoffs leaves the national sports stage to the Raptors. Maclean’s magazine reported that earlier this month a weekend afternoon NHL playoff game between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars drew an overnight estimated viewership of about 331,000, while that same day CTV’s Mary’s Kitchen Crush — a cooking show featuring MasterChef Canada winner Mary Berg — had a viewership of approximately 424,000.

The Raptors have had a huge impact on basketball in Canada since entering the NBA for the 1995-96 season. Chris Boucher, who grew up in Montreal, is part of their current roster.

Walton, 54, is satisfied with his own career — which included playing U.S. college basketball at the Florida Institute of Technology and Siena College, at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and 10 years professionally in Israel and Switzerland — but admits it would be nice to have been born a generation later. While his generation grew up with a dream of simply landing an NCAA scholarship, Canadian kids today dream about playing in the NBA. At least one Canadian has been selected in each of the last nine NBA Drafts and of the 27 Canadians picked since 1983, 17 were in the first round.

“The sport of basketball is definitely growing overall in Canada, but when you can bring an average fan to a sport because of a shot like that, it’s a win for basketball in this country, no question about it.”
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