From Naismith To Now, Basketball Is Flourishing In Toronto

Daniel (left) interviewing league players in Ultimate Hoops Toronto

Daniel (left) interviewing league players in Ultimate Hoops Toronto

Most people connected to basketball are aware of the creation of the game. In 1891 in a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, Dr. James Naismith hung two peach baskets 10 feet above the ground and invented the simple game of basketball. What some basketball fans may not know is that Naismith is from Almonte, Ontario, and of the 18 kids who played in the first ever game of basketball, at least 10 of them were university students from Quebec. 

Despite being invented by a Canadian, basketball took much longer to popularize in Canada than it did in the States. Amateur teams started playing competitively at the turn of the 20th century, but basketball was completely overshadowed by hockey. Of course, hockey has a long standing tradition in Canada, and it will probably always be the country's most popular sport, but basketball started making leeway in the mid-70s. 

"My age group is kind of like the first generation to really be involved in basketball," says Clive Daniel, the league coordinator of Ultimate Hoops in Toronto. Both of Daniel's parents are from Jamaica and they are first-generation immigrants to Toronto, one the most diverse cities in the world.

Daniel was born in 1975, and at that time, Toronto was receiving an influx of immigrants from around the world due to Canada's immigration reform, which gave easier access to non-European immigrants to live in Canada. When immigrants were looking for a sport to pick up, they gravitated towards basketball rather than hockey.

"With immigrants coming over, playing hockey wasn’t affordable for [many]," Daniel says.

Basketball was the less expensive and safer alternative to hockey, and this helped develop basketball into the third most popular team sport in Canada today. The sport itself has many attractions, but two main organizations were the biggest reason for the rise of basketball in Toronto. 

The first being the Toronto Raptors. It's not shocking that receiving an NBA team helped increase the popularity of basketball in Toronto, but there's more to it than that.

“We didn’t even think it was possible for Toronto to actually have a team," Daniel said.

When Daniel was growing up in Toronto in the 80s, he would watch nationally televised games every weekend. He watched the Lakers or the Celtics play once a week. Basketball was entertaining, but it wasn't prominent in the culture of Toronto. That all changed in 1995, when the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies {who moved to Memphis in 2001) became the first Canadian NBA franchises.

“Once [the Raptors] became a part of the city itself, now you were more involved and more knowledgeable of the sport and what it could be," Daniel said. 

Now instead of watching one game a week on Saturday, Torontonians could watch their home team play on a Tuesday night. They didn't have to ride the coattails of the NBA's most successful franchises anymore, they had their own. This immediately turned the Raptors into a vital part of the culture of Toronto. Daniel describes them as a "community", meaning the players are so interconnected with the fans that they almost feel like family. 

“We embrace whoever is representing the city." 

The popularity of basketball in Toronto was nationally recognized by the NBA in 2016 when Toronto hosted the All-Star Game. That milestone, along with the Raptors making the Eastern Conference Finals, marked the most successful year of basketball in Toronto, and Canadian, history.

Once [the Raptors] became a part of the city itself, now you were more involved and more knowledgeable of the sport and what it could be
— Clive Daniel, Ultimate Hoops League Coordinator

The Raptors have been in existence for just over 20 years now, and the effect they have had on popularizing basketball in Toronto has been undeniable. This is shown in the increasing amount of youth participation in basketball, along with the increasing number of Canadian-born players in the NBA. The Raptors deserve a lot of credit for this cultural transition, but as far as the boom in youth participation, Grassroots Canada Elite Basketball has been just as important. 

Grassroots Canada Elite is an AAU program that was founded in 1992 under the name Toronto Elite. It has provided an outlet for inner-city kids in Toronto to play basketball and have a chance to attend high-end private schools and universities. Grassroots has helped over 500 members receive a scholarship of any kind, and they also have a few alumni who have gone on to the NBA. The most notable of that group is Tristan Thompson, who was drafted 4th overall in 2011 and just won a ring with the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

“Kids now they know they can do it and they see what it takes to make it happen, and reaching to that next level, getting to the NBA, it is possible," says Daniel. 

The Raptors sparked the interest of basketball in Toronto, and then Grassroots gave kids a way to indulge in that interest. That combination, and the drastic increase of non-European immigrants, has led to basketball reaching its highest point of interest in Canada to date; and it shows no sign of slowing down. 

Ultimate Hoops took notice of the upward trend in Toronto's popularity and wanted in on the opportunity to expand internationally. In December 2015, Daniel was approached by Ultimate Hoops and given two weeks to "put everything together." Whatever he put together must have been impressive because the first-ever Ultimate Hoops league in Canada was launched just a month later in Ajax.   

This kind of fast-paced progression has yet to slow down as a new league has been introduced in every season since. Before the Spring season, a second league started in Mississauga, and a third was launched in Vaughn a few weeks ago when the summer season started. 

That kind of expansion in such a short time is really impressive. Most UH branches have two leagues or less. Minneapolis, which is where Ultimate Hoops was founded in 2006, has four leagues, and that came over the course of a decade. UH has grown a lot since 2006, but to get to three leagues in less than a year is unprecedented. 

I asked him how he was able to have so much success so early on and he told me that the key is "being involved in the sport." 

 “The one thing that I get from Ultimate Hoops here in Toronto is that if you’re involved in the sport and you know what you’re talking about, people here will believe in it," he said.

Daniel has lived in Toronto all his life and he has been involved with Grassroots for years. His son Shakur, who has been compared to Andrew Wiggins, currently plays for Grassroots. Clive is coaching and training, and he even helped with the development of the Elite 1 Academy in Arizona. Daniel knows Toronto, and he knows basketball. He made it easy for UH members to relate with him through the game of basketball; his understanding of the game has been a huge key for his success. 

It is clear that the UH branch is Toronto has been a huge success thus far, but where do they go from here? Daniel said he would like to see some of their leagues get so big that they would have to play on two separate nights per week. 

I wouldn't be surprised if that happened sooner rather than later. It looks like the three leagues in Toronto will only continue to grow. But what about the prospect of playing outside of Toronto? 

“I can build a Toronto representative team, probably enter into [the National Tournament]," he said. "We’ll probably be very competitive, maybe even have a chance to win.”