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Whoa, Canada!
Michael Farber
November 20, 1995
When the NBA hit the court in Toronto and Vancouver, it was clear both fans and players had a lot to learn
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November 20, 1995

Whoa, Canada!

When the NBA hit the court in Toronto and Vancouver, it was clear both fans and players had a lot to learn

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Despite the limits imposed by his skills and physique, Big Country retains his charm for the fans. "This is my first time up here, and it's beautiful," he says. "My only concern was the weather. I thought it was always cold with a lot of snow. The weather's been great, maybe a little rainy. It's not cold, and there's no moose in the street." This, of course, is Reeves's little joke. Everyone knows the moose hang out in the office towers.

Toronto, the epicenter of Canadian money, media and the 4.3 million people living in southern Ontario, was a no-brainer for expansion, but Vancouver's acceptance as the 29th franchise was a mild surprise. Until a few months ago Vancouver fans thought Big Country was China. Moreover, there are only 1.7 million people on British Columbia's Lower Mainland—Vancouver ranks 21st in population among NBA cities. In sum, this is a small market with a small basketball subculture, even by Toronto's minimal standards.

But if hockey is the game Canadian fathers teach their children, basketball is the sport the dads will learn from their kids. The Grizzlies will go anywhere to proselytize. General manager Stu Jackson drove nearly three hours round-trip in August to give a three-minute speech opening the Western Canada Summer Games basketball tournament. He hopped a small plane to address 20 people in a parking lot at a three-on-three tournament. He spoke and shot some hoops for 3½ hours with Northwest Ceiling and Dry Wall Bureau conventioneers in Vancouver. (He may not have sold a ticket, but when he does work on his house, we're talking wholesale.)

"You saw it happening," says Jackson, former coach of the New York Knicks and the University of Wisconsin. "I did a talk show back to Vancouver from the All-Star Game, and the first call was from an elderly lady. She said, 'Some years ago I saw the Globetrotters, and I was wondering if you plan to employ any of those tactics with our team.' Her word: tactics. Four months later I'm on radio, and a guy calls and says, 'With John Salley available [in the 11th round of the expansion draft], why'd you take Benoit Benjamin?' Not 'could you please explain' or 'what were the reasons,' but 'why?' Why? If I got that call in New York, I'd think, The jerk. But this is Vancouver. That call was very good."

Though Salley has taken Stoudamire under his wing and Benjamin has shown signs of drifting toward his old preoccupied ways, these are flip sides of the same loonie. (Darrick: That's what Canadians call their $1 coin.) Either way, there are 60 losses in it for both teams. The Raptors and the Grizzlies are expansion brothers, and although Thomas says, "I like to measure our success against Houston, Chicago, Orlando," it is the Grizzlies with whom the Raptors will always be linked.

They share a time and a country. Each will be the other's yardstick in wins, attendance, profitability, licensing appeal. Almost a year before their first games, both already ranked among the NBAs top 10 in merchandising. The Raptor logo leads the growling Grizzly—but Vancouver is confident its bear will have more staying power. "Sure when you're eight, you love the Raptor," says Larry Donen, vice president of properties and licensing for Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Grizzlies, "but when you're 14, you'll say, 'What are you wearing Barney for?' "

Whoa! In your face. The marketers already are talking trash. You know, Canada might have this league down cold.

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