SPORTS

NBA official: Game at all-time high in Canada, both in players and fans

10/24/2014 01:47 EDT | Updated 12/24/2014 05:59 EST
MONTREAL - The deputy commissioner of the NBA believes that the sport of basketball has never been stronger in Canada.

"We're a rapidly growing sport in Canada because of the younger generation," Mark Tatum said Friday in Montreal. "More than half of our fans are under the age of 35.

"In the international community, there is a sense that Canadian basketball is on the rise. There is an influx of talent from Canada into the NBA, and the depth of players who will be playing in our league is strong."

Tatum was in Montreal ahead of Friday's pre-season game between the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks at the Bell Centre. He said the game has a bright future in Canada because of both the number of prospective young players and the sport's popularity across the country.

There are currently a record 14 Canadian-born players in the NBA — a number that could soon drop to 13 if Steve Nash's back injury forces him to retire.

Seven Canadian players have been drafted in the NBA in the last three years, including first-round draft picks Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in back-to-back drafts. Bennett, from Brampton, Ont., and Wiggins, from Vaughan, Ont., are only the sixth and seventh No. 1 picks born outside the United States since the league's first draft in 1947.

"Canadians are going to be a force to be reckoned with in international competitions, once they get experience, once they start playing together as a team," said Tatum. "Canada will be one of the top international teams going forward."

Friday night's game was scheduled for Montreal as part of the 2014 NBA Canada Series.

"The pride that I see around the country for basketball and for the Raptors has been unbelievable," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after Friday morning's shootaround. "I think 'We The North' gives the country some pride and a good feeling about the Raptors. Now, we've got to do our part and continue to compete at a high level.

"I think (fan support across Canada) is because of the way we do compete. Winning is important, yes, but I think people appreciate how hard our guys play, how we play defence, how we have a defensive identity, how we share the basketball and play together. I think that's a great lesson for the future of basketball in Canada."

The inaugural edition of the Canada Series in 2012 saw the Raptors beat the Knicks at the Bell Centre and the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Detroit Pistons in Winnipeg. Last year, the Timberwolves played the Boston Celtics in Montreal, a game in which Toronto-born rookie forward Kelly Olynyk scored four points.

The Canada Series is meant to take basketball out of Toronto — the only non-American NBA city — and spread it across the country. Earlier this month, the Raptors beat the Sacramento Kings in Vancouver, capping off Toronto's week-long training camp in the former home of the Grizzlies.

"I can't wait to see 20,000 basketball fans come watch a game tonight," Tatum said. "We're always looking at different cities to play our exhibition games. Tonight's pre-season game in Montreal, which will be sold out, is another example of how we're taking the game to places that currently don't have NBA basketball, to give the fans there an authentic NBA experience."

Tatum warns, however, that Canadian basketball fans will need to wait patiently before seeing a steady dose of the sport outside Toronto, save for the occasional pre-season matchup.

There are currently 30 teams in the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver has no plans to expand, let alone bring a second team north of the border.

"Montreal is a fantastic market for a professional franchise," said Tatum, who grew up a Knicks fan in Brooklyn. "Clearly, there are professional franchises here that have succeeded and done well. Vancouver would also be a great city to have an NBA franchise.

"But in terms of an expansion franchise, that's not on the agenda for us. It's very difficult. Whether it's North America or Europe, expansion of the number of teams is not on the agenda."

In the meantime, Tatum and the NBA have been discussing the prospect of holding a regular-season game in a Canadian city other than Toronto, but no date has been set. In January, the NBA will hold a regular-season game in London, England.

Outside of Canada and the U.S., the sport invented by a Canadian is growing internationally as well. The NBA is currently broadcast in 215 countries and in 42 different languages, and basketball is currently the most popular sport in China, the world's most populous country.

"We've always had these global aspirations," said Tatum. "We want to be the No. 1 sport in the world."

Notes: Tatum spoke to members of Montreal's business community on Friday morning as part of the first-ever NBA Canada Series Executive Breakfast. ... Also in attendance at the panel discussion were Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri and NBA ambassador Dikembe Mutombo. ... The NBA also held pre-season games this October in Germany, Turkey, Brazil, and China.

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