TORONTO - Between Canadian players making headlines in the NBA and the recent success of the Toronto Raptors, NBA legend Bill Walton said these are heady days for basketball in Canada.
"It's truly remarkable how far, in just 30 years, Canadian basketball has come," Walton said.
The NBA MVP and basketball Hall of Famer was in Toronto on Thursday to help launch ticket sales for the Canadian university men's Final 8, which will be held at Ryerson University for the first time.
"What (the Raptors) have been able to do, sell-out crowds every night, currently in first place . . . But more importantly, what (the CIS championship) is all about is developing the homegrown talent in local programs, grassroots, getting the foundation going so everything will rise at the same time," Walton said.
Walton addressed a large crowd of student athletes at Ryerson's Mattamy Athletic Centre in an engaging presentation that lasted over 30 minutes. He spoke at length about two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, poking fun at the Victoria native while holding him up as an example of what hard work can do.
"To be a champion in life, like Steve Nash, it makes no difference how big you are if you can't play like a giant," Walton said. "Of all the players that I've had the privilege of watching, no single player has elicited more oohs and aahs than little Stevie, who . . . I was Steve's size when I was born. I'm faster today, and I'm 62 years old, I've had 37 orthopedic operations. I've got a new knee, I've got a new spine, and I'm faster today than Steve ever was."
The Ryerson Rams men's team, ranked No. 3 in the CIS, earns an automatic berth to the Final 8 tournament, March 12-15, as host. Roy Rana, who took over as Rams head coach six years ago, said hosting the tournament in Toronto has been a long time coming.
"I've been a part of the fabric of the sport in this city for a long time, it's never happened here," Rana said. "When I took this job six years ago. . . I said 'You know what, I really believe that this university and this program was a jewel in the city's crown, and I wanted to put some shine on it.'
"To be here six years later in this building, speaking about the national championship, about hosting a national championship is incredibly powerful, it's an emotional moment for me. This season is going to be a very special season for our guys."
Walton credited Canada's success story partly to the globalization of the NBA that former commissioner David Stern launched in the early 1990s. There are 13 Canadians on NBA rosters this season, behind to only the United States.
There is no end of Canadian role models in the sport, Walton said.
"To have witnessed Steve Nash over the course of his brilliant career, I just love Steve and what he's been able to do as a shining star, as a beacon of hope, as a moral compass to us all," Walton said. "As I was a young child many years ago, I had my heroes, and people are looking at Steve Nash, they're looking at these current Raptor players, they're looking these Ryerson Rams, at these (Canadian) coaches who've given everything for someone else. . ."
Walton was asked about Nash being forced to skip what would have been his 19th — and likely final — season in the NBA. Nash is sidelined with the nerve damage in his back that has plagued him for the past few seasons.
"Don't pronounce him dead. Because Steve is just getting started," Walton said. "Ultimately Steve will be one of those rare people who will be better in his post-playing life and career than he ever was as a player.
"As a player, he was unparalleled, he was unmatched, he was just fantastic. Be happy for him, be proud of him, encourage him and support him and thank him for what he's done to make our world a better place on and off the court."
Ryerson's Mattamy Athletic Centre — the former Maple Leaf Gardens — will host the CIS tournament, and will also be the basketball venue for next summer's Pan and Parapan American Games.
It's a fitting venue as the building hosted the first Basketball Association of America game in 1946, between the Toronto Huskies and New York Knickerbockers. The BAA merged with the National Basketball League in 1949 to form the NBA.
Forty-seven schools from the four CIS conferences will compete for an eventual spot in the Final 8.