TORONTO — As the success of basketball continues to skyrocket in this country, the NBA is bringing the game to younger children in Canada.
The Jr. NBA launched its youth basketball program in Canada this week for children ages 14 and under, and the Jr. NBA "Rookie Division" for kids aged five to seven.
"The average age that children start playing basketball in Canada is 8.6 years old, and that's too old," said Chris Piazza, the Jr. NBA co-ordinator with the West Island Lakers club in Montreal.
The program, which Piazza compared to TimBits Hockey, is expected to reach five million children within two years. The "Rookie Division" is being launched in 125 clubs, reaching about 5,000 children, across Canada — 125 chosen because it coincides with the 125th anniversary of the invention of the game by James Naismith.
The Jr. NBA in Canada, with BMO Financial Group as its founding partner, was developed with a team of experts in child development, physical literacy, and basketball fundamentals.
The Rookie Division features smaller balls, lowered hoops and modified games. Coaches are provided with a free starters kit that includes everything from cones and whistles to weekly practice plans with videos. Teams are outfitted in different-coloured Toronto Raptors jerseys.
"One of the challenges of playing organized basketball at this age level is it's kind of hard to play when you're small, you're talking about a game that has a 10-foot hoop and a big ball and lots of rules," said Dan MacKenzie, NBA Canada's vice-president and managing director. "So we really wanted to make the game simple, much more simplified for kids at that age level, and our thinking is if we can get young kids to pick up the game at a younger age level, there's a better chance they'll remain with us as they grow."
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, along with reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry and Academy Award-nominated director Spike Lee are among the members of the Jr. NBA Leadership Council.
MacKenzie said it's the perfect time to launch a program for very young kids, with the explosion of the game here, pointing to the 12 Canadians on NBA rosters last season (that record is expected to be broken this coming season), and the arrival of the NBA all-star game in Toronto in February. It marks the first time the game will be played outside the U.S.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press