It was back in the early ‘90s that then NBA Commissioner David Stern was finally able to persuade NBA owners to allow their players into international and Olympic basketball. He
wanted to prove first and foremost that NBA players were the best in the world, and he also wanted to expand the league brand overseas.
When the Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors last week, ending their run of three titles and five straight NBA Finals appearances, it truly could be said Stern’s quest, and that of his successor Adam Silver, has been completed. The league has its first non-American champion, and the Raptors’ roster is the epitome of diversity and inclusion.
The man at the top hails from Africa. Masai Ujiri is a proud Nigerian. His top assistant Bobby Webster comes from Hawaii. The director of sports science and commander-in-chief of load management (a fancy way of saying the person monitoring MVP Kwahi Leonard’s minutes) Alex McKecnie, comes from Scotland.
A team representing a city that’s always been first and foremost a hockey citadel now draws capacity crowds of nearly 20,000 to every home game. During the playoffs, thousands of Canadians across the country were hooked on the Raptors. The ultimate irony is the very first pro basketball game ever held was in this country. Most teams back then (1946) didn’t even have Black players. Today the league is 3/4 Black, and that’s despite an infusion of foreign players representing numerous European nations, as well as Asia, Latin America and all points in between. The Raptors’ roster reflects how much the NBA has become an international success. Pascal Siakam is from Cameroon, and once considered the priesthood rather than basketball as a career. Serge Ibaka is from the Congo, Marc Gasol from Spain. Jeremy Lin’s arrival sparked a Chinese media frenzy, while OG Anunoby is affiliated with both Nigeria and the United Kingdom.
“When I look at all the international players we have on our team, from Marc [Gasol] and the people on our staff and the backgrounds, it’s really brought us together,” Ujiri said on the eve of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “I think it says so much because that’s how our city is, that’s how the country is, that we can all relate to the multicultural or the diversity of Toronto and Canada, and that’s how our team is. They talk in different languages on defense, they talk in different languages in the locker room, and it’s like that in our organization. And being international myself and being from Africa, I’m proud of that.”
It would be premature and extremely naive not to mention that the NBA has plenty of problems. These range from officiating debacles to teams being accused of tampering, players being upset at the perceived lack of playing time, and a slight dip in overall ratings this season. But the Raptors’ title run has helped take attention off these issues.
Much like the current organization, the Raptors fan base is incredibly diverse. Perhaps what has made those fans so attached to this franchise is that — much like Toronto has had to work its way out of being the outsider in a league of 30 teams — fans of the franchise have also been outsiders.
But now neither the Raptors nor their fans are outsiders. They are NBA champions.