When the Toronto Raptors opened their first NBA season in 1995 the league was hoping to expand its reach by making the game more popular north of the border. Now, 20 years later, the growth has been so immense that for the first time in league history, the all-star game will be held outside of the United States when it takes place on Sunday, Feb. 14 at Air Canada Centre.
One person who has seen the growth of the game in Canada up close is NBA Global Ambassador, Hall of Famer and eight-time all-star Dikembe Mutombo, who was in his fifth season during the Raptors expansion year.
“No one thought when the NBA moved here in the ‘90s the game was going to grow this quickly,” Mutombo told TSN.ca. “Now you see the number of young people playing the game up here is very high. I’ve had the chance to travel across Canada and see the number of youths playing the game and now we’re getting so many Canadians playing in the NBA.”
The 49-year-old will be part of a team, including former NBA players Muggsy Bogues and Ron Harper as well as NBA team dancers and mascots that will travel nationwide as part of the All-Star 2016 fan initiative, visiting 14 Canadian cities in 10 provinces from Nov. 19 in Winnipeg to Feb. 7 in Toronto.
The tour, which will be a global celebration of basketball, will also stop in Calgary, Charlottetown, Edmonton, Fredericton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Regina, Sherbrooke, St. John’s, Vancouver and Windsor along the way.
The events that take place will range from Jr. NBA clinics and YMCA Kidsfests, to regional competitions for three-point shooting, skills challenges and dunk contests that will culminate in a national title event at the all-star game in Toronto.
Mutombo believes this cross-country tour is a great way to cultivate the NBA fan base by bringing the game to young people across Canada.
“We are on a mission. We can’t just say we want to grow the game when we are not traveling or reaching our friends where they are. We are really going to go to them so they can learn the game,” said Mutombo. “This is who we are. Here are our coaches, here are our players, and you are going to learn from the professionals. It’s very exciting and I think our fans are going to really enjoy this. It’s going to be great all over Canada.”
As part of his responsibilities as a global ambassador, the Congo native has also had the chance to return to the continent of Africa as part of NBA initiatives. He has seen the immense change that has taken place since he first left home to play in the league in 1987.
“The game of basketball is becoming one of the fastest growing games on the continent of Africa and the NBA is investing a lot, building a lot of basketball courts and playgrounds to allow our young people to have access to facilities from South Africa all the way to Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya,” said Mutombo. “We want to spread the word, but we don’t want to do the walking and talking - we also want to be part of the action.”
“I remember when I came to the NBA there was only one player from Africa. There was Hakeem Olajuwon, then my late brother Manute Bol and now every day we’re talking about two or three Africans who are going to be the next stars in the NBA. It’s very exciting.”
Another success story from the continent of Africa is Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, who is a native of Nigeria. Mutombo believes Ujiri is perfect for the position, great for the city of Toronto and an inspiration for all of the youth back home and around the world.
“He’s a visionary, he dreams a lot,” said Mutombo. “You might be dreaming about tomorrow; Masai is dreaming about a month from now. He’s such a great man, very smart. He really fits that position in Toronto. We wish we could have him in Africa all the time, the way he’s carried the message of the game to the youth and encouraged them positively to learn the game and life skills.”
For more information on the All-Star 2016 fan initiative and what will taking place at each stop, visit www.nba.com/allstarevents to learn more about the tour.