TORONTO — One of the founding owners of the Toronto Raptors says he feels like a proud parent as the basketball team prepares for its biggest game in franchise history this weekend.
John Bitove said he and his business partner knew when they founded the team in 1995 that basketball would never replace the special place Canadians hold in their hearts for hockey, but the Raptors' work over the years has paid off as a legion of fans now cheers on the squad.
"Hockey has its own place in Canadian society, but we're going to go after kids, women, new Canadians. We're going to embed basketball as their sport," Bitove recalled thinking at the time. "We did believe it could happen and it's happening."
Decades after he helped found the franchise, Bitove said he still follows the team closely and is thrilled by their success in the playoffs so far this year.
The Raptors have a 3-2 series lead against the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Eastern Conference final and are set to play Game 6 in Toronto on Saturday night. A win would send the Toronto team to its first NBA Finals.
"It's like a proud parent of their child," Bitove said of the team. "You beam with excitement and pride."
Bitove said that when the team was founded, his goal was to establish basketball as a major national sport in Canada and to win an NBA championship.
The team's influence has grown over time, he said, and the number of top college and NBA players who have come from Canada are further evidence of the game's growing national appeal.
Bitove also praised the team's fans, saying they are knowledgeable, dedicated and have helped lead to the team's current success.
"You have the American (TV) networks saying Toronto's a tough place to play, their crowds are crazy," he said. "All those things that make us all smile."
Even the prime minister expressed enthusiasm for the team's playoff run, saying his household has been drawn into the action.
"We're extremely excited about the Raptors," Justin Trudeau said during an appearance Friday in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. "My son is a massive Raptors fan and we're having him stay up later than we would like because he's watching the games along with much of Canada."
Recent ticket sale statistics suggest enthusiasm for the team is high.
Demand for tickets to the potential deciding game of the series has shot up since the Raptors beat the Bucks Thursday night, according to StubHub Canada's general manager.
Paul Nowosad said the average ticket price for Game 6 has increased to $690, up from $482 Thursday afternoon. And overall demand for Raptors tickets on the website has been steadily increasing as the team has moves deeper into the playoffs, he said.
"With the NBA Finals well in reach, fans want to be there live to experience history," he said in a statement. "Saturday night's game will certainly be a fan experience unlike any other."
The team's playoff run has both short-term and long-term impacts on the city, according to Tourism Toronto.
The Raptors' success draws visitors to the city for the games themselves and also gives Toronto a level of exposure in the United States that doesn't happen often, said executive vice president Andrew Weir.
"Any time you have continent-wide pop culture attention on the city, that helps build more interest and awareness and demand for Toronto," he said.
"We still frankly fight some perceptions, that it's always cold because we're in Canada, some people don't realize the size of Toronto ... when they start to see more and more of it we can start to turn those perceptions around."
Weir said the economic impact of a playoff run on local businesses can be harder to measure but it's clear bars and restaurants have been bustling on Raptor game days.
"We've seen the power that sports can have in driving business," he said. "You don't have to be down by the stadium to participate and feel that tribal, team mentality that people enjoy being a part of."
Daniel Walker, who works at The Pint, has seen the hype first hand, saying the team has boosted sales at the bar.
"With the Raptors consistently exceeding expectations the entire city has been brought to their feet," he said. "We have been packed lately and if they advance we expect to see a full house on every game."