Last Wednesday in Montreal, with 7:07 left in the fourth quarter, Raptors forward Chris Boucher checked in for C.J. Miles in Toronto’s game against the Brooklyn Nets. This would have been a nothing occurrence, save for the fact that Boucher is a native of the city. As he took the floor, it was a moment.
The crowd had already thrown its support behind Boucher after he addressed the crowd—in both English and French—thanking them all for coming out to the Raptors’ second last preseason game. In the bigger picture of the NBA season, none of this really mattered. But still, this? This was something else.
Montreal basketball is a thing now; a press conference about NBA expansion yesterday signalled as much. I don’t know what will come of it, given that the NBA’s on the record about not wanting to expand until 2025, but yes, this is a thing.
And it’s even a thing without the immediacy and large scale of expansion. Last night was a mini-audition, just like the several seasons prior. It was a success but, much like how I don’t know what will come of some untitled Montreal basketball expansion project, I don’t know how much stock there is to be thrown into this.
Sure, Montreal shows up for these exhibitions, both for basketball and baseball, but that’s all they are: exhibitions. They’re one-offs. Hold up a second on those sad thoughts though, because what wonderful one-offs they are. “It’s always fun to be here,” said Kyle Lowry on game day. “It’s a rowdy crowd and they’re pretty loud. And they expect us to win.”
Boucher hit his first shot with 1:19 left in the fourth quarter. The Bell Centre exploded. I don’t know if I’ve seen anything quite like it. He had committed a couple of fouls already (oh well) and he blocked a couple of shots (there were loud cheers for those too) — but the place absolutely exploded.
Chants of Bou-cher rung out.
Then he hit a second one.
Montreal’s sports fans show up in the droves to these exhibitions because they’re sports fans, and because they don’t often get another chance. But the question always comes up. Could this city handle an NBA franchise? Could they support 41 regular season NBA basketball games?
The answer is starting to feel like a yes.
Canada continues to build a basketball brand. The country’s latest product, R.J. Barrett, is starring at Duke this season, and could be the number one pick in the NBA Draft. There are now around a dozen or so Canadians in the league at any one time. Meanwhile Boucher, another recent U.S. college export, is now on a two-way deal with the Raptors for the coming 2018-19 season. Things are happening in the country, and people are noticing.
“I certainly think that the Canadian market is unbelievable,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said pregame in Montreal. “The spread of everything from the national team to the Raptors, to the talent level that is being produced out of Canada right now, we’re riding an amazing high. [...] I think everything out of Canada is super positive.”
We love having someone on the court to root for. Sports make for awesome stories in that way. When we have something to identify with or relate to, we love them even more.
Expanding to Montreal in any sport is about finding the balance between love story and business venture. The typical story told here is that teams not named Les Habitants have struggled to remain afloat — particularly when playing poorly. Stories like that don’t do so well.
If fans show up in droves to watch basketball teams put out winning stories, like they did on Wednesday night, then maybe it’s time Montreal gets more thought for expansion. Canadian basketball is real. It’s not just the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies (or the lack thereof). It’s fans of great basketball players becoming greats on their own. It’s people like Barrett and Boucher making their own stories. It’s time all the inputs matched our growing brand of Canadian basketball exports. Putting down some roots with pro basketball across Canada could be the logical next step.
I’ll never forget the bench’s reaction to Boucher’s second three. They all stood up, went wild. Even Kawhi Leonard clapped, sending Twitter into a frenzy. While this was happening, it felt like Boucher looked my way or at least in my general direction. It probably felt like that to a lot of people. It was such a special moment for him, and for the city. I was happy I was there. I was happy to see Boucher be happy.
“You know, the future is bright, especially for our young guys. At the beginning, I didn’t really look around. I was just focusing on making it,” Boucher said. “But now that I see that I’m here, I see the other guys are following the path, it feels good. Guys like Quincy [Guerrier] and Luguentz [Dort], I think that they’ll make it too. So, it just feels good to see that there are young guys coming in soon.”
Then Boucher made his mean-mug look in celebration, really savouring this fun NBA moment at home. Here’s to the first of many.