With the NBA on hold, and with The Last Dance delivering the ultimate nostalgia hit for NBA fans my age, I can’t help but think back to my early days as a basketball fan, before the Toronto Raptors were a twinkle in the NBA’s eye (and before anyone even knew what a Raptor was!).
It’s 1988, I’m 11 years old, and the Lakers and Pistons are playing in the NBA Finals. I don’t know what game it is, or even what day it is, although I believe it was an afternoon, so probably a Sunday. My Dad is watching the game on TV. I ask my Dad who he’s cheering for, and he says the Lakers, which — of course — automatically means I’m cheering for the Pistons.
Something about this game — I have no idea what, at this point — draws me in. I literally have no further recollection of it beyond this, but from that point on, I’m hooked, and I’m a Pistons fan.
I had enjoyed playing basketball in gym class at school before that, but that was about the limit of my basketball fandom then. Within a year of that Pistons-Lakers game, I’d joined a rec league, my Dad had put a hoop up on the house above the garage (which some neighbourhood teenager tore down, so we put one up on a pole beside the driveway, reinforced with concrete. I got to help mix and pour the concrete!), I had an Isiah Thomas t-shirt and a Pistons cap that I wore constantly.
I obviously picked a good time to become a Pistons fan, as they won the title the next two years! Another good thing about the Pistons: They occasionally played pre-season games at Maple Leaf Gardens! An exhibition tilt against the Dallas Mavericks, in, I think, 1991, became the first NBA game I ever attended.
Thing is, it was pretty difficult to be a hoops fan in Canada at that time. Basketball simply wasn’t covered. It expanded a bit in 1991-92, thanks to the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan and the Dream Team, but before that? Your nightly sports highlight shows consisted of 7 minutes of commercials, 15 minutes of hockey, three minutes of baseball, two minutes of CFL and three minutes for every other sport.
My Dad read The Globe and Mail, whose sports section was already severely limited, so you’d get scores and standings, maybe full box scores if it was a light hockey night, and once a week — I literally used to cut these out and pin them to the wall - you’d get the list of scoring leaders. Every once in a while my Dad would bring home a USA Today as a treat.
Finally, around 1990, we got a little ray of sunshine — CNN Sports Tonight with Vince Cellini and Fred Hickman (RIP). Finally, we could see that there was more to the world than hockey! NBA basketball routinely led the show! Sure, you had to stay up to 11:30 to watch it — or record it on the VCR and watch it with breakfast, as I often did — but man, what a difference it made.
Then, in 1993, basketball in Canada took its “giant leap” forward, when it was announced we’d be getting our very own NBA teams, one here in Toronto and the other out west in Vancouver. And imagine my delight when, six months later, my favourite player tore through that Raptors logo and became our very first GM! (To be very clear: Isiah Thomas is no longer my favourite anything. Back then, while still giant a-hole on the court, he hadn’t yet done any of the heinous off-court stuff he’s now infamous for.)
The Pistons were still around of course, and in 1994-1995 they drafted Grant Hill, who I loved watching. But as soon as that 94-95 season was over, my allegiance switched over to the hometown team. I attended the very first game, from way up in the nosebleeds at SkyDome, and they’ve been my team ever since.