They said it again and again. Any time LeBron James and his NBA brethren were asked about descending upon the Big Apple for the NBA’s all-star weekend, the hoopsters spoke with nothing but reverence about the place. They called it basketball’s “mecca.” And in some ways, it was only good etiquette. Paying homage to the lineage of playground legends, bowing to the history that’s been lived at Madison Square Garden, it would have been impolite to do anything but.
But here’s the truth about the city that never sleeps: As a basketball powerhouse, it’s been slumbering in hoop-wise irrelevance for a long while now. Never mind the mecca tag; Gotham is home to basketball’s hottest mess, a New York Knicks franchise that specializes in turning vast payrolls into pathos and hasn’t won a championship since 1973. Even the great Phil Jackson, who vowed to have the Knicks in the playoffs this spring when he took over the operation last March, has acknowledged he’s fallen flat on his face in his attempts to lift the pall. And he’s right. Jackson has 11 rings; the Knicks have a league-low 10 wins.
So maybe it was fitting that, as the festivities concluded with parties that stretched into Monday’s wee hours, New York City handed off the all-star torch to a more of-the-moment basketball-loving metropolis. Toronto will host the 2016 all-star weekend. And the timing couldn’t be better.
If such a role for Canada’s biggest city might have been unfathomable 20 years ago, when the Raptors were preparing for their inaugural season at SkyDome — well, things have changed beyond measure in a couple of decades.
No matter where you went on the weekend, at events hosted at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and Manhattan’s Garden, you couldn’t help but hear pro-Toronto chatter. As GTA-raised Andrew Wiggins won the MVP of the rising stars game, voices were lamenting that the high-flying Wiggins wasn’t partaking in the slam-dunk contest. (The thinking was he’s being saved for a home-soil debut a year from now).
When Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry wasn’t busy thanking the franchise’s fans for their part in his being voted into the all-star starting lineup, he was extolling the pleasures of representing, not just the city in which he plays, but the nation by which he’s been embraced. (“You’re playing for the whole country,” he said, hitting the bullseye).
And speaking of American hoopsters who’ve become honourary Canadians: When Stephen Curry wasn’t winning the three-point contest with an awe-inspiring display of long-range prowess, he and his father, ex-Raptor Dell Curry, were regaling the media with stories of Stephen’s formative years rambling around the Air Canada Centre, dropping Pizza Pizza references and pointing out that Stephen’s wife, Ayesha, is from Toronto.
If the 416 was once seen by some NBAers as a curling-obsessed outpost that had to be tolerated pending an escape plan, you don’t hear that view expressed much any more. Canada’s flag-day weekend was a banner one for hoopheads, indeed.
And never mind the pros: On a weekend that served as an occasion for some local soul-searching about what’s gone wrong, at least one respected New York-area basketball man acknowledged that his home turf has been surpassed as a talent wellspring. Today’s neighbourhood legends, corrupted by the money and the pressure and who knows what else, aren’t what they used to be.
“I firmly believe that there are more top players developed in Toronto than in New York City,” Bob Hurley Sr., the noted high school coach, told the Wall Street Journal.
That frank assessment was the rough equivalent to Don Cherry acknowledging that Canada’s hockey factory had been surpassed in its developmental superiority by Sweden’s. It was remarkable stuff.
Toronto’s sports lovers, mind you, would open themselves up to plenty of return fire if they were gauche enough to gloat about any of this. Just like New York dines out as the “mecca,” Hogtown rests on its status as the centre of the hockey universe, even if it’s generally acknowledged that, under this scenario, the hockey universe is currently revolving around a flaming purgatory of near-eternal dysfunction that doubles as home to the NHL’s longest Stanley Cup drought. And just like the Knicks get mocked for repeating the same expensive mistakes, history repeats in Leafland, too. A little more than a decade since John Ferguson Jr. was entrusted with the franchise as an unproven rookie GM, somehow there’s another zero-experience neophyte running the hockey operation. And what could go wrong given that?
While Leafland smoulders before the fire sale, meanwhile, the pair of NHL teams that go by the name New York are positively prosperous. This season the Rangers, the defending Eastern Conference champions, are again comfortably entrenched in the playoff picture, this while GTA-raised prodigy John Tavares is leading a renaissance of the soon-to-be-Brooklyn Islanders.
So where, again, is the centre of the hockey universe? The Islanders and Rangers have won a combined five championships and gone to nine Stanley Cup finals since the Leafs last played in one. Then there’s the three Stanley Cups and five final appearances racked up by the New Jersey Devils, who play near the shadow of the Manhattan skyline. Heck, even that struggling Empire State squad in Buffalo is tanking far more effectively than the Leafs in this generational draft year.
In other words, New York might not stack up to Toronto as a basketball mecca, but it’s doing okay as a hockey one. Maybe that explains why Leafs first-year president Brendan Shanahan, still based in the Big Apple, can’t bear to leave. Certainly it says that the NBA’s midseason celebration of the sport will be heading in the right direction when it comes north in 2016.