SARNIA, Ont. — Toronto Raptors fever extends well beyond the metro-Toronto area.
“There’s a Toronto hockey team? The mood in Sarnia is Raptors-crazy,” said James Grant, coach of the Lambton College Lions men’s basketball team in Sarnia, Ont., which finished the 2015/16 season ranked sixth in Canada.
“I never would have thought that I would be seeing so many people walking around Sarnia in Raptors’ gear. Just today, when I was on my way to work, there was a senior out watering his lawn in a Raptors’ sweatshirt. It’s mind blowing. We even have our own Jurassic Park in town.”
Grant, 37, grew up in Sarnia, located 105 km from Detroit and 290 km from Toronto. Athletically, it’s the home of 2003 Masters champ Mike Weir and Dino Ciccarelli, a 1,200-point scorer in the NHL.
Grant set every scoring record known in elementary school and then had a successful five-year career in high school basketball. He was in the eighth grade when the Raptors became an NBA expansion franchise. His elementary school, Parkview, was soon nicknamed “Jurassic Parkview.”
He remembers the first time he saw a Raptors game in Toronto.
“It was the middle of winter and my brother Kevin and I hit the road for the three-hour trip to the Skydome. There was a blizzard, but we wanted to see an NBA game in Toronto so we kept on going ... dangerously. It felt like the venue was way too big for a basketball game once we got there.”
He said initially, Sarnia had far more Detroit Pistons fans. Michael Jordan was still active, so many cheered for the Chicago Bulls. He noticed a shift in loyalty to the Raptors upon the arrival of Vince Carter in 1998.
Grant said the phenomenal season the Raptors have enjoyed is good for the sport in Canada.
“I absolutely think we will see an increase in the number of kids playing basketball in Canada. You just need to look back at the success of the Blue Jays and the bump that we had in baseball that began in the 1990s. Toronto is already a great basketball city, but hopefully the Raptors’ success will lead to more talented athletes focusing on basketball across the country.”
Lambton’s coach since 2011, most of his team shares in the enthusiasm.
“We had 13 players from Toronto on our team this year and they are all very excited. That is the case with the other couple of Canadians on the team. Our players from Michigan are pretty committed to Dwane Casey and anyone, but the Raptors, for obvious reasons. It makes for a great team group chat on game days.”