Late Wednesday evening, in the dying light of lower Manhattan, Steve Nash stepped onto a soccer field at Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Nash, a former NBA All-Star and a Canadian basketball icon, began to lace up his soccer cleats for an annual charity soccer match as a few dozen fans milled around the pitch.
Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki stood 20 feet away, juggling a soccer ball, while French star Thierry Henry prepared to coach. But for a moment, Nash’s thoughts drifted away from soccer and back to basketball and his home country. Earlier in the day, he’d exchanged texts with former Kansas star Andrew Wiggins and former Michigan standout Nik Stauskus, fellow Canadians who had arrived in New York for Thursday’s NBA Draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“I feel like a proud uncle or something,” said Nash, who grew up in the Vancouver area. “I’m fired up for tomorrow.”
If Nash is the great uncle of Canadian basketball, he’s quietly blazed the path for a golden generation of Canadian basketball players — a generation that will be on display Thursday.
Wiggins is a favorite to go No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers — one year after fellow Canadian Anthony Bennett also went No. 1 to Cleveland — and Stauskas is expected to go in the top 15. Add in former Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis, who is slated to go in the first round, and Nash’s influence will be all over Thursday’s proceedings.
“With all this talent we’ve got right now,” Wiggins said. “I think anything’s possible.”
Wiggins and Stauskas both grew up in the Toronto area, idolizing Vince Carter and the Raptors. They played a few AAU events together in their teens — Stauskas was 15, Wiggins was 13 — and Stauskas remembers Wiggins throwing down a 360, behind-the-back dunk in one of their first scrimmages.
“OK,” Stauskas remembered thinking. “He’s an NBA player.”
“We all had hoop dreams,” Wiggins said. “We all wanted to play in the NBA. That’s everyone’s goal growing up.”
But even then, the Canadian AAU teams never got much respect during the summer tournaments in the States. Basketball was often an afterthought at Canadian high schools. In Stauskas’s sophomore year at Loyola Catholic in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, the basketball coach quit and the team couldn’t go on without a faculty supervisor. So Stauskas had to persaude a French teacher to show up while his father coached the team.
Staukas, like Wiggins and Ennis, left his Canadian high school to attend a prep school before helping Michigan to the Final Four in 2013.
“If you weren’t determined and you didn’t really want it, it wasn’t going to happen,” said Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard. “For me, I left Canada when I was 15 years old, and my parents didn’t really want me to, but I felt like I had to.”
In Canadian basketball circles, perceptions have turned into familiar stereotypes. Wiggins, the 6-foot-8 swingman, is too nice. Stauskas is just a jump shooter. The competition just doesn’t measure up to the States. And so on.
“Maybe Canadians are just nice,” Stauskas said. “Maybe we’re just a little too nice. We all grew up and we were humble and hungry, and I think being from Canada, we’ve always had a chip on our shoulder.”
Now comes draft night, million-dollar contracts, and the next step in a basketball life. Wiggins dreams of a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. For years, Wiggins was pre-ordained to be the Canadian LeBron James. He was nicknamed “Maple Jordan,” the hype swelled, and everyone expected him to spend one year at Kansas and go No. 1 in the draft.
Some of that hype faded. But Wiggins might still go first overall — unless the Cavaliers opt for Duke star Jabari Parker, a native of basketball hotbed Chicago.
You don’t get much more American basketball than Chicago, of course, and it’s led to a natural rivalry. There is Wiggins, the prodigy from the great white north, and Parker, the son of Chicago. Only one can go No. 1.
“It’s never a rivalry,” Wiggins counters. “The media portrays it to be something like that, but we’re all friends.”
Yes, you might expect Wiggins to say something like that. You know, Canadians are pretty nice.
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.