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Leo Rautins interviewed by Sportsnet. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Skilton)

Leo Rautins used to sneak into Maple Leaf Gardens as a child to play basketball. It was the first place he saw with glass backboards. Years later, on Monday, he was back there to discuss how far Canadian basketball has come since those days.

The Canadian Basketball Speakers Forum was presented by Ryerson on March 9. It featured three panel discussions and a keynote address, with former NBA player Rautins and current Toronto Raptors general manager, Masai Ujiri, among the speakers.

The event took place on the court where Ryerson will host the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Final 8 basketball tournament, which starts on Thursday.
With the last two No. 1 overall picks in the NBA draft, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, coming from the GTA, there was reason for optimism in Monday’s talks.

“There is so much more room for growth of the game of basketball in this country than any other sport,” said Rautins, also the former head coach of Canada’s men’s national basketball team, during the panel. “If you like what you’re seeing now — there’s a lot to like — it’s only going to get better. And that’s the exciting part for me.”

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Former U.S. college coach George Raveling was one of the speakers. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Skilton)

Part of the reason for the rise of Canadian basketball was the arrival of the Raptors in 1995, which made the game more accessible.

“When I was a kid and I wanted to play in the NBA, I rarely saw it on TV, almost never saw it in person. Now, you can go to an NBA game, you can go to a clinic with NBA players,” Rautins said in an interview prior to the panel. “Just the game itself being here is huge.”

Playing hockey requires lots of equipment and money, noted Nike Canada’s Mark Bayne during the panel, something that also worked in basketball’s favour.

“With basketball you need shoes and a ball and a hoop,” he said.

Canada’s diversity is also another factor in basketball’s success. The immigrant population in Canada brought with it knowledge of the sport as well as physical talent.

“Because we’re such a melting pot, we have so many tremendous athletes in this country,” Rautins said.

There could, however, be a downside to having a large immigrant population supporting the sport in Canada.

George Raveling, a former U.S. college coach who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame later this year, said some Canadians won’t necessarily cheer for their national team. He said they could have other allegiances.

“If I’m an immigrant to Canada, when my back’s up against the wall, where does my patriotism lie?” said Raveling, who referenced a game played in Canada where a large portion of the crowd was cheering Canada’s opponent.

Still, confidence from those involved with the sport in Canada was on display during the discussions.

“Basketball’s here to stay,” said Ro Russell, founder of the basketball club Grassroots Canada, “and hockey better watch out.”

The night ended with Ujiri being interviewed by ESPN broadcaster and Ryerson graduate John Saunders.

Ujiri said he doesn’t regret publicly shouting “F— Brooklyn!” prior to last season’s playoff series between the Raptors and Brooklyn Nets.

“Trust me, I ain’t taking that back. I hope we play them again and I’ll say it again,” Ujiri said with a laugh.

Though Ujiri said there will be a Canadian basketball player on the Raptors’ roster during his tenure, he didn’t name anyone.

“Basketball in Canada really, really intrigues me. There’s a bright future. Just put it this way: Canadian basketball players aspire to play for the Raptors, hopefully.”