Capturing the journey of Toronto’s basketball culture

By Kirk Moss

Oakwood CI B’Ball

Raptormania consumed the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sports, in celebration of sports writer, U of T Alumni and author Alex Wong’s ground-breaking book “Prehistoric: The Audacious and Improbable Origin Story of the Toronto Raptors” with a forward by Mighty-mouse, the legendary Damon Stoudermire. With a star-studded guests list, and panel discussion, plus overflowing refreshments and tasty-food, the crowd was being treated like royalty.  As the on-stage dialogue took flight like a classic Vince Carter dunk, the gravitational pull of the audience’s chatter stalled its momentum.  Something else was missing from the conversation – a parallel, yet not so familiar narrative of B-Ball in the 6ix (Toronto’s Nickname).    

To fully understand and appreciate the essence of ballin in the T-Dot, we need to place our finger-tips on the rewind-button of a ghetto-blaster and loop that Sony-cassette back to the 1990’s, specifically, throughout the play-grounds of the 6ix, within the vicinity of what is now known as Toronto Community Housing (TCHC).  As the chart-topping rapper-extraordinaire Maestro was busy ‘conducting things’, and orchestrating the sliding of back-bones, ballers were acrobatically breaking back-boards. 

With the 1990’s came the opening of Oriole Community Centre, located between Fairview Mall and Peanut Plaza, along Don Mills Road, where basketball magic began brewing with sizzle, finesse, and endless swag.  This site swiftly became more than just a hang-out spot for teens bursting with athletic-energy, ball-talent and street-smarts.  More than anything, these youngsters, who endured the pressures of living in low-income housing, under the wrath of social-assistance and governmental-stinginess, knew they had to prove themselves in every aspect of their lives.  Thus, basketball for them, meant more than simply playing a game. 

The hard-wood court in their eyes crystalized a burning desire to define for themselves, on their terms, a firm notion of Black-Canadian-masculinity.  This crystallisation of identity, rooted within the premises of TCHC, with a strong Caribbean presence, combined with fellow African-Canadians of all hues and stripes, led to the centering of the numerous communities (aka hoods) surrounding Oriole, including Brahms, Spar-ways, Villa-ways and Allen-bury, even stretching along Don Mills to Flemington Park. 

The boys who emerged from the hood, with nick-names like Shabba, Jukki and Spydee, brought their talents to George Vanier High School, where countless hours, days, weeks and months of gruelling street-ball and early-morning team-practices, led them to be crowned Kings of both the senior and junior boys basketball world in 1991-1992.  This snap-shot of just how powerful basketball became must be understood in the context of Black-masculine identity formation, particularly in the ways African-American popular culture imprinted itself o our imagination, influencing us to not only ‘be like Mike’ (Mr. Jordan that is), but to revel in the smooth telling of Hollywood b-ball stories. 

Films like “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992), “He Got Game” (1998) and “Love and Basketball” (2000) illustrated how sports, basketball in particular, enhanced our cross-cultural understandings, as the game carved-out new spaces for inclusiveness amongst various groups of marginalized-Canadians.  The on-court team-work of Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, both living in poverty, made us ponder the likes of Jordan and Pippen or better-yet, and some-what more fittingly, Stockton and Malone. 

Thus, the nature and positioning of b-ball within our popular culture becomes more than just a pick-up hobby, pass-time or prime-time viewing.  Basketball, as a cultural-force, accompanied by players like James Harden and Allen Iverson, not only revolutionized the meaning of a step-back-pull-up-cross-over, but more significantly, reinvented modern men’s facial hair styles and eye-catching tattoo culture, globally.  

The sport itself is a societal-force that sparks social change, social-cohesion and multicultural/intergenerational relationships, community-trust, and lasting legacies.  The game is a spectacular embodiment of dreams, hopes and aspirations, of those who live in under-served communities once inhabited by the same superstar players.  It is this intersection of lived-experience and empathic-relatability that makes these stars shine with such a magnetic pull and admiration.

Even though the great Tupac Shakur, who sparked the wider societal-acceptability of tattoo-wearing, was no Stephan Mauberry (aka Coney Island’s Finest), his starring role in “Above The Rim” (1994) elevated the status of ball-culture, into a new frontier of popularity and coolness, seducing the youth in the process.As hip-hop culture rose to new international and intercultural stratospheric-heights, b-ball dribbled right alongside, sparking our imagination with its crossover appeal. 

So, the ascent of the Raptors cannot be detached from the local struggles of impoverishment, imprisonment and under-employment countless number of inner-city young men endured in chasing their own ‘hoop dreams’, thereby paving the way for the current 25 exceptionally talented Canadian NBA players.

It was their (metro-housing youngsters) commitment to excellence, sacrifices and  work ethic back in the day that led to the pride many, even today, with their grey bushy beards, still carry and hold for Eastern Commerce, Bathurst Heights, West Hill/Cedarbrae, West Humber, Oakwood CI, Jarvis Bulldogs, and the community-housing surroundings in which many grew up.

Kirk Moss is a journalist and educator. He lives in Toronto.