Nestled amid farmland in eastern Ontario, the Raptors viewing party in the small town of Almonte feels extra special — that’s because it’s the hometown of basketball inventor James Naismith.
“Everyone is very proud and excited,” says Tiffany MacLaren, the main organizer of the outdoor event, which is attracting about 500 in a town of 5,000.
“It’s been really great, it’s been very unifying,” said MacLaren, adding that all ages have gathered to watch the NBA Finals on a screen outside Almonte Old Town Hall, just steps from a statue honouring legendary Canadian Naismith. “There’s lots of basketball fever.”
Across Canada, fans are gearing up to watch the Toronto Raptors take on the Golden State Warriors on Monday in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. Thousands have gathered outside the arena in Jurassic Park to watch the action on giant screens and, nationwide, there will be 56 outdoor viewing parties and about 36 Cineplex movie theatres screening the games.
Almonte, located near Ottawa, has a big basketball culture, including the Naismith Basketball Foundation and a museum dedicated to him. But with the Raptors — Canada’s only NBA team — just one win away from franchise history, the community feels like they’re bringing basketball home.
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“It’s bringing it home and giving (Naismith) some of the credit he deserves,” said MacLaren, the community economic and cultural co-ordinator in the Municipality of Mississippi Mills.
Bonnie McBain, a distant relative of Naismith’s who still lives in Almonte, says the games are a reminder of his legacy.
“It’s rekindling the awareness and bringing his Canadian roots to the forefront,” says McBain, whose great-great-grandfather was the brother of Naismith’s grandfather. “We need to toot our horn a bit more. I think, as Canadians, we need to make the world know that we’re very proud of the fact that he did come from Canada, and he was very proud … He never lost his connection to his home and where he was born.”
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Naismith was born in 1861 on a farm outside Almonte, now part of Mississippi Mills. When he was 9, his parents died of Typhoid fever and he was raised by an uncle. He dropped out of high school but returned to his studies and went to McGill University. He eventually moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was a physical education instructor and, in 1891, invented the game of “Basket Ball” with two peach baskets and a soccer ball. The game was a hit and its popularity spread. In 1898, he became the basketball coach at the University of Kansas and lived in that state until his death in 1939.
Stephanie Kolsters, curator of the James Naismith Museum in Almonte, says the NBA Finals has “brought a whole community together cheering for one ultimate goal.”
The museum has experienced a recent spike in visits, too.
“Although I’m a fan of basketball, I’m more a fan of James Naismith and his character,” Kolsters says. He was all about promoting a healthy body and mind, and relished the sport’s ability to build character and bring communities together, she adds.
“I think he’d be more happy about the fact that communities, and Canadians, are coming together to root on the Raptors than actually winning the Finals.”
South of the border, Jim Naismith — grandson of James Naismith — will also be rooting for the Raptors from his home in Corpus Christi, Texas.
He says basketball is special because of its ability to reach youth with important life lessons, noting several people have told him over the years, “Your grandad saved my life.”
“That reinforces the power of the proper use of competitive sports in helping young people learn what’s important in life,” he said, adding that it teaches youth about co-operation, respect and fulfilling one’s goals.