The road was paved

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

Americans are often surprised to discover that Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was a Canadian.

And even fewer know that the first game in NBA history was contested north of the border on Nov. 1, 1946.

The scene was an opening night tilt between the Toronto Huskies and the New York Knickerbockers, in the old Basketball Association of America league, which later became the NBA.

The visiting Knicks defeated the Toronto team, 68-66, in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 7,090 at Maple Leaf Gardens. And no, Kevin O'Neill wasn't coaching the offence-starved Huskies. It was a night of tuxedos and fur coats and anyone taller the than Huskies' 6-foot-8 centre, George Nostrand, was admitted into the Gardens for free.

Professional basketball has a long, though not particularly proud, history in Toronto and the pro game in these parts certainly didn't begin with the Raptors on Nov. 3 1995.

The Huskies, clad in traditional Toronto blue and white, shared the Gardens with the Maple Leafs during the 1946-47 season but folded after that single campaign. Drawing only 5-7,000 fans each night, the franchise's managing director, Lew Hayman, convinced the league to allow the Huskies to play out the season in Toronto.

With a roster that included two Canadians, Hank Biasatti and Gino Sovran, the Huskies went 22-38 that year, never to be seen again.

But the dream of pro basketball in Toronto certainly didn't die with the Huskies.

As Toronto grew in population and eventually added the Blues Jays to a sports scene that long included the Leafs and Argos, speculation of an NBA franchise relocating or expanding to Toronto was a regular occurrence.

Between 1971-75, the Buffalo Braves played no fewer than 16 regular-season games at the Gardens, a favourable venue for sure, as the squad put together a 11-5 record during that time.

There was talk during the years that the Braves would eventual relocate to Toronto. That never materialized, but during the late 70's, three groups in the city campaigned hard to have the NBA grant a franchise in Toronto.

In fact, after years of serious lobbying, the NBA was poised to grant the city a franchise for the 1975-76 season, only to see the dream die again because none of three ownership groups was willing to put up the $6.15 million franchise fee.

In 1982, an exhibition contest between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers, a game that featured NBA superstars Julius Erving and Moses Malone, drew more than 15,000 to Maple Leaf Gardens, again spurring hopes that an NBA team was not too far off.

Flamboyant American businessman Ted Stepien wanted to move his money-losing Cleveland NBA franchise to Toronto in the 1980's, actually naming the team the Toronto Towers, but the team remained in Ohio after he sold the club to Gordon and George Gund.

As a consolation price, a very small one, Stepien brought the Continental Basketball Association to Hogtown.

Stepien sold the Cavaliers and other business interests in 1983 for $20 million and then paid $180,000 to the CBA to put a team in Toronto.

Ticket prices at the 4,276-seat Varsity Arena that year ranged from $3 to $7.50. The league that season set a $49,000 salary limit for the entire team. Today, that wouldn't pay for Vince Carter's valet.

The Tornados of the CBA began operations on Dec. 4, 1983, out of drafty Varsity Arena, with 2,613 in attendance -- the first permanent professional basketball team since the Toronto Huskies left town in 1947.

Stepien's roster that year included two Canadians -- 7-foot-1 centre Jim Zoet from Port Perry, Ont. and Montreal seven-footer Ron Crevier -- on a team full of NBA cuts and castoffs.

By game three the Tornados were a sparkling 0-3 and attendance had slipped to 987 a game. The Tornados failed to make the playoffs in that inaugural year, averaging 1,100 fans per game, less than half the 2,500 Stepien figured he needed to break even.

In year two, that number dropped to below 1,000 and by the third and final year, less than 300 fans were in attendance on some nights -- even after Stepien installed heaters in the ice-cold building.

On what was supposed to be the start of a three-game road trip during the 1985 Christmas season, Stepien high-tailed his franchise to the Florida city of Pensacola, blaming the team's failure in Toronto on a lack of media coverage and the failure of a financial partner to come through with a vital cash injection.

Another 10 years passed before hoop fans in Toronto were able to watch top-level pro basketball at home.

Toronto and Hamilton did host the 1994 world basketball championships, but it was a tournament more remembered for the lack of support the Canadian team received by the Toronto crowds.

Indeed, during a game between Greece and Canada, the majority of the fans on hand not only cheered for the Greeks, but booed the Canadian team.


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