Marcus Camby was early with the Toronto Raptors and has seen the NBA’s popularity grow exponentially across Canada.
This weekend, Camby is back in Canada as a league ambassador as the Raptors kick off their NBA Canada series with an exhibition game against Utah Jazz at Rogers Place (4 p.m., Sportsnet) on Sunday. It is the first time Rogers Place has hosted an NBA game.
“It was definitely different. I’m out of college and going to play in a whole new country,” Camby said during an Edmonton Oilers pre-season game on Friday. “The whole country was a hockey city, so when we played the games it was very quiet and they cheered more for the opponent than for the home team, because that’s what they saw on TV all those years. .
‘So to see from then where we are now, it seems like night and day. The Raptors have had some success in recent years, they’ve won the NBA Finals, they’ve got a lot of talent that’s come through there, and I’m excited about the organization. ”
Camby, 48, was picked second by the Raptors in the 1996 NBA Draft from the University of Massachusetts. The product of Hartford, Conn., who now resides in Houston, played two seasons with the Raptors in a storied 17-year NBA career.
Toronto joined the league in 1995 and Camby was in the team’s second year when they played from the SkyDome, now known as the Rogers Centre.
“It was an expansion team adaptation,” Camby said. “We took our chunks; we have our bruises; we didn’t have the talent that the rest of the NBA teams had. But we were on the rise and we were promising.
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“So, to see where the franchise is now, I’m like a proud parent to see how everything has matured and how it came to be. Toronto is now a hotbed, everyone wants to be a part of that and what’s happening up there, it’s a great sports city now.”
Like the Toronto Blue Jays in baseball, the Raptors have national appeal as the only Canadian franchise in the NBA. The Raptors won the NBA title in 2019 and remain a contender with the likes of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. on the roster.
The Raptors arrived in Edmonton on Saturday from Victoria, BC, where they held a training camp this season. They will play a second exhibition game in the Canada Series in Montreal on October 14.
“I think the team in the East (Eastern Conference) will be difficult,” Camby said. “Philly will be in the mix and Milwaukee is good, but I think the players they have in Toronto, Siakam, OG; those guys are champions and they are tried and (head coach) Nick Nurse is a great basketball coach who in my opinion is not getting what he deserves.
“I think if the team makes it to the playoffs this year, you never know. The team could have a hot streak and it could snowball and they could win a couple of series. So I’m looking forward to playing.” See what the Raptors are going to do this year. I know the fan base will be ecstatic, so I’m really excited for the Toronto fans, they have a good team to support and support them there.”
Between them, the Raptors and Jazz currently have five Canadian players on their training camp rosters; Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Dalano Banton, Khem Birch, Chris Boucher and Kelly Olynyk. Between the Raptors and Jazz, 14 international players are on the roster.
“Without Vancouver in the league, the Raptors are pretty much the face of the NBA in Canada,” Camby said. “It’s great that the NBA has come to Edmonton. It’s good that the competition is going to different cities and different countries in Canada and just keeps growing as much as possible.
“I think the influx of players from Canada and Europe makes the game of basketball so much better, especially because these guys from the United States are so skilled and so talented. They make the game grow.”
Camby grew up in Connecticut, was a Hartford Whalers fan and attended numerous NHL games in Toronto during his time with the Raptors. He was in Edmonton for the first time on Friday and the Oilers won 2-1 against the Calgary Flames.
“The Whalers were my team; where I grew up, we got a lot of free tickets,” Camby says. “I know a little bit about hockey, I grew up a fan of Whalers and then they moved to Carolina. When I played in Toronto I went to a lot of Leafs games, I know Tie Domi well.
“When I played in Denver, Peter Forsberg was one of my good friends. I grew up and was drawn to hockey, so I’m pretty familiar with it. This is my first time in Edmonton, and it was great. I got a chance to walk around town and I saw everyone wearing these 97 jerseys (Connor McDavid) and so I was excited to come see him play.”
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On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest