EDMONTON — The Toronto Raptors don’t come to this part of the country very often, but when they do, they are rarely disappointed.
A raucous sell-out crowd of 17,100 cheered everything from the opening tip to the final result as Canada’s only NBA entry defeated the Utah Jazz 114-82 in the first pre-sason contest for both teams.
The game marked the first neutral site game since the team traveled to Tokyo in 2019 before COVID arrived and interrupted life as we know it.
It’s also the first contest in Canada outside of Toronto since the Raptors visited Vancouver and Montreal in the 2018 pre-season.
“Normally for these games the reception is great, the crowd is into it,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before Sunday’s game.
“It’s their one chance to see some of the home talent and home area,” he said. “They usually bring it. It’s cool because there is a lot of preseason games you have that have zero energy, almost tipping toward negative energy in some of those games. We don’t have to go through that. It’s fun. … I think it’s great for basketball in Canada as well.”
There is zero chance Nurse was disappointed with the home court feel to this game.
Certainly Fred VanVleet was overwhelmed by the response from the entire experience.
“It blows me away every time we get to come to these different places that don’t get to see us as much,” VanVleet said after the game. “Edmonton was amazing. You look up to the rafters and it felt like people were hanging from the ceiling. It was just electric. From the moment we checked in the hotel Saturday it was rock-star treatment and hopefully we put on a good show for them
“It shows the Raptor brand and just how big we have grown and what we mean to the people and what the game means, what the team means being Canada’s team right now. This is my first time here and it was an amazing experience and hopefully we can come back soon.
The Edmonton faithfully easily rival Toronto (per capita of course) for their consumption of Raptors’ merchandise and have not reached that stage where they’re too cool to cheer on even the most mundane play that favored the Raptors.
If Nurse has any say in it, the Raptors pre-season cross-country tour isn’t about to end.
“I think it grows the game in general,” Nurse said. “You’ve heard me talk about the many factors of why the growth (of the game in Canada) is moving forward at the clip it is moving. It’s moving fast not only for fans, but for players, for talent. We’re trying to make steps forward with the national team. All of those things working simultaneously together. Us going out, the one NBA team in the country, creating some excitement, getting out and doing some clinics and doing those things we do when we’re out there hopefully helps and continues to grow the game in Canada.”
The NBA stop, the Raptors third time here, though isn’t the end of the high-end basketball calendar in the city this year.
Coming up Nov. 10 in Edmonton, Canada’s senior men’s team will play host to Venezuela and Panama as the team looks to wrap up its soon-to-be successful qualification for the 2021 FIBA World Cup.
ONE OF EDMONTON’S OWN
Matt Kallio may not be a household name now in the NBA or maybe ever, but that’s probably for the best.
What Kellio did become this year is the first ever full-time referee born outside the United States.
And when Kellio heard the NBA was going to be playing in Edmonton, well, it was only natural that he would get the assignment to officiate the game in his hometown.
Of course, as a first-year man he did not make the request himself.
“No, I didn’t,” Kellio said smiling before last night’s game. “I saw they were coming to Edmonton and I would be lying if I said the self-competitor and the just the pride of being an Edmontonian made wanting this game definitely something I felt.”
Kallio has been a non-staff referee in the NBA for the past two seasons but officially graduated to full-time status this year.
He’s well aware of his position as the first non-American to join the NBA officiating ranks.
“Yeah, it’s a huge honor,” Kallio said.
“But with that comes a lot of responsibility. It’s something I am very proud of and it’s very cool to share this moment here today to be in Edmonton with this game.
“I have potentially opened a door to allow other people to see this is an option and encourage others.”
CAN CON AT A HIGH
All told five Canadians took the floor in Edmonton with the Raptors trio of Dalano Banton, Khem Birch and Chris Boucher clearly getting the more friendly reception.
But there were cheers too for Kelly Olynyk and Nickeil Alexlander Walker of the Jazz when they were introduced.
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