PREST: Tree man Kawhi Leonard extends Canada’s strong basketball roots

Let’s throw out a simile here to see just how much of an overlap there is in the Venn diagram of Canadian basketball fans and lovers of the Lord of the Rings.

Because to me, Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors is a lot like an Ent. He’s not easily riled, but rather rooted and strong. He’s built to hold fast, rough and unmovable, while mere mortals around him wither and perish.

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Picture, say, a tidal wave somehow smashing into the Pacific Coast and crashing through Oracle Arena during game three of the upcoming NBA finals against the Golden State Warriors. In the devastating aftermath, you’d see bodies of players, fans, referees, Drake, all crushed together into the outer reaches of the stadium, or even washed out to sea with the receding tide. But there, alone on the court looking only slightly damp, would be Kawhi Leonard, brushing away driftwood and muscling past gasping humpback whales on his way to the rim for a quietly thunderous left-handed dunk.


Or maybe that’s a bit over-the-top, comparing a basketball player to a fictional species of tree people who are known to be the oldest living creatures in Middle-Earth, who grow taller than a basketball hoop and sport beards of moss and twigs. Over-the-top maybe, but Canada has never seen a basketball player quite like this Kawhi Leonard, the proof coming in the fact that for the first time in history, a Canadian team will play in the NBA final.

Kawhi Ent
Kawhi Leonard powers his way to the basket. photo supplied, Wikipedia

Leonard is never quite the tallest, or fastest, or, it often seems, the most-skilled player on the court, but what he is somehow adds up to him being the best on the court, a Terminator of a man whose sheer will seems to bend and ultimately break opponents as he unceasingly works his tree-ishly huge hands at snatching the ball away and launching, bouncing, or calmly cramming it into the hoop.

He’s very good at basketball, is what I’m saying. And this Raptors team is pretty good too. And it’s neat to see Canada, for one playoff run at least, remembering that this is a basketball country.

Did you know, for example, that a Canadian invented the game of basketball? His name was Sir Wilmer Basket, and his version was played with empty Labatts Blue kegs and rubberized bison balls.

Just kidding. It was James Naismith, of course, an Ontario native who was a coach/teacher at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Mass.

Naismith was tasked with inventing a game his rowdy students could play indoors in winter without destroying themselves or the gymnasium. It seems fitting, doesn’t it? If there are two things that Canada has in ample supply, it is 1) harsh winters that keep us indoors, and 2) rowdies.

From 1915 to 1940 a Canadian team dominated the game on the global stage, winning 95 per cent of the time and going undefeated in Olympic competition. That team was called the Edmonton Grads, and they were a bunch of kick-ass Canadian women.

While the sport typically favours the very tall, Canada’s greatest basketball export was a mind-blowing, and relatively short, kid from Victoria named Steve Nash who revolutionized the game with his passing and creativity and also dated both Ginger Spice and Elizabeth Hurley.

In 1995 the NBA welcomed both the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies to the league. The Grizzlies franchise developed a simple game plan of continuously shooting itself in the foot, and the team moved to Memphis – home of many Tennessee grizzly bears – just six years after it joined the league.

The Raptors, meanwhile, carried on as Canada’s only team, growing the game in the 2000s thanks in large part to the high-flying play of Vince Carter, quite likely the most explosive and artistic dunker in the history of the game. One time he jumped completely over a 7-2 Frenchman, and is still playing in the NBA at age 42 and riding an invisible motorbike when he dunks.

In my experience, basketball has a peculiar place in the Canadian consciousness. For many people it is not our game, a brash oddity played by giants down south.

“You can’t even put on skates and have a fistfight in the middle of the game? How absurd.”

But the Canadians I know who are into the game don’t just like it, they love it. And that number is growing with every Raptors win during these playoffs. Toronto’s “Jurassic Park” has been packed with people for every game, and there’s even talk of creating a Jurassic West viewing area in Vancouver so people can congregate to watch the games when the finals start tomorrow.

It might be a short party, as there’s a chance the Golden State Warriors – champions in three of the past four years – sweep the series without breaking a sweat (my actual prediction: Warriors in six).

But then again, the Raptors have Kawhi, and you know what happens when an Ent gets angry, don’t you? Warriors get squashed.

Welcome to the finals, Canada.

Andy Prest is the sports editor for the North Shore News and writes a biweekly humour/lifestyle column. Reach him via email at

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