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On This Date in Sports November 3, 1995: The NBA Goes North

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The NBA begins its 50th season with two new teams; both of them were based in Canada. It was not the first time the NBA had a team that played north of the border. The Toronto Huskies hosted the first game ever played in the BAA in 1946 but lasted just one season. It is a successful start for both expansion teams, as the Toronto Raptors beat the New Jersey Nets 94-79, while the Vancouver Grizzlies stun the Portland Trail Blazers 92-80 at the Rose Garden.  

On November 1, 1946, the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knickerbockers at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was the first game for the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the NBA. The Huskies lost that first game 68-66 and finished in last place with a record of 22-38. It would be their only season as the Toronto Huskies folded before the BAA’s second season. 

With the NBA's growing popularity, it was the right time to give Canada another attempt in 1995. James Naismith, who invented the sport, was born in Ontario, a fact both new teams used to promote themselves as the teams would play for the Naismith Cup during head-to-head matchups.   

The Toronto Raptors played their home games at SkyDome, while a permanent home was in the planning stages. Isiah Thomas was the Raptors first General Manager, as longtime Detroit Pistons assistant Brendan Malone was chosen as Toronto’s first coach. Facing the New Jersey Nets, Alvin Robertson hit a three-point shot to give Toronto the early lead. Robertson was the game’s leading scorer with 30 points. Acie Earl also played a big role with 16 points off the bench as the Raptors scored a 94-79 win. Damon Stoudamire making his NBA debut, added ten points. Stoudamire, the seventh pick in the draft by Toronto, would win the Rookie of the Year. 

The Raptors would lose their next seven games after opening night and posted a record of 21-61 that first year. The highlight of the Raptors’ inaugural season came on March 24th, when they stunned the Chicago Bulls 109-108. This was the Bulls team that posted the best record in NBA history at 72-10.

The Vancouver Grizzlies began their season on the road, playing the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden. Stu Jackson, the former coach of the New York Knicks, was Vancouver’s first General Manager. Brian Winters was named the Grizzlies first coach as they selected Bryant “Big Country” Reeves with the sixth overall pick. Chris King scored the first points for Vancouver as they spoiled the first official game at the new arena in Portland with a 92-80 win. Leading the way that night was Benoit Benjamin, who scored 29 points, while Greg Anthony added 15 points. 

The Grizzlies would win the first home game at GM Place two nights later, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime 100-98. Vancouver won just 13 games the remainder of the season, splitting their two games with the Raptors, as they finished 15-67, the worst record in the NBA. 

The Grizzlies never found their niche in Vancouver as players like Steve Francis refused to play for the Grizzlies. After seven seasons, the Grizzlies abandoned Vancouver and moved to Memphis, never having won more than 23 games in any one season. The Raptors meanwhile made the playoffs for the first time in 2000 and became contenders. They avoided the same pitfalls as Vancouver, as Toronto, the largest city in Canada, is closer to American population centers on the East coast. Though stars would get away occasionally, the Raptors built a winning organization and won an NBA Championship in 2019.