It was a mix of happenstance and hockey that led to the first NBA game in history being played in Canada.
The year was 1946, and the fledgling league was known as the Basketball Association of America. The Toronto Huskies were the one Canadian team in the BAA and were scheduled to play the New York Knickerbockers on opening night on Nov. 2.
But Saturday was Hockey Night in Canada, and there was no moving the Maple Leafs so the Huskies game was rescheduled to the day before, and the first game of what would become the NBA was played.
“They thought that they would give this (new league) a shot, and it turned out to be a very good idea,” says Centennial College sports journalism professor Malcolm Kelly. “It just wasn’t a very good idea for Toronto at the time.”
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Despite the fact that a Canadian — Dr. James Naismith — had invented the game in Massachusetts in 1891, basketball was considered a uniquely American sport. Only 7,000 fans witnessed Ossie Schectman score the first basket in NBA history for the Knickerbockers (who are now colloquially referred to as the Knicks). It was an underhand scoop on a fast break, nothing like the high-flying dunks you see today. In fact, there was no dunking allowed at that time, nor was there a three-point line.
The team’s owners knew the game would be a hard sell. Postwar Toronto was in a Maple Leafs craze, and the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League were popular back then as well. With wrestling locked in on Sunday nights at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Huskies were relegated to the less attractive Monday and Tuesday nights.
To attract crowds, the team tried promotions more commonly associated with minor league baseball. They tried to sell the game as the “world’s most popular sport” and promised “thrills, spills, action and speed.” The team also offered free tickets to anyone taller than the team’s tallest player, six-foot-10-inch George Nostrand.
“One of the things they did is they had a silk stocking night where all women who came in got a pair of silk stockings, which was actually a big deal because silk was very difficult and rare to find during the Second World War because supplies had been cut off,” says Kelly. “They thought that if they could get silk stockings, that all the women would come out, and what happened is that they came out once, and that was basically it.”
The Huskies lost the inaugural game 68-66 and didn’t fare much better over the season, ending up with a 22-38 record. The team lost money, and the franchise folded after one season.
For nearly 50 years after the Huskies’ last game, attempts were made to re-establish the NBA in Canada. The Buffalo Braves played a number of games in Toronto but, ultimately, moved first to San Diego before becoming the L.A. Clippers. NBA great Wilt Chamberlain headed up an attempt to bring a team to Toronto, as did Larry Tanenbaum. But it wasn’t until 1995 that the NBA would feature Canadian-based teams again with the Toronto Raptors and the short-lived Vancouver Grizzlies.