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What the NBA All-Star Game means for Toronto

Is the 6ix ready to be the first city outside the United States to host this party?

Kyle Lowry will be in the starting lineup for the NBA All-Star game on Feb. 14 (photo ©NBA)

On Feb. 14, the NBA All Star Game comes to town. And it could mean a multi-million dollar bonanza for the City of Toronto.

Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors will be joining superstars such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant in the starting lineup – after a huge surge in fan voting during the final days, highlighted by a Twitter campaign started by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Toronto is the perfect place to host the All-Star Weekend," says Mahal De La Durantaye, a guard on the women’s Varsity Blues basketball team. "I’m happy Lowry is on the All-Star Team.”

Lowry’s teammate  DeMar DeRozan will also be there, thanks to the NBA coaches’ selection of All-Star reserves announced on Jan. 28. Whether the Raptors' winning streak – sitting at 11 consecutive wins as of Jan. 30 –will have ended by then is anyone's guess.

The 65th annual NBA All-Star game will be the first ever held outside the United States. Attendance would cost you $1,999 (for the bronze package) all the way up to $7,499 for the sold-out Gold A package. Beyond the game itself, the three-day weekend of events includes elite players taking part in a skills competition, a slam dunk contest and three-point shootout. There is also a celebrity game and an all-rookies game as well as extra festivities scheduled around the city.

The all-star weekend will be a “regular work weekend” for Varsity Blues men’s basketball coach, John Campbell. The team is set to play Algoma on Friday, and then hopes to schedule in a practice on Saturday before their game against Ryerson on Sunday, which is being held at the Enercare Centre as part of the All-Star Fan Fest.

“There’s already been a lot of excitement, especially with their efforts to really take the events right across the country and not make it just about Toronto but make it about the whole national basketball scene. There have been a lot of events designed around trying to get kids participating, or at least involved as active fans so that’s been really positive. With the voting for the All-Star team having closed, you’re starting to see the city and the basketball community gear up for it.

“For us to have the opportunity to play one of our games as part of Fan Fest is pretty exciting for our players. It’ll be a once in a lifetime experience.”

Sage Usher, a guard for the men’s Varsity Blues basketball team, hopes to see a good crowd out for their game against Ryerson.

The fact that we are participating in the weekend as a team makes it really exciting.”

Last year, the all-star game was held in New York, generating $100 million in economic activity for that city. But Richard Powers, an associate professor, teaching stream, at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, says Toronto's gain won't match that figure.

“Last year the game was held at Madison Square Garden in New York – a mecca for the sport, and a city of over 8.5M people,” Powers said. “I don’t think that the ACC has reached ‘mecca’ status yet and we obviously have a much smaller population base to draw from.

“But the popularity of the Raptors and hopefully the inclusion of some members of the team to the squad will certainly increase interest, and draw people to Toronto for the game. Judging the economic impact is a bit of a guessing game as well – but I don’t think we can reasonably expect the same as NYC.”

Legendary players such as James and Bryant are the leading vote-getters for the game and Stephen Curry, son of former Raptor Dell Curry, is one of the game's brightest stars. Now wearing #30 for Golden State and renowned for having one of the highest basketball IQs around, the high-scoring Curry haunted the Raptors' practice court as a child, squaring off against the likes of then-point guard Alvin Williams. 

Along with Lowry and DeRozan representing the home team, Team World in the Rising Stars challenge includes two Canadians: Dwight Powell of the Dallas Mavericks and former Rookie of the Year, Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves. But the professional players aren't the only draw for this All-Star Game.

photo of Drake sitting courtside as Golden State takes on RaptorsAnother major Canadian component of the All-Star weekend is the participation of Grammy Award-winning artist Drake.

The Raptors’ global ambassador and unofficial face of Toronto, Drake will coach the Canadian team in the All-Star celebrity game on Feb. 12 at Ricoh Coliseum.

(At right: Drake watches courtside as Curry and the Golden State Warriors take on the Raptors/Instagram photo courtesy of champagnepapi)

Team Canada members for the celebrity game include Steve Nash, the former two-time NBA MVP and WNBA star Natalie Achonwa, who is also a member of the Canadian Women’s national team.

Jose Bautista, star right fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, Win Butler of Arcade Fire and tennis player Milos Raonic are also slated to play for Team Canada.

The American celebrity team will be coached by comedian Kevin Hart, who is also headlining an after-party at Roy Thomson Hall.

head shot style photo of Michael B JordanTeam U.S.A. members include acclaimed actor and hearthrob Michael B. Jordan (pictured at right in a photo by Gage Skidmore via flickr).

The star of movies Creed and Fruitvale Station, Jordan will play alongside NBA legend Muggsy Bogues, who played for the Raptors. Bogues was the shortest player ever to play in the NBA at five foot, three inches.     

Powers was asked whether an event such as an all-star weekend could pull the city together the way the Blue Jays run for the playoffs did in 2015.

“Yes and no – it all depends on who is selected. The more Raptors, more interest and the home court advantage. This year will probably be the last for Kobe Bryant (he has announced his retirement) and that should have some appeal – but that is not Toronto- building.

“The ‘we the north’ still resonates so let’s hope they get out to support the game and the Raptor players selected. The media have a huge role here as well – the more they hype it – the better it will be embraced by the locals. 

“The recent Pan Am Games illustrated this best – at the beginning, interest was marginal but as Canadians started seeing it on TV and news spread about the great Canadian athletes' performances, that brought more publicity and more people out to the venues.”

The Raptors have made the playoffs the last couple of years and Powers was asked what a championship would mean to the city, whether it would be like the Jays winning the World Series or the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup.

“Toronto needs a winner – and after the Leafs, I don’t think it matters who comes next. Nothing could displace the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup, but in the absence of that happening anytime soon, the Raptors are as good a club as anyone else re the celebration that would take place if they went all the way.

“By the time the Leafs win the Stanley Cup, I hope to be at the game and then use my personal Transporter to whiz me away and remove me from the pandemonium that would then happen, to another place on the planet where I could be safe and secure.”

While Toronto will be the centre of the basketball universe in February, it is clear that some Americans are still in the dark about Canada’s largest city. A website for a newspaper in the Gannett chain reminds its readers that a passport will be needed to cross the border to see the weekend activities, and advises them to “start practicing your French and the Canadian national anthem” with the game held in Toronto.